Waltham eyes moves to aid housing, forest

WALTHAM — The Waltham Planning Commission is studying ways of amending town zoning to allow more affordable housing on Maple Street near Vergennes and to protect more forest and wildlife habitat, mostly around Buck Mountain.
Planners’ work comes on the heels of an August rewrite of town zoning that according to Planning Commission Chairman Phil Nowell dealt with mostly technical issues and brought the laws into compliance with many provisions of Waltham’s 2016 town plan.
Now the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC) and a municipal planning grant are supporting the volunteer commission’s work on the longer-term goals of supporting more affordable housing and protecting the town’s natural resources, Nowell said.
“We knew there was some more complex stuff that we really didn’t have the expertise to address on our own,” Nowell said.
For the final weeks of 2018 the ACRPC’s Claire Tebbs advised Waltham planners, although she left the regional planning commission as of 2019 and ACRPC Executive Director Adam Lougee is stepping in to help the town.
Tebbs said for potential future affordable housing Waltham planners are focusing on Maple Street near the recently created McKnight Lane project. That affordable housing development, a little more than a mile from downtown Vergennes, is served by municipal water and sewer, and city officials also agreed to extend a sidewalk to the project.
“They’re looking at a very small area of Maple Street, and they’re including the city of Vergennes in the conversation,” Tebbs said. “In the future, long-range planning, if Waltham wanted to provide smaller lots, more affordable lots that are in walking distance of downtown Vergennes, they could do so where Vergennes and Waltham meet on Maple Street.”
However, McKnight Lane is a pre-existing, small-lot use within what is now a Waltham agricultural zoning district with a 10-acre minimum for a housing lot. Tebbs and planners agree a change in zoning is necessary to encourage development — and affordable housing — near services and existing population centers and away from open land and attractive scenery and working farmland.
“They’re trying to find that diversity of lot size and housing type, and how to encourage developers to create what they’re trying to provide for potential residents, while at the same time protecting their scenic view sheds,” Tebbs said. “This is a way to encourage density in a small area instead of building out into their working landscape and their forest.”
Nowell said the trick is creating zoning provisions to encourage developers to create affordable housing, something he said residents supported in a community survey.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that just reducing the acreage doesn’t result in a greater number of expensive homes,” he said. “So we’re working with Addison County regional planning to come up with mechanisms to make sure that our target of creating more affordable housing is met.”
In a draft proposal to Waltham planners, Tebbs suggested zoning that would provide for lots smaller than a half-acre and for density bonuses, in which developers can include more units in a project if there were a greater “affordable/diversity of home types.” Vergennes has included density bonuses in its zoning that developers have used to create senior housing and preserve open land.
Of course, Vergennes is a key to any proposal. The city has extended its sewer lines in certain circumstances in the past, including once upon a time to the Gevry Trailer Park, the predecessor to McKnight Lane; the Ferrisburgh plaza that includes Aubuchon Hardware; and the relocated train station near Kayhart Crossing.
Other sewer extension proposals have at times met with frostier receptions, and Vergennes City Manager Matt Chabot made no promises to the planning commission at a December meeting.
“I said, ‘I am there to hear and to listen, and clearly that’s a decision that … would have to go to the council,’” Chabot told the Independent.
Chabot said he will outline for council members the discussion — he described it as “kicking the tires” — at their Jan. 8 meeting, the first since he met with Waltham planners.
“That would be my first opportunity to discuss it with them,” he said. “Honestly that conversation will just be an FYI that I was invited.”
Before city sewer can be extended Vergennes might also need to resolve its “combined sewer overflow” problem. During certain conditions, most particularly heavy downpours and most recently just before Christmas, stormwater causes the city’s municipal sewer system to overflow into Otter Creek from its Macdonough Drive pump station. Although the overflow is mostly rainwater, a small percentage of septic waste is included.
Adding wastewater from another community might be problematic until the issue is resolved, Chabot said.
“Every gallon adds,” he said.
Planners’ other major focus is on additional protection for the Buck Mountain area. Waltham already has a Forest District that includes the mountain, but Nowell said planners believe more is necessary to preserve what they consider to be a vital resource.
“We want to prevent fragmentation and maintain forested habitat for wildlife,” Nowell said. “It’s not just the travel corridors, but it’s the actual areas themselves. These are small areas that are maybe separated from the main Buck Mountain (district) but still provide essential wildlife habitat. In a town like Waltham we have lots of open fields, and Buck Mountain is kind of an isolated area itself. And we just want to make sure we address what forest we have and try to keep as much of it as we can.”
Tebbs said the she and the board believe an “overlay” district within some areas of other districts could be the answer. That overlay district could create regulations for sensitive areas such as ridgelines within those districts, while leaving in place those districts’ underlying regulations, such as minimum lot sizes and setback regulations.
That approach would be protective, but much less restrictive than expanding the Forest zone, which requires 25 acres for a building lot, she said.
“They would have the same basic zoning dimensions, densities, acreage that is originally there. Then they would have similar restrictions layered on top, similar to the forest district,” Tebbs said.
According to a highly preliminary draft, areas could include “forest blocks in the southeast corner of Waltham, between Route 17 and Pearson Road, and forest blocks north of Buck Mountain, between Route 66 and Green Street, and forest surrounding Mud Pond between Green Street and Route 7.”
Nowell also described the larger August zoning rewrite as “cleaning up formatting stuff,” “making sure we protected soils” and “making sure we protected the mineral resources” by clarifying regulations on locations for quarrying.
As an example of the type of changes made, he said planners altered the setback for building a home from 75 feet from a roadfront to 100 feet from its centerline.
Nowell said the planning grant expires in March, and planners hope to have a preliminary proposal for new bylaws on the two areas ready for the selectboard and public to review by May. As in the case with any zoning changes in a Vermont town, they can only be made after a public process.
“Obviously we have to make sure the selectboard is in agreement, and we have to go through the whole process of public hearings,” he said. “We’re really in the beginning stages.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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