New Vergennes zoning laws approved

VERGENNES — New zoning laws were adopted last week by the Vergennes City Council that include a Solar Energy Overlay District limiting arrays of greater than 15 kilowatts to less populated areas around the city. That district will be superimposed over other zoning districts and permits larger arrays on most school-, city- and state-owned land.
As for solar installations not in the overlay district, city officials said they favor rooftop arrays and other options, such as solar shingles, in neighborhoods with more homes and businesses.
The new zoning laws also allow the Vergennes Development Review Board (DRB) to give residents some flexibility on garage siting in high-density neighborhoods, allow garages to be counted as parking spaces for proposed developments, place restrictions on sandwich board signs, and allow density bonuses for projects that meet “third-party” energy standards.
The laws, technically amendments to existing zoning, also restore a provision that disallows ground-level apartments in the downtown zoning district, thus reserving those spaces for commercial and/or office use. An earlier council had allowed some exceptions to that rule before approving existing zoning regulations.
The council on April 24 adopted the new regulations after holding a second hearing on them. The council adopted the amendments without making changes from the draft forwarded by the Vergennes Planning Commission, which wrote the amendments and held its own hearings.
The amendments are based on the city plan city council adopted in 2017 upon planners’ recommendation.
Planning Commission Chairman Shannon Haggett said the 21-day petition period will expire before the next DRB meeting, on May 17.
Haggett said now that the lengthy zoning rewrite process is complete planners will turn their attention to a city plan rewrite. The current five-year plan expires in September 2019, and the commission wants to start taking testimony on key issues soon.
“We’re going to spend the next six months on some public engagement pieces,” he said.
Among issues on which planners will be seeking feedback are whether Vergennes still needs an agricultural district (“There are no real farms working in Vergennes,” Haggett said.) and if even greater density should be allowed in the High Density Residential (HDR) zoning district.
The only testimony the council took at its first hearing was from New Haven developer Scott Hardy, who stated that many central city lots are between 6,000 and 8,000 square feet, while HDR zoning now requires lots of 15,000 square feet, more than a third of an acre. He suggested instead a 10,000-square-foot minimum.
 Haggett said planners want to hear if residents are concerned about greater density, including on Comfort Hill, where Hardy owns and plans to develop property, and whether the commission should instead focus on awarding density bonuses to developments that make use of energy-efficient homes, conserve land or cluster homes.
“Are we going to allow density bonuses, or are we going to make lot sizes smaller, one or the other, or both,” Haggett said.
The next commission meeting will come on May 7 and will be devoted to planning public outreach, he said.
“We’d love to hear from people anytime,” Haggett said. “If they have strong opinions one way or the other, we’d love to hear that in our planning process.”
According to Mayor Renny Perry, at the Tuesday city council meeting last week, members also:
• Learned the city and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church had jointly been awarded a $46,250 Designated Downtown grant to pay for half the cost of replacing the narrow, deteriorating sidewalk along Park Street and the retaining wall that holds back the church’s lawn.
The council has agreed to pay for $23,125, or 25 percent of the project, from the city’s Water Tower Fund and front the remaining $23,125 to the church, with two understandings: that the church would pay the city back over five years, and that further talks could be held about funding terms. Some council members argued for more lenient terms for the church or full city funding because the church is pledging to improve property next to the sidewalk and open it to the public.
• Learned the Agency of Transportation will spend $100,000 on a study of truck route issues. Route 22A is now the designated truck route and funnels hundreds of trucks daily through Vergennes. Such a study will look at bypass options, including one that will cross Otter Creek and run through the northern, less populated areas of Vergennes and another that might include improving Route 17 through Addison and New Haven to Route 7.
• Approved a city swimming pool budget that leaves unchanged the rates charged to local residents for its use. Season passes for residents will be $50 for an individual and $100 for a family, and for non-residents $65/130. Perry said the council also chose to put $5,000 of an $8,000 surplus from the past season into a capital expenditure line item.
“We thought based on the advisory committee recommendations there would be a need for some capital expenditures this year,” Perry said.
• Heard from the committee heading the search to replace City Manager Mel Hawley, who will retire in July, that three candidates had been identified for preliminary interviews. Perry said a decision should be made within a month if all goes well. “They seem to be decent candidates,” he said. 
 Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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