Vergennes eyes new zoning laws

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen at their Tuesday meeting last week released funds that will help the planning commission update the city’s zoning laws to reflect changes called for in the municipal plan adopted last fall. That update would not take effect until after a public process.
Aldermen said they would take $3,000 out of the city’s Tower Fund, which is funded by cell phone companies who lease space for antennas on the water tower behind City Hall.
City Manager Mel Hawley said that money — plus more from that source or another, possibly next year’s budget — will pay for a consultant to help planners write new zoning based on the plan.
The city plan authorized for the first time design standards for the overall size and shape of buildings in the downtown business district and in the city’s older neighborhoods.
The downtown standards strongly recommend that new buildings conform with the look of existing buildings, and planners said the residential standards could allow more lenient setback and lot coverage rules in older neighborhoods and make it easier for homeowners to build additions, garages and decks. New laws might also limit where new or replacement homes could be built on lots.
The plan also created an expanded menu of uses for a new zoning district along North Main Street, and created provisions for higher level of review for restaurants, convenience stores and shops that are parts of chains, including requiring applicants to submit impact studies.
Hawley said planners originally also wanted to tackle the city’s out-of-date subdivision regulations, but that because state planning grants have been frozen, decided instead to “narrow the scope of work to update the (zoning) regs” to reflect the new plan.
Once planners have completed a draft of the new zoning regulations, Hawley said the adoption process would look like that for the city plan.
Planners would hold at least one public hearing before forwarding the new laws to aldermen, who then would also hold at least one hearing before adopting a final version. If aldermen want to make major changes, the document would have to go back to planners.
The one difference in the process is that residents are allowed a 21-day period after aldermen adopt zoning laws to petition for a city-wide vote on whether they should stand, Hawley said.
The idea of design standards sparked the most debate during discussions of the plan, and Hawley believes that area might again draw the most comment.
“My guess is we’re going to go hear both sides,” he said.
Aldermen also gave two businesses, Vergennes Redemption Center and Small City Market, permission to make improvements in city rights-of-way that will potentially allow each to make parking upgrades.
Both businesses have March 8 development review board (DRB) hearings on site plans that hinge on parking requests. Only aldermen can grant permission for improvements on city property.
The Vergennes Redemption Center has been doing business at 15 Main St., across from Denecker Chevrolet, since last year. The business was originally denied parking out front along North Main Street because cars would have to back across the pedestrian right-of-way and, according to the DRB’s July 2009 decision, “conflict with the safe flow of pedestrians.”
Hawley, also the zoning administrator, said business owner Frank Trombley presented a new plan with a traffic island that will prevent cars from backing out onto the road and should make for a safer situation for cars and pedestrians.
That island, however, is in the city right-of-way, and required — and received — aldermen’s approval before it could be presented to the DRB.
Small City Market owner Corey Foote last year bought the former LeBeau & O’Brien gas station across South Water Street from his business. His current plans are to put a new building on that site and move the market into it, but to do so he would like to establish some on-street parking along the west side of South Water Street.
To accomplish that goal, Foote asked and aldermen granted him permission to move the existing sidewalk further westward, closer to the proposed new building, a move that would allow four parking spaces to be created. 
Aldermen also accepted Hawley’s recommendation to request from the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union that the upcoming transfer of city recreation facilities — notably the Sam Fishman Pool — be done by early next month.
The Vergennes ID school district, which will dissolve in June per a 2009 vote, has for years owned the land under those rec facilities as well as the nearby Vergennes Union Elementary School.
The pool has been operated by a committee, and the city will take over that task as well as ownership of the land per a deal struck in February.
Aldermen agreed with Hawley that the city should own and operate the pool from the start of the season, both to get a better handle on how to run the pool and to simplify bookkeeping. Otherwise, employees — primarily lifeguards and the pool maintenance director — would have to switch employers mid-season.
“It deals with our desire not to see the pool expenses and revenue split … for the season,” Hawley said. “I’m anxious to have the city running the pool for this season … to have a full year of expenses and revenue on our books.”
Hawley said insurance liability could also be an issue, and that the ID board’s 25-year lease to operate the pool expires on April 8, another reason to move by then.
But his recommendation was not based on the city profiting by collecting pool fees. The study of other pools conducted by a council subcommittee made clear that pools are not moneymakers, Hawley said. 
“We have not found a pool that made money. Its a matter of how much subsidizing goes on,” he said.

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