Hearing set for Monday on city zoning changes

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Planning Commission will hold a public hearing at city hall at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 5, on proposed zoning amendments that would create a Solar Energy Overlay District, reinstate a full ban on downtown street-level apartments, and make another 20-plus changes — many minor but some significant.
The amendments build on the city’s 2012 zoning laws and are based on the new Vergennes municipal plan that the city council adopted in July upon planners’ recommendation.
That council decision came after a public process that included several hearings on the same proposals that would take effect if zoning laws were now approved. The city council will have final say on the zoning laws after holding at least one more public hearing. Another planning hearing is also possible depending on feedback on Monday.
The Solar Energy Overlay, or SEO, District would limit the siting of solar arrays of greater than 15 kilowatts to a number of less populated areas in the city and is superimposed over other zoning districts.
Those areas include Industrial Districts on North Main Street and Panton Road; state-owned land in the city’s northwest quarter, plus adjacent land on either side of Comfort Hill; land around the two city schools; other publicly owned land, such the sewer treatment plant and two other parcels in the city’s southeastern area; and a large area of open land west of Otter Creek and south of West Main Street.
According to the proposed SEO regulations, Vergennes “desires to maintain the open landscape and scenic views important to its tourism economy and cultural identity,” and “The aesthetic siting of a project constitutes the most critical element in the placement of solar energy collectors in order to minimize the impact on the surrounding landscape.”
Therefore, the proposal states, “Solar energy collectors shall be screened when possible and practical through the use of architectural features, landscaping, or other screening which will harmonize with the character of the property and surrounding area.”
When writing the city plan officials said they favored rooftop installations for small arrays in neighborhoods not in the SEO. A list of traits the proposal supports for city arrays includes: “Rooftop and Building-Mounted Solar Collectors” and “Building-Integrated Photovoltaic Systems,” such as solar shingling.
In general, the proposed amendments state that arrays “shall not be ‘skylined’ above the horizon from public and private vantage points,” and suggest they “should be screened using native plantings beneficial to wildlife and pollinators that will grow to a sufficient height and depth to provide effective screening within a period of 5 years.”
The ban on street-level and basement apartments in the Central Business Districts eliminates some exceptions based on percentage of square footage and entrance location that the council added to the 2012 laws. The council agreed with planners’ language this time that would preserve such spaces for office or retail uses, thus allowing for more commercial growth.
Among provisions that could affect property owners, developers or business owners are:
•  An addition to language about garages. The Development Review Board could at least consider approving garages that are “the dominant feature viewed from the street,” have an entrance facing the street that is more than 40 percent of its facade, or do not have an “architectural treatment facing the street” if it has a side entrance.
•  New language in a section regulating buildings that contribute to the significance of the Historic Neighborhood District. The words “or part thereof” were added to a language that forbids owners from performing “Demolition of any building or part thereof” unless done so for public health of safety. The DRB still may determine the building, or the relevant part of the building, “does not contribute to the historic or architectural character of the district.”
•  An expansion of the definition of parking space to include “enclosed” as well as open spaces. When considering one development recently the DRB did not count planned garage slots as parking spaces.
•  Additions to the regulations on advertising “sandwich boards.” The laws would limit those sign to six square feet per side and limit their display to “normal business hours.”
•  A clarification on how density bonuses are calculated for the purposes of creating Planned Unit Developments, or PUDs. According to the proposal, “The calculation of allowed density increase shall be calculated on the permissible whole dwelling units. For example if the result of the mathematical calculation is 6.9 dwelling units, the real result is rounded down to 6 dwelling units.”
•  An allowance of an additional 20 percent for density bonuses for “meeting third party certification standards for energy efficiency.” The law lists third parties, but states they are not limited to those examples, thus giving the DRB flexibility.
•  A proposal that allows the DRB to encourage “energy efficient site design and layout” for development proposals and possibly require it when the DRB “deems appropriate.” For example, the DRB could encourage or require creating lots with southern exposure when possible, and/or “siting of lots and buildings (to) minimize road and driveway and utility construction.”
•  The addition of “Electronic message center” to the list of signs regulated, including a brightness limit.
•  The addition of “enclosed manufacturing industries” to conditional uses along the Northern Gateway District on Main Street.
•  The addition of “substantial completion” to the list of definitions, meaning a home or building is ready to “occupy or utilize.”
Most of the other changes could fairly be called housekeeping. For example, “salon” replaces “beauty parlor, “elderly housing unit” replaces “elderly housing,” and under a section devoted to bed and breakfasts short-term stays get a new definition: “less than 30 days.”
And throughout the 154-page document PUDs are stricken from the lists of conditional uses for each zoning district. City Manager and Zoning Administrator Mel Hawley said planners realized they were not properly defining PUD.
“It’s a method of subdivision,” Hawley said. “It’s not a use.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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