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City council will make minor tweaks to zoning regs, not big changes

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include more information on what could happen if the council makes substantial changes.

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council has agreed to make small changes to the zoning and subdivision regulations update awaiting their approval, but won’t make big changes that could significantly delay implementation of the rules.

At their May 10 meeting, councilors agreed to hold a work session to consider “non-substantive” changes to the zoning rewrite that was forwarded to the council this spring by the Vergennes Planning Commission.

Councilors have yet to set a date for that chore.

Those changes could include rewording some passages, moving some items from one section of the laws to another, and changing language that would otherwise create conflict between sections. They were recommended by Councilor and former city manager/zoning administrator Mel Hawley.

Councilors who spoke, including Sue Rakowski and Deputy Mayor Dickie Austin, said they were sympathetic to Hawley’s suggestion that the council should make the regulations “as close to perfect as we can get them.”

But the majority of the council didn’t appear interested in making more substantial changes that Hawley also recommended to the planners’ proposal, which has been two years in the making and gone through a public process.

Those changes he suggested included limiting the power of the zoning administrator as outlined in the new bylaws, essentially altering the laws so that more apartments would not be allowed in the Historic Neighborhood zoning district, and possibly removing a requirement that new garages have outlets to allow electric vehicles to be charged.

In asking City Manager Ron Redmond to find a time for the special council meeting to devote to the zoning laws, Mayor Matt Chabot specifically cited its purpose as to review the bylaws for “non-substantive” changes.

If the council were to make substantial changes, it could mean returning the 150-plus-page document, which has draw the support of most councilors and residents who have spoken, to the planning commission and restarting the rewrite process for a second time. The council in the summer of 2021 sent a first draft of the regs back to planners for a do-over.

That is one possibility, according to Councilor Mel Hawley and Planning Chairman Shannon Haggett. But the council could move ahead without planners at this point, they said. As Haggett wrote, if councilors were to “make substantive changes on their own … they have to have at least one public hearing before adopting the document.”

Last week’s decision to hold a work session came after the second of two council public hearing and one planning commission hearing at which residents’ testimony favored the new regulations.

At the May 10 public hearing Vergennes Development Review Board Chair Brent Rakowski, speaking as a resident, and former planner Tim Cook spoke in favor of the document, while Steve Rapoport said he was glad Hawley had a chance to air his concerns.

Chabot said he had heard via email from several residents, including Cook, Rakowski and John Stroup, supporting the new bylaws.

In general, the new bylaws would align Vergennes zoning and subdivision laws with the city plan that was adopted in 2020. They would do so, in part, by allowing for more density in several zoning districts and rolling the agriculture district into the existing Low Density Residential zone. They would also create an “Enhanced Energy Plan.”

According to planners, the proposed regulations would support a number of goals and policies outlined in the city plan, including creation of the proposed alternate truck route, improved pedestrian and bike access, increase of the city’s population to support business growth and Vergennes schools, and expansion of its housing stock.

In other business on May 10, councilors:

  • Heard a plea from representatives of the Vergennes Parks and Recreation Committee for more long-term investment in the city’s recreation facilities, especially given the strong public support and volunteerism.

The committee also recommended that Recreation Coordinator Martha DeGraaf’s hours be increased from 25 to 40 hours a week in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2022-23 budget. Councilors and City Manager Ron Redmond also discussed the pros and cons of adding the title of pool director to DeGraaf’s job description, but no decision was reached.

  • Were asked by City Clerk Britney Aube to consider whether to share a professional assessor with neighboring communities.

Aube said with a citywide re-appraisal looming in the next couple of years, the help would be valuable; the cost, if shared, would be reasonable; and she and the two city listers could only do so much. She added a shared assessor might cut the current online expense of doing business with the New England Municipal Resource Center.

Redmond said he and Aube will study the issue and get back to the council with a recommendation.

  • Heard from Redmond that an engineering firm had determined that the carport at the Department of Public Works headquarters can’t be salvaged and must be replaced. A roofing project for the main DPW building will proceed as planned, he said, but the council could consider bonding jointly for a new carport and the city’s share of the planned DPW salt shed replacement project.
  • Were told by Redmond the city had successfully applied to the U.S. Treasury Department, like most Vermont municipalities, for a waiver from pre-approval requirements on how it can spend American Rescue Plan Act funding. Vergennes has about $772,000 in hand or due.

“They’ve made it really easy,” he said “There are fewer restrictions on the use of this money.”

Redmond said the infrastructure priorities to which the council could consider dedicating the funding are the city pool, sidewalks, and the recreation pavilion project now under way in Veterans Park.

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