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Apartments now OK in first floor of Vergennes buildings

VERGENNES — After one final debate on downtown housing regulations, this past Tuesday night, the Vergennes City Council adopted new zoning laws as proposed by the city’s planning commission.
The section in question as approved on Nov. 10 will 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.
That section drew fire at the council’s late-October meeting from Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly and resident David Austin, a former downtown property owner and planning commission member.
Donnelly, a real estate broker, made the case again on Tuesday for preserving all of downtown Vergennes’s first-floor units for commercial and retail uses; she said doing so was crucial for community prosperity.
“The difference is we have a very limited downtown … Those are the stores that bring people into the city,” Donnelly said, adding that once parts of buildings become apartments, “They don’t turn back into commercial very easily.”
She also added that more apartments would add to the downtown’s parking problem.
In a phone call to the Independent, Austin said the National Main Street Model, on which the city’s revitalization effort is based, does not recommend first-floor residential use in downtowns, and that first-floor apartments are often a sign of “failed downtowns.”
On Wednesday, Austin said he believed as a whole the new regulations were beneficial, but the downtown change was not “strategic or logical.” He noted the council had held the line and not allowed first-floor residential in the Northern Gateway District (from Champlain Farms to the Ferrisburgh line) and that he was considering petitioning the new law.
But council members other than Donnelly did not agree. Mayor Bill Benton said he believed the regulation would create only a handful of residential units. 
“To clarify, it’s not a downtown full of apartments,” Benton said.
Benton also said he agreed the National Main Street Model did not approve of first-floor residential, but “They also say housing is a critical use downtown.”
Alderman Joe Klopfenstein said allowing only 20 percent of a first floor to be residential is “very restrictive,” and leaves “viable commercial space,” while Alderman Jeff Fritz said he believed the provision would help preserve the “economic viability of a building” and help the downtown.
Alderman Renny Perry said zoning in other Vermont towns and cities varied on the question, with some banning first-floor apartments, some allowing them, and some allowing them only as a conditional use. He said he favored the change, but the council should be aware that storage space at the rear of retail units is also valuable.
Only Donnelly voted against the zoning proposal, but Perry said if the change proved to be a problem the council could revisit the issue in the future.
“If we really feel it’s going to be an issue, we can go back to it and change it,” he said.
The zoning change was based on city plan language added at the council’s request late in the plan adoption process in 2014. The council amended the plan 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.
Aldermen and planners described most of the other zoning changes in the new laws as 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.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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