Draft zoning regulations unveiled for new city districts

VERGENNES — Vergennes planners, three city council members and three residents gathered on Monday, March 21, for a public unveiling and discussion of draft zoning regulations for three new zoning districts, some details of which planners expect to spark debate.
Planning commission chairwoman Alex McGuire said “hot buttons” could include requirements in the proposed Central Business, Historic Neighborhood and Northern Gateway districts that new or replacement structures be the same height and mass as existing buildings, most of which are at least two stories, as well as complement their design.
At the same time, McGuire and other planners say those and other provisions were based on the town’s city plan, which the Vergennes city council adopted in October 2009.
That plan was the first step toward a zoning rewrite. Monday’s look at the new zoning districts was the first public step of the rewrite. Planners hope to have a complete draft, including an update of existing zoning districts, ready for the hearings this summer.
Those new provisions in the plan were in turn also based on feedback from more than 150 surveys and the testimony of dozens of citizens at planning forums in 2008 and 2009. Most said they favored plan and zoning provisions to retain the look and feel of the city’s historic downtown.
But aldermen and planners did not always agree on plan language about replacing buildings and design requirements in 2009.
For example, planners agreed to change “Multiple story buildings are required in (the Central Business) district in order to maximize developable space and encourage a diversity of uses,” to state instead, “In the event of a catastrophic disaster, it is our goal that multiple story buildings be strongly encouraged” to replace existing buildings.
Nor did they always agree during discussions on Monday.
Council members Randy Ouellette and Clara “Ziggy” Comeau continued to say they were concerned that downtown property owners (Comeau is one) might be forced to spend too much money to rebuild after a fire or other catastrophe. They also said that insurance to replace a two-story structure might be too much of a burden for property owners.
McGuire said after Monday’s meeting, which was intended as a way to open dialogue among officials and residents on new zoning, that planners did not want to create a burden on property owners.
On the other hand, she said they didn’t want to burden Vergennes with vague laws that are difficult to enforce.
“If we write something that’s not enforceable, that’s when we end up in court,” McGuire said.
During discussion, vice-chairwoman Stacy Raphael also said a more attractive downtown promotes visitors, and tourism was good for everybody’s business.
“People don’t want to come through if it’s not quaint and cute,” Stacy Raphael said.
Regulations for the Central Business District include requirements for new buildings to share mass, scale and “rhythm” with existing buildings; for new or rebuilt buildings to be two stories and compatible with existing buildings; and for no residences to be established on ground levels.
Landworks Inc. consultant David Raphael presented a slide illustrating the rhythm concept — it showed a drawing of two buildings that did not harmonize, one a two-story building with a flat roof, the other a one-story building with a gable-end roof. Their window patterns also did not match.
The proposed Central Business District runs about a block north and south of Main Street, roughly from City Hall at one end to the Otter Creek bridge at the other.
Regulations would also encourage buildings to be set at the front of lots and would allow the city’s development review board to waive minimum lot sizes provided buildings are at least two stories tall and 75 percent as tall as adjacent buildings.
The new Historic Neighborhood District would include older residential neighborhoods along South Maple, South Water, Green, West Main and School streets; Battery Hill; MacDonough Drive; and smaller side streets.
The stated purpose for the district is to “protect their historic value and integrity while permitting future residential development and redevelopment that is compatible with the existing historic character and development patterns of the area.”
Planners and zoning officials have been frustrated over the years because they have had to deny reasonable requests for decks, additions and garages because of conventional setback laws, while many other homes in the same area already do not conform with those setbacks.
New setbacks, such as no front yard minimum and a five-foot side yard minimum, reflect what’s already on the ground, and planners have proposed a sliding scale for lot coverage: The smaller the lot, the more of it a home will be allowed to cover.
New regulations for the proposed Historic Neighborhood district also include design and two-story requirements, which officials said would help retain the character of the older, two-story homes that already populate those areas.
The new Northern Gateway district would run along North Main Street from the Ferrisburgh line to the Vergennes Animal Hospital, and also include most of Meigs Road.
Its purpose would be to “provide a compatible mix of commercial and residential uses that welcome our residents and visitors to our city.” Commercial uses would be restricted to those that “complement” the city’s downtown.
New provisions would:
•  Allow residential uses, but not allow any new properties to be solely residential or, in one regulation being considered, allow new first-story dwelling units.
•  Create a sliding scale for how many housing units would be allowed on a lot; up to a dozen would be allowed on 2 acres, then one more unit per roughly quarter-acre up to 6 acres, and then one more unit per roughly each one-third acre for lots larger than 6 acres.
•  Require shared parking lots and sidewalks for commercial development or redevelopment.
•  Require compatible architecture, and ban “standardized” franchise architecture.
•  Require applicants for “formula businesses,” i.e. franchises like McDonald’s Restaurants, to supply substantial information, including community and economic impact statements.
Permitted would be a wide range of service, multi-family, car sales, manufacturing, medical, retail and recreation uses.
Overall, McGuire said after Monday’s meeting there was room “to allow a little bit more flexibility” in the proposed laws, and pledged planners would be listening.
For example, she said one resident on Monday suggested that a regulation requiring similar “story heights” could be restated to require similar building heights, thus possibly giving a building owner more possibilities for “different, and maybe less expensive” reconstruction or new construction.
During the process that will probably last through most of the year, McGuire would like to see more residents come and ask questions and make suggestions.
“We really hope people will come out,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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