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Vergennes officials adopt revised city plan

VERGENNES — After a second public hearing, the Vergennes City Council on July 18 adopted amendments to the city plan that would create a Solar Overlay District and related energy policies, fold the Vergennes Downtown-Basin Master Plan into the city plan, and ban ground-floor and basement apartments in the city’s Central Business District.
The Vergennes Planning Commission had written and then adopted the amendments in May after holding its own hearings.
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.
The amendments to the plan would not create zoning laws, but the planning commission intends to rewrite the regulations to reflect the changes, officials said.
The issue that created the most debate along the way was the Central Business District prohibition on ground-floor apartments.
Five years ago, at the request of a downtown property owner, the council altered the plan before adoption to make an exception for first-floor units that did not open onto the street and were smaller than 20 percent of a building’s footprint.
This time, the council agreed with all the planners’ recommendations, including that provision, by a 5-1 vote. Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley said on Wednesday that Alderman Mark Koenig dissented because he was not happy the council was “flip-flopping” on the apartment ban.
The new Solar Overlay District, once reflected in zoning, will define the city’s preferred sites for on-ground solar  arrays.  City officials acknowledged the Public Service Board would still have the final say on siting. The map for the overlay district is proposed as follows: on the Industrial Zone on Panton Road, on state-owned land in the city’s northwest quadrant (which includes Northlands Job Corps), on school property, and on much of the city’s southwest section.
Planners said the new energy policy section essentially works hand-in-hand with the Solar Overlay District.
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 are now incorporated into the city plan, chances for obtaining funding to follow up on them would be improved, city officials said.
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. Officials said although the land behind them is zoned Agricultural, the zone across the street is Medium Density. Once zoning is changed, the minimum building lot size on the land will drop from 2 acres to 15,000 square feet.
In other business on July 18, council members:
•  Heard a budget update from Hawley, who said that it looks like the 2016-2017 budget carryover that he estimated in June at about $148,000 looks to be accurate, prior to any official audit. The council used $73,500 of that projected fund balance toward the 2017-2018 budget to help keep the tax rate in check, but at the end of June did raise the municipal portion of the city tax rate 2 cents to 81 cents.
•  Reappointed Brent Rakowski, Jason Farrell, Don Peabody and Steve Rapoport to the development review board, and Alderman Lowell Bertrand as an alternate to the DRB. They also reappointed Mike Winslow and Tim Cook to the planning commission, but longtime members Farrell and Morgan Kittredge declined reappointment. Hawley said Farrell had served on both boards for more than 10 years, and that Kittredge had served on the planning commission for almost seven years.
•  Scheduled a public hearing on the $305,000 project on the east side of North Main Street that will extend sidewalk past Kennedy Brothers toward Kayhart Crossing; a 2016 grant will pay $274,000 of the cost of work that is expected to begin next year. That hearing will occur at 6 p.m. on Aug. 8, during a city council meeting.
The planned 600-foot sidewalk will come to an end across from the south end of the police station property, where a crosswalk will be installed. Hawley has said he is confident that the project will come in under the original budget, in part because it is 200 feet shorter than originally planned.

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