City council considers amendments to town plan, including Solar Overlay District

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council on May 23 accepted from the city’s planning commission amendments to the city plan that would create a Solar Overlay District and related energy policies and fold the Vergennes Downtown-Basin Master Plan into the larger document.
The amendments would also add the state’s new recycling and composting law, Act 148, to the plan’s Solid Waste/Materials Management Section and move two lots along the far end of West Main Street from a Low Density into a neighboring Medium Density Residential Zone.  
Planners also inserted a provision that was in their original plan, but reversed by the city council before its final adoption: A ban on ground-level apartments in the Central Business District.
Planning Commission Chairman Shannon Haggett said planners adopted the amendments after a long public process that culminated with a hearing on May 22, and he noted the Downtown-Basin Master Plan also had a high-profile process.
“We’ve actually had some people there from time to time,” he said. “We’ve had some public hearings, and all the public hearings for the Downtown-Basin Master Plan.”
Haggett and City Manager/Zoning Administrator Mel Hawley said only two issues cropped up at the May 22 hearing.  
Hawley said planners heard from former planner and city council member David Austin that he backed their provision that first-floor space in the Central Business District once again be restricted to commercial, office and retail uses.
At the request of a property owner, the council altered the plan before adoption last time to make an exception for first-floor units that did not open onto the street. Now, Hawley said, the council will reconsider that issue after they take testimony, starting on June 27 at 6:30 p.m., when the council will hold what will be the first of at least two public hearings.
Also on May 22, the owners of the Comfort Hill kennel asked that some of their southernmost land be considered as an addition to an adjacent High Density Residential zone.
Hawley said planners were reluctant to change the plan amendments at that point in the process without public input, Hawley said, but said they would consider the issue.
“They’ll dig into it in the future,” he said.
Haggett said planners are not opposed to considering the change once the current process is concluded.
“We just need a lot more information,” he said.
The proposed Solar Overlay District would define the city’s preferred sites for on-ground solar arrays, Haggett said, while acknowledging the Public Service Board would still have the final say.
“We’re more saying that if you’re going to do it, these are the areas we prefer you’re doing it in,” he said.
It would run on the Industrial Zone on Panton Road; in state-owned land in the city’s northwest quadrant, which includes Northlands Job Corps; on school property; and in much of the southwest quadrant, Haggett said.
The new energy policy section, Haggett said, essentially works hand-in-hand with the Solar Overlay District.
“It’s more in support of our solar overlay. How are we going to make it happen within city limits?” he said.
The Downtown-Basin Master Plan includes many recommendations for improvements to both downtown and the Otter Creek basin area, including ways to link the two areas, to make downtown safer and friendlier to pedestrians, to develop the basin for visitors and make it more accessible, and to enhance the city’s economy.
Because those recommendations would be formally incorporated into the city plan, chances for obtaining funding to follow up on them would be improved.
The two parcels that would be moved from a Low to an adjacent Medium Density Zone are on the south side of West Main Street on the Panton town line. Haggett said although the land behind them is zoned Agricultural, the zone across the street and closer to downtown is Medium Density, and the change seemed logical. If approved, the minimum building lot size would drop from 2 acres to 15,000 square feet.
“They’re kind of orphans out there,” he said.
Mayor Michael Daniels praised planners for their efforts.
“I really appreciate all the hard work the planning commission and the DRB do for the city, and it’s not an easy task,” Daniels said.

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