Vergennes council debates downtown apartments

VERGENNES — After debate at an Oct. 27 Vergennes City Council public hearing over one amended section in proposed zoning laws, the council put a hold on adopting the new ordinance.
The section in question would allow property owners in the Central Business District to install first-floor or basement apartments, but only if the units do not front on streets, cannot be seen from streets, and do not take up more than 20 percent of a building’s footprint.
The city council added city plan language to that effect late in the adoption process in 2014 after hearing from downtown property owner James Amblo. Amblo’s building has a back unit with a rear entrance he said is not suitable for commercial tenants.
But Mayor Bill Benton said at an hour-long hearing last week that council member Lynn Donnelly and downtown property owner David Austin said they believed that all first-floor and basement downtown property should be reserved for commercial development that could help the city’s economy.
They also questioned a provision of the section for having “vague” language, Benton said. It reads that apartments can be allowed on those property levels only if they do not “compromise the esthetic and economic integrity of the commercial use as determined by the Development Review Board.”
Benton said he believed other council members might be leaning toward allowing property owners more flexibility because that approach might help them keep their buildings full and put more money in their pockets to maintain properties, thus enhancing the appearance of the city’s downtown.
Meanwhile, Benton reported that Amblo suggested that the allowable percentage for first-floor residential be raised from 20 to 30 percent.
Planning commission chairman Shannon Haggett said the level of changes to the zoning ordinance being discussed at this point will require another city council public hearing, but not require planners’ official involvement.
Benton said he expects aldermen will probably, but not certainly, reach a consensus on allowing the apartments, while also taking a closer look at the wording.
“That’s the way I think it’s going to play out,” Benton said. “We’ll probably tighten up the language, but I can’t guarantee what’s going to happen.”
Haggett said although planners’ legal role is concluded, he will try to help out if the council would like. 
“I plan to look at things and at least have something in my back pocket to at least be able to say here’s something that might work for you,” he said.
One change Benton said the council upheld last week was a ban on first-floor apartments in the Northern Gateway District, which runs along the north end of Main Street. That ban replaced what Haggett called an overly complex formula that allowed some first-floor residential use in some cases.
Benton said there was no debate on other changes that Haggett has described as mostly minor and intended to bring the city’s 2012 zoning laws in line with the 2014 update to the Vergennes City Plan.
One significant change is a provision in the city’s Industrial and Public zones to allow 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 DRB found that proposals would create no unwanted impacts on their surroundings.
The new ordinance will also 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.
Other changes include such provisions as public notices will be posted on the city’s website, and a new Low Density Residential District replaces the Agricultural and Rural Residential PUD Overlay District along West Main Street near Panton.
In other business, the council:
• Discussed with a representative of Lake Champlain International the possibility of a $10,000 grant from that organization that could be used to educate homeowners about how to minimize their contributions to the city’s sewer overflow problems through sump pumps and perimeter drains, and also to help the city perform inspections of homes.
Benton said city officials are considering the program, but wanted residents to understand they would not be penalized for pumps and drains. “We just want to fix the problem,” he said.
• Talked briefly about the lawsuit filed by East Street resident John O’Donnell against the city for pursuing an East Street toddler park after a petitioned Town Meeting Day vote went against the project. The city later walked away from the project, and city officials have said they believed the ballot wording on the project financing was incomplete. Benton said both sides have made final filings at this point. “All we can do now is wait and hope it is dismissed,” he said. 

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