Aldermen hear concerns about restrictions in city plan update

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen on Monday heard a few North Main Street and downtown business and building owners express concerns about restrictions in the proposed Vergennes city plan update.
Plans do not create zoning, but form the basis on which zoning laws are written. Vergennes’ 2009 plan is set to expire on Sept. 29.
Those property owners, speaking at the first of two planned city council public hearings on the plan update, mostly focused on provisions that limit their ability to convert part of their properties into housing.
Robert Feuerstein, a co-owner of the Main Street landmark Kennedy Brothers building, and Dan Pflaster, owner of nearby 10 Main Street, said they believed aldermen should consider easing Northern Gateway District restrictions on ground-floor residential uses.
Feuerstein called the limits a “step too far,” and Pflaster suggested regulations were moving away from being “more flexible” and suggested more “wiggle room.”
In general, planners while writing the 2009 city plan said they wanted to make sure space was available for commercial development in Vergennes.
On Monday, planner Jason Farrell noted that calling for residential uses at all in the new Gateway zone was a change from previous plan provisions. Most of the northern end of Main Street was previously in an industrial zone that did not permit residential uses, he said.
Downtown building owner James Amblo also asked the council to reconsider the first-floor housing ban in the Central Business District — if a unit does not front on the street. Amblo said he had for the past 18 months been unsuccessfully marketing such a ground-level unit as office or commercial space.
Also, Feuerstein wondered if the plan’s call for new construction to be compatible with the Gateway district’s existing historic architecture was too restrictive.
“There would be no modern architecture” if such a provision were universal,” Feuerstein said. “Perhaps it would be good to not be compatible and change things up a bit.”
Mayor Bill Benton said aldermen would consider the testimony as they work quickly to adopt the plan update.
“We’ll talk to more people and talk among ourselves and hopefully come up with something people can live with,” Benton said.
City Manager Mel Hawley said on Wednesday he expects aldermen to discuss the testimony at their Sept. 9 meeting, to which they will invite the members of the planning commission.
Hawley said aldermen could also ask planners to make changes to the document, something the planning commission could do at its Sept. 15 meeting.
A second city council public hearing could be scheduled for Sept. 30 or Oct. 14, Hawley said, shortly after the 2009 plan expires.
“It appears we may be without a plan for a brief period of time, be that a day or a month,” he said.
The 2009 plan included new design standards for the existing Central Business and new Historic Neighborhood districts, and created the Northern Gateway District.
In the Central Business District, it provided for new zoning laws that regulate the general appearance of downtown buildings. In the Historic Neighborhood District, new laws regulate the placement of homes on lots.
The plan also allowed for new zoning that raises the application bar for and sets design limitations on franchise businesses, and in older neighborhoods allowed for eased setbacks to permit homeowners to build structures like sheds, garages and decks closer to boundary lines.
Other changes include new information on the city’s schools; population; infrastructure, such as the new police station; current fire department and public works equipment levels and needs; and the present status and activities of entities such as the Bixby Library, Vergennes Opera House and Vergennes Partnership.
Also new is information about the recent Vermont Council on Rural Development “Community Visit” process, and the effort to spur the city’s economic sector that has grown out of it; the effort to upgrade recreation facilities; energy policies and upgrades; and a Middlebury College study on possible city bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
Those wishing to look at the updated 99-page plan may find it at www.Vergennes.org. A drop-down menu under the “Government” header on the top right includes “Zoning and Planning.” Clicking on that box gives a series of choices in the middle of the screen, the bottom of which is the new plan in PDF form.
Aldermen on Monday also held a public forum on a proposed toddler playground (see story), and:
• Authorized Hawley to sign a sewer-line extension agreement with the Agency of Transportation to serve the recently moved rail station next to the VTrans park-and-ride lot. VTrans will pay a $107,876 connection fee, Hawley said, and will only be able to use the building as a train station, park-and-ride depot, and visitor center.
• Heard there is an opening on the Vergennes Union Elementary School board following the resignation of director Tara Brooks, who accepted a job at the school. Aldermen must appoint a replacement and are asking those interested to submit a letter of interest before Sept. 8 and to be prepared to make their cases at the Sept. 9 council meeting.
• Heard from Hawley that the city’s new solar array, which was installed at and near the sewer treatment plant, has been performing as well as expected. Vergennes should save at least the expected $4,120 in credits on its sewer plant power bill, Hawley said.
• Heard a challenge from resident Lynnia Pope that they take the “Ice Bucket Challenge” to raise money to fight ALS disease. Benton and Alderman Joe Klopfenstein reported they had already taken the challenge.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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