Vergennes begins revising city plan
VERGENNES — Around 60 Vergennes residents and officials on Thursday discussed the future of the city, including how many new homes to allow and how to make Vergennes more pedestrian-friendly.
The occasion was a public forum in the Vergennes Opera House hosted by the Vergennes Planning Commission. Planners were seeking input on changes they are considering to the city plan, a rewrite of which is due by September 2019.
Despite a few mixed reviews on some proposals, commission chairman Shannon Haggett said planners were happy to get feedback from strong turnout possibly boosted by free food from Hired Hand Brewery and Three Squares and door prizes from Three Squares, Shacksbury Cider and Daily Chocolate.
“I was thrilled with the number of people who showed up,” Haggett said. “The comments were constructive and lively.”
The forum focused on four areas to which planners are looking to make changes to the plan that could affect residents:
• Reducing lot sizes and setbacks and in the High Density Residential (HDR) zone, which includes downtown and an undeveloped area on Comfort Hill. Planners also want to offer friendlier “density bonuses” to developers that could allow more homes if more affordable or elderly housing units are built.
• Merging the city’s Agricultural District with the Rural Residential district. The most significant change would mean a reduction in the minimum lot size from 5 to 2 acres.
The city’s agricultural zone includes one area in the southwest quadrant and another spanning Comfort Hill and also covering much of the land north of Macdonough Drive. Much of both tracts is now hayed, but is not owned by farmers. The state of Vermont owns most of the northern district, but the land closer to Comfort Hill is privately owned.
• Examining potential provisions for “accessibility/connectivity/pedestrian safety/multi-modal resources,” including improving and extending sidewalks, creating walking and biking options such as trails and paths, and looking at vehicle speeds and crosswalks.
• Meeting “the community’s energy needs in the future.”
Haggett stressed that although planners have already made proposals they are ready to listen.
“We’re really hoping to get your feedback early in the process so it can really guide the process,” Haggett said.
City zoning is based on the plan. Adoption will not mean immediate changes, but zoning would be rewritten to reflect the plan. Haggett also noted city plans have helped Vergennes earn grants for projects that have bettered the city, including downtown streetscape efforts.
“It really is a long-term guide for the city,” Haggett said. “The state makes us do it, but it is also an important document. It helps us figure out how to spend our resources.”
The forum broke into focus groups discuss each of the four areas.
First, Haggett summed up planners’ position on the HDR and Agricultural zoning proposals. He said a boost to the grand list could translate to lower taxes, and more homes should mean more students for schools and customers for local businesses.
“More development and more housing is generally not a bad thing to have,” Haggett said.
Planners would also like to see Vergennes’ HDR zone become eligible to become a Vermont Neighborhood Development Area, a designation that would require the proposed zoning changes. That designation allows developers to bypass Act 250 reviews and save money on other permit fees and Land Gains taxes. It also gives towns priority for state grants.
In the HDR breakout group one or two residents wondered if there was demand for more housing. Planner and real estate broker Danelle Birong said there was.
“There’s a huge desire to live in Vergennes. I hear it a lot,” Birong said.
Haggett cited density bonuses in answering a question of what the city can do to ensure developments contain affordable housing.
Another resident said a 5-foot setback might not be enough for a tall, multi-unit building and also suggested reducing further the minimum lot size for buildings with multiple units.
One or two group members also wondered what about the impact of adding more housing units on the owners of apartment buildings if rents went down due to reduced demand. Planners re-emphasized the potential benefits of more homes in creating a larger tax base and boosting school enrollment.
Some residents also wondered about the effect on the city’s sewer system, which overflows at times during heavy rains. Birong said the issue was separate: There is sewer capacity, but also a storm-water overflow issue that must be addressed regardless.
In the wrap-up portion Birong said there was not full agreement on reducing lot sizes, but in the group most who spoke did not oppose the concept.
There was less agreement on the Agriculture zoning switch.
“I would say our group did not reach consensus,” said planner Mike Winslow.
One resident, a newcomer from the Denver area, said he watched development chew up much of what was open prairie near that Colorado city and did not want to see that happen in Vergennes.
Planners and others said they envisioned Planned Unit Developments, or PUDs, that preserved open land in the city as a better option than allowing sprawl in surrounding towns.
“You’re taking pressure off of farmland in Ferrisburgh, Waltham and Panton,” Winslow said.
Real estate broker and Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly said United Technologies is currently hiring more than 100 engineers, and there are no homes in Vergennes to meet that demand. Their salaries would allow them to afford homes on 2 acres, she said, and prevent an ongoing drain of potential residents to southern Chittenden County.
Another group member said those potential residents could not only provide students and tax revenue, but could be key patrons of downtown shops and residents.
Another resident wondered how 2-acre lots would help create affordable housing, Winslow said allowing greater density in HDR districts at the same time would help work hand-in-hand with the Ag district change to create “a diverse market.”
The Denver newcomer made a plea that developers retain open land in the areas if subdivisions were created.
Winslow said tax revenue from more housing would help the city preserve open land and create parks.
One resident in the “Accessibility/Connectivity” group suggested a Monkton Road sidewalk extension to the Shaw’s Supermarket plaza, and also cited the city’s problematic truck traffic. Resident Brent Rakowski then mentioned the truck traffic forum set for the opera house on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 7 p.m.
Planner Carrie Macfarlane said the group prioritized maintaining and fixing existing sidewalks; pedestrian safety; better connection of Main Street with the Otter Creek basin; maintenance of existing recreation assets; and enhancement of walking and biking options.
“We are very motivated to make the city more friendly to walkers and bikers,” she said.
Those who attended the energy group were committed to finding a way to get 90 percent of the city’s energy from renewable sources by 2050, according to planner Cheryl Brinkman, and wanted to take better advantage of grants, including those that might support charging stations for electric vehicles.
They also wanted to pursue an “Enhanced Energy Plan” for Vergennes. That would require following 25 pages of guidelines established as part of 2016 comprehensive statewide energy legislation. But if approved by the state it would give Vergennes “substantial deference” before the Public Utilities Commission in issues that include the siting of solar arrays.
Afterward, Haggett said planners would take into account not only verbal testimony from this past Wednesday but also any emailed thoughts sent to [email protected].
Planners will probably hold another such forum next spring or summer, commission meetings are always open to the public, and both planners and the city council will hold formal public hearings on a final draft before adoption next September.
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