Aldermen work on new zoning regulations

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen and planners on Tuesday agreed on a series of tweaks to proposed zoning regulations and said they hope to schedule a public hearing on the new rules by mid-July.
Most of the changes agreed upon at a council meeting attended by six members of the planning commission derived from testimony at the council’s May 8 public hearing on the proposed laws:
•  Multi-family homes will be allowed in the Otter Creek Basin District, as suggested by a property owner.
•  The minimum lot frontage in the new Historic Neighborhood District will be reduced from 70 feet to 66 feet. City officials agreed with a property owner that many lots in the new district fell just short of the 70-food minimum because they were based on four rods of frontage, or 66 feet.
•  Language will be changed to make it clear that a density bonus for clustered Planned Unit Developments in the Agricultural District will still be permitted. A developer with an interest in a West Main Street parcel had requested that language be clarified.
Aldermen again declined to change language that mandates destroyed buildings in the Central Business District be replaced with buildings of the same height and scale.
Alderwoman and owner of a downtown multi-story building Ziggy Comeau said it was unfair to ask property owners to carry insurance to replace a full structure.
“I don’t think we have the right to put that burden on people,” Comeau said.
Planner Alex McGuire said the commission spent hours debating and researching the language in question.
“What kept coming back was it is the cost of doing business to insure your property,” McGuire said.
Planners also noted the law would allow property owners to apply for a waiver to allow a one-story building to replace a multi-story one, and that the requirement was for a building just of the same height, not the same number of stories.
“We were under the understanding that it was the stories, not the height, that was the greatest expense,” said planner Michael Winslow.
McGuire also again made it clear that the regulations merely seek buildings of the same mass of nearby structures.
“We were very careful to stay away from any discussion of materials, colors, or anything like that,” she said.
Comeau also said that businesses might hesitate to invest if they knew they had to build two-story structures or carry the extra insurance.
But Alderman Bill Benton cited tax credits available for developing in Designated Downtowns like the city’s, plus a trend for mixed uses, such as apartments or offices in upper floors over first-floor shops.
“We’re in a different era economically and culturally that we were 50 years ago,” Benton said.
Aldermen voted, 5-1, to approve the language, with Comeau opposed.
Aldermen and planners did make changes not previously considered, both to the section on signs, and one at Comeau’s suggestion.
After she raised the issue, they decided to allow temporary sandwich board signs in all districts, not just the Central Business and new Northern Gateway districts, as long as such signs did not block foot traffic.
They also added language that said in determining whether a sign is a permitted landmark — such as the Park Squeeze and Kennedy Brothers signs — the Development Review Board should consider its “cultural, historical and community significance.”
Overall, the regulations create the Historic Neighborhood and Northern Gateway districts, incorporate the first rewrite of the Vergennes subdivision law since the 1970s, and include updates of definitions and state requirements.
The Historic Neighborhood District will allow smaller lots and permit smaller side- and rear-yard setbacks 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.
The Northern Gateway (NGD) district will run along a stretch of North Main Street. Planners have said the district recognizes the area’s growing commercial nature by allowing more uses, but also puts some restrictions in place for new and rebuilt structures.
All districts that allow commercial uses will impose extra requirements on franchise businesses.
Planners said the subdivision regulations are simply streamlined, although the distinction between minor and major subdivisions has been dropped.
Planners will meet Monday and make final the changes and return the laws to aldermen, who intend to schedule a public hearing within a month. They have the final say and could approve the laws after the next hearing, or make more changes based on additional testimony.
One other issue arose on Tuesday. Perry noted a letter from property owner and attorney David Shlansky that some areas of the laws were vague and would give the DRB too much leeway.
Perry said boards could move in different directions under the laws, but those questions could be answered if future commissions relied on settled precedent. He urged planners to keep careful records to create “our own law library so we have something to go back on” in the future.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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