Vergennes OKs Comfort Hill lots; many more eyed in future

VERGENNES — New Haven developer Scott Hardy is adding housing opportunities to Vergennes, but not as quickly as he originally planned.
On Feb. 20 the Vergennes Development Review Board (DRB) approved his four-lot subdivision on Comfort Hill, just past its intersection with High Street, and Hardy is marketing two of those lots, 0.76- and 0.55-acre parcels.
At the same time, Hardy said he has two other properties under contract on 1.86 acres he owns at 184-186 Green Street. He had hoped to create a seven-home Planned Unit Development (PUD) on that parcel, but the DRB turned down his application in July, citing inadequate parking and landscaping provisions, among other issues.  
Instead, Hardy said, about 1 acre of that parcel will be the site of a single-family home, and a carriage house on the remaining land will become a three-family apartment building under its new ownership.
“The new owners will be applying for a third unit,” Hardy said. “I’m excited we have someone who has the knowledge and interest and resources and take that building and save it.”
Both sales are expected to close by the end of April, he said.
As far as the remaining two of the four approved parcels on Comfort Hill, Hardy plans to keep one for himself. That one consists of about 0.57 acres and is the middle of the three smaller ones running north along Comfort Hill from the largest of the four, a 5.6-acre tract right at the road’s intersection with High Street.
An extension of city water and sewer lines will serve all four lots, and Hardy’s permit will require him to run a sidewalk through the 5.6-acre parcel and then along the road frontage of the three smaller lots in the future. Those three lots will be accessed by a shared drive running from Comfort Hill along their northern edge.
The question that remains is when and how Hardy will develop that 5.6-acre parcel, which is zoned High Density Residential. Current zoning would allow up to 15 housing units there with a PUD, and last October Hardy was talking to the DRB about a 14-unit development using energy-efficient VerMod modular homes.
He had planned to base his Green Street PUD on the same theme, and pointed out that the Comfort Hill development was actually closer to downtown — four-tenths of a mile — than his Green Street property.
Since October, however, Hardy has been intrigued by the Vergennes Planning Commission’s discussion of possibly amending zoning to seek state designation for “Neighborhood Development Areas” in some locations in the city within a half-mile of its state-approved Designated Downtown. That designation could allow denser development on his land.
Hardy, who bought the Comfort Hill land from the state of Vermont for $195,000 in September, is willing to wait a couple years and see what happens.
“It might be 2020. It’s just a matter of what are my carrying costs, what are my opportunities, what does Vergennes need and when,” Hardy said. “The whole nature of residential development, my analogy is it’s like watching a football game with 30 days between each play.”
If Vergennes were to pursue the Neighborhood Development Area concept, Hardy said, the biggest key would be a reduction of the minimum lot size in its downtown and high-density neighborhoods from 15,000 square feet (0.344 acre) to 10,000 square feet (0.23 acre). If that change is made, the new legal minimum on Hardy’s 5.6 acres could be 24 residential units before PUD density bonuses are applied.
“Vergennes cannot apply for that currently because their minimum lot size is 15,000 square feet in both high density and medium density residential,” Hardy said. “Vergennes is working on figuring out a solution to get to potentially 10,000 square feet minimum lot size. There’s a lot of lots in Vergennes which are 7,000 square feet, so it makes a lot of logical sense.”
Planning Commission Chairman Shannon Haggett confirmed planners looked at Neighborhood Development Areas, or NDAs, while recently updating the city plan and zoning laws.
Essentially, he said, planners believe NDAs “appears to be a worthwhile program,” and the commission could in the future recommend to the city council that Vergennes should amend zoning and apply for it.
But planners believed, Haggett said, that NDAs, coupled with existing density bonuses for PUDs that used energy efficiency measures and included senior housing, could result in dramatic changes in some neighborhoods: They did not want to include NDAs in the current process without a more public airing of the concept.
“We had a choice, we could propose changes to our density requirements without changing the bonus structure, we could change the density requirements and eliminate or change the density bonus structure, or we could not change anything at this time,” Haggett said. “We felt it better to get more information and public feedback.”
Haggett added in a follow-up email that Middlebury is exploring the NDA concept, and he believed that Vergennes should as well.
“I think the benefits of the program can be great for a developer and by extension the community at large,” he said. “Again, I just want to make sure we don’t make big changes to the regulations without hearing from the community. Through the next round of plan and regulation updates — which would meet Scott’s timeframe of 2020 — I’m pretty confident we can build some consensus in support of successfully applying for the designation.”
Hardy said he will keep an open mind on his 5.6 acres.
“I could do condos. I could do homes. There are so many things in flux I’m not sure what’s the best direction to go,” he said.
Selling the Green Street and Comfort Hill lots, which are listed with Burlington’s Flat Fee Real Estate, where Hardy hangs his license, should give him some breathing room to wait and choose the best option.
“With the sale of those lots hopefully it will help relieve some of the economic burden of the Part One (of Comfort Hill) total and allow me to have some more time in doing what’s best for the town,” Hardy said.
On the Comfort Hill lots he is looking to do design-build packages in partnership with VerMod, New Haven’s Silver Maple Construction and Bristol architect Liz Hermann.
“We’re still very much a believer in VerMod products,” Hardy said. “For certain buyers who want a higher finish level we can buy an almost finished VerMod and finish it out with Silver Maple’s fit and finish. So you’re getting an affordable VerMod solution that’s getting trimmed out with a custom finish.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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