News

More review for Vergennes zoning laws after questions

VERGENNES — After a few citizens and one councilor raised questions at last week’s Vergennes City Council public hearing on proposed new zoning and subdivision regulations, the city’s planning commission will take another look at them before moving forward.

The potential buyers and sellers of one Meigs Road property said planners should reconsider a limit on retail on the short road, given the many existing nearby retail and commercial outlets.

And Councilor Mel Hawley, the city’s longtime former zoning administrator, said planners should reconsider a number of items.

Those included provisions that would allow homeowners to subdivide and create lots along Otter Creek, require that electric car charging stations be installed in new garages, and mandate that some developments include “workforce housing.”

Given the number of questions raised, councilors and Planning Commission Chairman Shannon Haggett agreed to postpone a second scheduled council hearing that had been set for Aug. 13.

Instead, planners will revisit areas of concern at their Aug. 2 meeting, which will begin at 7 p.m. and to which the public is, as always, invited.

Hawley suggested the postponement of the Aug. 13 public hearing “to give the planning commission an opportunity to see if they would be willing to change any of these,” and said after they “revisit their proposal,” the council could set another hearing.

Hawley said because the proposal was a “complete rewrite” of the zoning regulations the process should slow down, and discussions between councilors and planners should be held that would also consider the concerns about Meigs Road.

Haggett said he would agree to a postponement to give planners time to review the feedback, beginning at their 7 p.m. Aug. 2 meeting, at which council input would be welcome.

Chabot at that point spoke for the consensus and suggested, to agreement, the meeting should be called off.

“I concur with Mel and Shannon,” he said. “We can slow things down a little bit.”

Haggett later last week told the Independent the process could go in different directions, depending on how major any changes made by planners proved to be.

At the least, Haggett said he would recommend an “informational meeting” between planners and councilors be placed on a council agenda before any formal hearings were rescheduled. There, he said, planners could “explain our rationale for changes.”

If the planners make truly major changes, another planning commission hearing is possible, he said. If changes are more minor, at least one more council hearing, and possibly two, will be required.

Haggett acknowledged Meigs Road is a difficult area to define, and thus to regulate, but that he is hopeful on Aug. 2 the planning commission will be able to address the concerns raised at the hearing.

“It’s actually the first thing on my list for testimony that we received, that we want to discuss it and see if there is something that we can do. The other thing to keep in mind is that we have to be in conformance with the (city) plan,” he said. “However, I think there is enough latitude that we should be able to come up with something that conforms with the plan.”

Then the commission will start tackling Hawley’s concerns.

“We’re going to go through everything. I’ve got about a dozen bullet points,” Haggett said.  

ISSUES RAISED

At the meeting Hawley called language that would allow some homeowners along Otter Creek on South Water and South Maple streets to subdivide without road frontage and create “river lots” a “major policy change” that would have a significant impact on the neighborhood.

Hawley noted many homeowners have “a lot of land that meets the river” behind their homes, and the neighborhood could potentially be changed dramatically.

Zoning Administrator Peter Garon said that the change could add to the city’s limited housing inventory:

“It expands the land available for housing, which is one of our goals, and it is allowed by state law,” he said.

Hawley also called a provision requiring new garages to contain charging stations for electric vehicles “over-reach,” and also said he could not support a provision that all new developments must contain “20% workforce housing” in the HDR district.

The regulations add a definition of workforce housing as “housing affordable to households earning up to 120 percent of area median income.”

Planner Tim Cook clarified that provision did not necessarily mean owner-occupied housing, but also referred to rental property suitable for workforce level incomes, defined by the regulations at a higher level than state affordable housing.

Hawley persisted.

“I really think the city of Vergennes is the picture of workforce housing,” he said. “We certainly don’t need a mandate.”

Hawley also objected to some permitting procedural changes and some easing of dimensional requirements.

Cook, saying he was speaking on his own behalf, not all planners, did not agree with Hawley’s assessment of the market. He said that most homes in Vergennes have been selling for more than $300,000, which is the cutoff point for workforce housing.

“To say that all our housing is workforce housing, I don’t think is a true representation of the market we have right now. And I just want to encourage everybody, both here on the council and those listening, to keep in mind that this is a plan to move toward the future. This is a plan to help Vergennes grow and prosper,” he said.

Cook said the regulations tried to look forward and enhance growth in Vergennes.

“The changes we’ve made here, the changes that the planning commission made that I support, are trying to streamline that process to make it easier to build here. We’re trying to decrease the lot size. We’re trying to bring population in to fill our schools again,” Cook said.

“A lot of what we’ve just heard is, ‘Vergennes has been like this. We do it like this in Vergennes. Lots connect to roads this way.’ Vergennes is not growing very well … There’s a race for population in Vermont right now, and Vergennes is uniquely set up to excel at that and to bring people in.”

Chabot and planners urged people to attend the Aug. 2 hearing.

Haggett also pointed out the plan had already gone through a well-publicized, but poorly attended, public process, including two prior public hearings.

“We’ve been working on this for a year. It would have been nice to hear some of these comments along that way,” Haggett said. “But it is what it is. We welcome people to come to our regular meeting and interact with us.”

CHANGES MADE

Overall, significant changes in the new regulations include:

• Expanding the Low Density Residential District, including replacing a former Agricultural District.

• Adding a definition and regulations for short-term rentals.

• Adding to and clarifying a section regarding the rights and duties of the zoning administrator to enforce the regulations.

• Adding requirements for consideration of “renewable energy resources” into development applications.

• Adding creation of “workforce housing” to the list of criteria that make developers eligible for density bonuses when creating planned unit developments or PUDs. Density bonuses allow developers to put more units on a property than would otherwise be allowed by its zoning district.

• Reducing the number of parking spaces required for office uses from one parking space per 300 square feet to one per 500.

• Creating a new definition and regulations for temporary signs.

• Adding a ban on airfields and helipads within city limits.

• Decreasing the amount of land needed per unit for multi-unit dwellings in the Limited Business/Residential, High Density Residential, and the Historic Neighborhood districts.

• Adding a section describing the “preferred” sites for solar arrays in Vergennes, notably “less visible” locations “primarily located in the upper Northwest and lower Southwest quadrants of the City.”

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