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Vergennes zoning laws being updated, feedback sought

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents will have a chance to weigh in on a proposed update to the city’s zoning laws at a Monday, Sept. 28, public hearing to be hosted by the Vergennes Planning Commission.
Planners hope after that hearing to pass their proposal to the city council, which would also have to hold at least one hearing before it adopted the update. An eight-page overview of the changes may be found at vergennes.org under “City News.”
Planning chairman Shannon Haggett said that the changes are not major, but rather bring the city’s 2012 zoning laws in line with the 2014 update to the Vergennes City Plan.
“From the planning commission’s point of view, all of this was housekeeping in one form or the other,” Haggett said. “We were updating the regulations to conform with the plan that was passed a year ago.”
City officials in 2014 said that plan, in turn, made no major changes to the 2009 Vergennes plan that won statewide honors.
Still, there are a few new wrinkles that may be discussed that Monday at 7 p.m. in the city’s fire station basement.
One potentially more significant change is a provision found in the city’s Industrial and Public zones that would allow, after a public process, the Vergennes Development Review Board to grant setback waivers for commercial uses next to homes for “parking or loading spaces.”
Such waivers could only be granted if the board found after taking testimony that proposals would create no “undue adverse effects” on the character of the area or neighbors.
Haggett said planners found some lots in those two zones where application of setbacks would essentially stop development. At the same time, they wanted to preserve the rights of neighbors.
“We were looking at the zoning map and the parcel map, and saying … (it) would shrink their envelope to the point where it would be nearly impossible to do anything,” Haggett said. “We were trying to take a common-sense approach and look at some practical things to say we want to encourage people to develop, but we want to have some oversight over it.”
Planners are also proposing to reduce the minimum width of driveways for all new homes throughout the city from 20 feet to 12 feet, establish a new maximum width of 22 feet, and insist that driveways have 14 feet of “vertical clearance” to make sure fire and rescue vehicles can access properties.
Haggett said the narrower driveway requirement reflects what really is on the ground in Vergennes, especially in older neighborhoods, while planners wanted to create an upper limit on curb cuts on city streets.
The change should allow homeowners and developers more flexibility, he said.
“There were some instances where some things came to the DRB where more or less they couldn’t even get past the gate, and in some cases these were in the Historic Neighborhood District or in the Central Business District, which are a little bit tighter,” he said.
Many other changes are simple. 
They include provisions such as that public notices will be posted on the city’s website as well as at city hall, “Residential District” includes Medium and High Density districts as well as the city’s Historic Neighborhood District, a “beauty parlor” is now referred to as a “hair salon/spa” in a list of home occupations, and the new Low Density Residential District replaces the Agricultural and Rural Residential PUD Overlay District along the south side of West Main Street near Panton.
Some others have been re-written to make them easier to read, including the section dealing with adding onto or rebuilding structures in the Central Business and Historic Neighborhood districts.
Haggett said the intent remains to have additions and new buildings complement the size of existing structures and be placed in such a way they fit in with the area, but planners felt the prior language was confusing.
“As we were going through that section we were looking at it and going, ‘What the heck does that mean?’” he said. “We were just trying to clarify things a little bit more to make it a little bit easier to use and understand.”
One proposed change to bring the regulations into compliance with the plan is an addition allowing first-floor or basement apartments in the Central Business District. The city council made that change late in the process in 2014, and such apartments are now allowed as long as they do not occupy spaces that face or can be seen from the street.
Haggett said aldermen and planners agreed on the goal of preserving potential retail space.
“We still wanted to preserve the multi-use aspect and put businesses at the forefront,” he said.
Another such change was a ban on first-floor apartments in the Northern Gateway District, running along the north end of Main Street. In the plan, it replaces what Haggett called an overly complex formula that allowed some first-floor residential use in some cases.
“Previously, it was a pretty convoluted thing,” he said. “When the plan got passed last year, it was no ground-floor residential.”
Overall, Haggett hopes city residents agree with his assessment of planners’ approach to the proposed zoning update.
“We weren’t trying to do anything too fancy,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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