Planners: Alter new zoning regs

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Planning Commission agreed on Monday to recommend that Vergennes aldermen make changes to proposed new zoning regulations based on testimony at the council’s May 8 public hearing.
The recommendations, according to planning chairman Shannon Haggett, will include a relaxed lot-frontage requirement in the new Historic Neighborhood District and a provision to allow multi-family housing in the Basin District.
Each recommendation was made after careful consideration at a two-and-a-half hour meeting, Haggett said.
Planners agreed on the lot frontage recommendation after hearing research from City Manager Mel Hawley, also the zoning administrator.
A Historic Neighborhood District homeowner told aldermen on May 8 he did not have the 70 feet of frontage required in the proposed laws, nor did many other lots in his neighborhood.
Haggett said Hawley looked through city records and confirmed that many lots were four rods, or 66 feet, wide. Haggett said planners decided to recommend that aldermen, who have the power to alter the proposed laws, make the change to 66 feet.
“We universally agreed … we should have our district standards match the reality,” he said.
Planners recommended that multi-family dwellings be added to the list of conditional uses in the Basin District after studying the two-year-old municipal plan upon which the proposed laws are based.
“We saw nothing in the language that would preclude that,” Haggett said.
An owner of one of the handful of buildings in the district made that suggestion at the May 8 hearing, noting that some buildings in the district are already multi-family.
Planners declined, however, to act on some testimony. Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau objected to language that made it mandatory for downtown property owners to rebuild to at least the height of two stories after a catastrophic loss; she said plan language just “strongly encouraged” new or rebuilt structures to be two stories.
But Haggett said the plan also requires planners to honor residents’ wishes to preserve the look and feel of the city’s downtown.
“Yes, the language in the plan says strongly encouraged,” he said. “But everything else in the plan really spells out a mandate for us.”
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.
Kennedy Brothers building owner Win Grant also asked officials to reconsider a limit of 25 percent ground-floor residential use in the zoning laws’ new Northern Gateway District; he sought more flexibility in developing his partially vacant structure.
But Haggett said the intent of the plan called for more commercial first-floor use and more second-story residential uses in the area, and planners stuck with their 25-percent compromise.
Planners also discussed at some length a four-page May 8 letter written by Ferrisburgh resident David Shlansky, a major Vergennes property owner, to aldermen and planners.
Shlansky objected to many of the new zoning regulations as too restrictive, and also so vague that they would give the city’s development review board too much leeway in evaluating proposals.
At one point, for example, Shlansky wrote, “Perhaps the most concerning issue is the lack of standards that define the discretion purportedly granted to the board.”
Haggett said planners had their consultants, Landworks, evaluate and comment upon the letter, and will also submit those comments to aldermen. Haggett said Landworks officials, who helped planners write the plan and the regulations, told planners they did not agree with Shlansky’s point of view.
When aldermen make changes to planners’ original proposal, they will hold another hearing. Aldermen said on May 8 they planned to hold at least one more hearing; they must continue to hold hearings as long as they make changes to the laws.
Planners have been working on those zoning laws since Vergennes adopted its award-winning city plan in October 2009. 
As well as creating the new Historic Neighborhood and Northern Gateway districts, the laws also tweak regulations in other districts, and incorporate the city’s subdivision regulations and significantly update them for the first time in 40 years.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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