City officials get feedback on proposed zoning rules

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen on May 8 took testimony from a handful of citizens and one developer at a public hearing on new zoning regulations proposed by the Vergennes Planning Commission.
Questions at the Tuesday hearing focused on building lot regulations in the new Historic Neighborhood District (HND), new requirements for rebuilding structures after catastrophic losses in the existing Central Business District, and permitted uses in the existing Otter Creek basin district.
Aldermen and planners, many of whom attended, said they would take a careful look at the suggestions.
“Most, if not all, of last night’s comments will receive serious consideration,” said planning commission chairman Shannon Haggett in a Wednesday email. “There are definitely some areas where I think we want to clarify the intent and allow flexibility for existing situations. Of course, that’s just my opinion and we’ll need to see where the rest of the PC (planning commission) lands.”
The commission is set to meet at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 14, at city hall. Mayor Michael Daniels said he expected feedback from the planners on issues raised on this past Tuesday.
“The planning commission is here to help everyone,” Daniels said. “The city council will get a memo from the planning commission on their positions relative to any testimony given.”
The most relevant Historic Neighborhood lot question came from resident Chris Robinson, who owns a lot with frontage on two roads that might be subdivisible under the new regulations.
The HND district, planners said, would allow smaller lots as well as permit smaller side- and rear-yard setbacks of five feet that would allow officials to say yes to more applicants who want to build decks, garages and additions. There will be some limits on new or replacement construction to keep styles similar to existing homes.
But Robinson said a 70-foot road frontage requirement for a new lot might prevent him from subdividing, and that many lots in the area already had fewer than 70 feet of frontage.
City Manager Mel Hawley after the meeting said several lots in the district had deeds describing “four rods” of frontage; that translates to 66 feet. Haggett said on Wednesday that planners would take a look at that frontage requirement.
The downtown building replacement issue was raised by Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau, also an owner of a multi-story School Street building.
Comeau objected to language that requires rebuilding to the same height, which she contrasted with language elsewhere that “strongly encouraged” rebuilding multi-story buildings.
“The plan says encourage, and this says mandatory,” she said.
The issue was not debated on Tuesday, but in responding previously to that objection planners have cited surveys in which residents overwhelmingly supported maintaining the look and feel of the city’s downtown.
Haggett also said in a recent interview that planners changed the language from requiring the same number of stories to requiring the same height to allow building owners more flexibility and possible cost savings in their reconstruction projects.
Overall, the district regulations insist that new or rebuilt buildings mirror the size, lot placement and general style of existing structures. Details such as paint color or building materials will not be regulated, planners said.
MacDonough Drive property owner Alex Graham said he owned a 4,400-square-foot building that might make a good multi-family property, but that use was not permitted in the Basin district, which has few properties overall and includes some multi-family uses. He asked that multi-family be added as a conditional use.
Again, officials pledged to look. Hawley said there might be only so much the planning commission could do, but the aldermen had more authority.
“The planning commission will have to look carefully at the city plan … (but) this public hearing does matter,” Hawley said. “If the city council wants to do something that doesn’t absolutely match the city plan, you have the authority.”
Aldermen must continue to hold hearings as long as they make changes to the planners’ recommendations, however. There is no set number of hearings to be held.
Unlike erroneously reported in the May 7 article on the proposed zoning laws, if aldermen do make substantial changes, the laws do not have to go back to the planning commission for at least one hearing. The process is not fully in the hands of the council, assuming the panel completes its work by next March.
Planners have been working on those zoning laws since Vergennes adopted its award-winning city plan in October 2009. A copy of the laws is posted at addisonindependent.com.
When and if adopted by aldermen, the laws will create a second new zoning district, the Northern Gateway District; tweak regulations in other districts; and incorporate the city’s subdivision regulations and significantly update them for the first time in 40 years.
The Northern Gateway (NGD) district will run along a stretch of North Main Street. Planners have said the district recognizes the increasingly commercial nature of the area by allowing more uses, but also puts compatibility restrictions in place for new and rebuilt structures.
Planners said no major changes were made to the substance of the subdivision regulations, although the distinction between minor and major subdivisions was tossed out. As well as updating and making legal the language, planners added a form that will allow applicants to find quickly what they need to apply and what standards they must meet.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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