Ferrisburgh weighs property rights, rural character

FERRISBURGH — With its 132-page draft of new zoning laws already drawing some fire, the Ferrisburgh Planning Commission has scheduled a public informational meeting for Thursday at the town’s elementary school in an effort to explain the proposed laws, which roughly double the number of zoning districts in the town.
Planners said the 7 p.m. gathering in the school library will not be a formal hearing, but rather a presentation of maps and a summary of changes to existing zoning. That zoning has been tweaked over the years, but not fully rewritten since the late 1970s. Planners hope that after a series of planning and selectboard hearings that a final version can go to a town-wide vote next March.
Planning commission Chairman Ted Ingraham said the proposal includes many changes mandated by the state legislature in 2003, plus rules on telecommunications towers, subdivisions and flood hazards.
Given everything the proposed ordinance must do, Ingraham said planners wish it were shorter and simpler, but that a certain amount of heft was inevitable.
“Of course, my feeling is that the shortest route to saying something would be the best, but we can’t do that with the regs,� Ingraham said. “It’s not really an option in this day and age, unfortunately.�
Planners also believe that development pressure is threatening the rural, agricultural nature of Ferrisburgh. Many provisions in the zoning proposal — including language that favors farms in disputes with new homeowners in agricultural zones, requirements for land-conserving planned-unit developments (PUDs), and provisions in some districts requiring homes to be built at the edge of fields or on the “least fertile� lands possible — flow from that belief.
“In view of the fact that the community is under much growth pressure from the north, we have to be sure that we are prepared,� Ingraham said.
Although PUDs, which require clustering of homes and preservation of open land, will be required in many areas for subdivisions of more than 15 acres, Ingraham said residents would not find applying a burden. He also noted that in many cases that up to 34 percent more homes would be allowed if they were clustered.
“It provides both the town and the landowner flexibility in planning … I don’t think it puts any onerous burden on the landowner,� he said. “I don’t think it’s that much more expensive, and the process is not that much more involved.�
The new laws also include a provision that would allow the planning commission and zoning board to waive setbacks and other “dimensional requirements� if it makes more sense for a project than following the rules to the letter.
Such waivers might allow garages closer to property lines or home closer to roads, assuming neighbors don’t object, said former town zoning administrator Jean Richardson, who helped planners write the new draft laws.
“It gives greater flexibility to the developer to where you’re going to locate a building,� Richardson said. “If you have a logical reason why the building should be there and not there, the commission is going to look at it.�
Despite what planners tout as pluses, Town Clerk Chet Hawkins has heard from some residents that they are skeptical of the draft laws’ total of 11 main and three “overlay� zoning districts, including conservation and upland forest overlay districts that some worry create “extra control� over property rights.
Others are upset, Hawkins said, with proposed provisions that run across almost all zoning districts that would limit the footprint of new homes to 2,000 square feet and of accessory buildings to 1,000 square feet, which Hawkins said some feel is “barely enough for a two-car garage.�
“That has been the biggest thing. ‘Why are you limiting the size of our houses and our outbuildings?’� Hawkins said. “There’s a lot of things that have to be looked at by everybody.�
Ingraham said planners fear Ferrisburgh will start sprouting Chittenden County-style McMansions.
“We felt that was large enough to have in our town,� Ingraham said. “We didn’t want to have homes look like they do up on Spear Street.�
Zoning board Chairwoman Charlene Stavenow declined comment on the proposal because she said the zoning board would on Wednesday discuss as a group the draft laws, which are available online at www.twp.ferrisburgh.vt.us.
Among the changes, many of which are outlined in a four-page summary to be handed out at Thursday’s meeting, are:
• A new West Ferrisburgh agricultural zoning district. Richardson said the only change in current zoning there would be to require PUDs on subdivisions of greater than 15 acres.
Planners wanted to create the district to preserve the agricultural nature of West Ferrisburgh.
“West Ferrisburgh is pretty much all in agriculture at this time,� Richardson said. “It is to the advantage of the town to keep that in agriculture as much as possible.�
• A slight decrease in the size of the conservation area, but an addition of the conservation overlay district. Richardson said the language for the conservation and forest upland overlay districts are still being worked on; “shalls� may be changed to “shoulds,� for example.
The intent of the overlay is to protect smaller areas of wetlands and crucial wildlife habitat not included in the larger conservation district, and Richardson said planners will at least recommend or encourage that developments consider protecting sensitive natural elements as part of overall proposals.
• The addition of the upland overlay district, much of it over 400 feet of elevation on Shellhouse Mountain. This proposal has been criticized as too restrictive of property rights. Planners said it is intended to minimize forest clearing and protect rare plant and animal species.
• The addition of a North Ferrisburgh Village District. Richardson said this district would recognize what exists in the historic village that lies mostly along Old Hollow Road and relax acreage and setback requirements. One provision for this district reads that: “All conditional uses and new dwellings require site plan review to ensure their compatibility with the 19th century character of this historic village center district.�
• The addition of a new district along the lake that would include state parks, the Basin Harbor Club and Long Point. Planners said this change would reflect more accurately what is on the ground for these properties, which are unlike the remainder of the lakefront.
• The addition of a Route 7 agricultural district that would run mostly north and east of the area around the school and town offices. Planners said most of this district is already subject to conservation easements. One feature of this proposed district is a requirement that new construction be set back from Route 7 by at least 250 feet, not the current 100 feet. “Townspeople do not want that area to look like strip development,� Richardson said.
• A proposal for a municipal ticketing system. Enforcement now depends on letters from the zoning administrator and then the town attorney, with costly Environmental Court cases the next step. “This is a simpler way to deal with minor enforcement,� Richardson said. “It’s proven effective in a lot of towns.�
Ultimately, residents will have plenty of say in adopting the laws — if they choose to. Planners must hold at least one public hearing, and every time they make changes they must hold at least one more.
When they forward the laws to selectmen, that board must then hold at least one hearing. If selectmen make changes they must hold at least one more hearing, and could even hand the laws back to planners.
Throughout, officials will listen to the public.
“It’s something that will be decided by the community members,� Ingraham said. “We’ve had a lot of comments on it … for and against.�
Hawkins said he is optimistic differences can be ironed out because everyone involved is “trying to work for what is best for Ferrisburgh� in striking the balance between property rights and the town’s right to retain its rural character.
“You can understand everyone’s point of view,� Hawkins said. “It’s up to the townspeople to come out and let the planning commission know what they think and get involved.�

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