A new Vergennes city plan will guide growth

VERGENNES — An updated Vergennes city plan received its approval on March 10 from the Vergennes City Council and is now in effect. 
The plan builds on the city’s 2014 document, which in turn was updated from the 2009 Vergennes City Plan that was awarded “Plan of the Year” in 2010 by the Vermont Planners Association.  
Vergennes Planning Commission Chairman Shannon Haggett said the update, which was about two years in the making, also makes a few significant changes. 
Those changes did not however, spark any significant debate at two council hearings in the past month, which combined lasted fewer than 10 minutes. 
When council members last week remarked on how brief the hearings were, Councilor David Austin attributed the second two- or three-minute hearing to the quality of the plan. 
“You do good work,” Austin told the planners in attendance.
Haggett said changes to the plan in general were designed to give residents and businesses more leeway and not to limit options.
“We’re going in the opposite directions and saying maybe there are things we can do that loosen things up,” he said. 
Haggett outlined the changes, which will not affect residents until the planning commission updates the city’s zoning and subdivision regulations to reflect the new plan. Until then, zoning based on the 2014 plan will remain in effect.
One change is the elimination of the city’s agricultural zone. Much of that former zone has been changed to Medium Density Residential (MDR), which will allow homes on smaller lots.  
The switch from agricultural to MDR zoning came in three areas: a small group of parcels along West Main Street and Hopkins Road, the large swath of state-owned property that is now being farmed in the city’s northwestern sector, and land adjacent to that parcel on both sides of Comfort Hill near the city’s boundary with Ferrisburgh.
Haggett explained the upshot of the change. 
“We’re going to allow more things to go on in that district, but not penalize anyone who is already doing agricultural things,” he said. 
The change is also being made with an eye to the future, Haggett added: If the proposed alternate truck route is built through northwestern and northern Vergennes, it could open the land on either side of the new road to development that could boost the city’s tax base, economy and schools. 
Haggett described the move to MDR as a possible first step to further changes that could allow development there if a proposed truck bypass is built through the area a decade or more from now. 
The plan also calls for expanding the city’s High Density Residential (HDR) zone into another area now zoned as agricultural, along the east side of Comfort Hill past its intersection with High Street. 
That change could allow for neighborhood residential development in an area that is walkable to downtown, Haggett said. 
“It’s within the half-mile planning boundary that the state has set out of our designated downtown,” he said. 
Another change comes on Armory Lane, where a handful of lots on the west and north sides of the road are now zoned MDR, but the plan switches to HDR. 
The MDR and HDR zones now share a minimum lot size requirement of 15,000 square feet, but HDR setback requirements are more forgiving. 
“It really boils down to the building envelope,” Haggett said.
Haggett said when planners sit down to work on zoning and subdivision laws they could ease lot-size and setback requirements further, noting that the city’s historic development patterns often cluster homes tightly, and that greater density could allow a wider variety of housing. 
Doing so, he said, could mean “a more complete array of housing options” in Vergennes’s future. 
“We want to make it attractive for people looking for places that aren’t necessarily a $300,000 house,” Haggett said.

A stretch of North Main Street between Monkton Road at one end and roughly the Vergennes Redemption Center at the other will also see a change. Zoning on either side of that area is Residential Limited Business District (LBR), which allows a few more uses than its current MDR. The plan changes that stretch to LBR, which again, Haggett said, will give property owners more options, such as office uses. 
“It’s not restricting anybody from what they’re doing there now, but it is opening new things up,” Haggett said.
The last major change is an “Enhanced Energy Plan,” a 35-page technical addition dealing with many energy-related issues that Haggett said serves one major purpose: It automatically gives Vergennes a seat at the Public Utilities Commissions table when an energy project such as a solar array or windmill is proposed in the city and its developer seeks a Certificate of Public Good. 
“It’s there for a reason,” Haggett said. “It gives us greater standing.”
Due to a change in state law, the plan is now good for eight years, not the previous five years. Now that the plan is adopted Haggett said the city will also be eligible for more grants and probably stand a better chance of getting others. 
There will be one more step that could benefit the city even more, Haggett said. The city planning commission has requested the county planning commission for its official approval of the plan, and the ACPRC will probably review it in May. That additional approval will further increase the city’s eligibility for grant funding, he said. 
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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