City Council recommends development Freeze in SB

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Thursday June 09, 2011

After three hours of deliberation, the City Council voted on Monday to recommend a development freeze on portions of South Burlington. Advice from the city’s attorney, the Planning and Zoning department, and a handful of concerned citizens prompted a carefully-worded resolution to propose interim zoning, which would halt new construction while residents and city government hash out a collective vision for South Burlington’s future. 

“It’s become clear that we’ve gone awry in this city,” said a South Burlington resident to the City Council, voicing a sentiment that seemed widely supported: twenty-one hands rose from the audience in favor of interim zoning during a poll. Only one resident objected, and four abstained.

At the end of the night, the City Council hewed closely to City Attorney Steve Stitzel’s counsel while directing him to draft an acronym-riddled interim zoning resolution addressing four areas:

1. An open space directive based on the 2002 Open Space Strategy, which the city has never formally adopted. Excluding the southeast quadrant (SEQ), which the Council felt was sufficiently protected, the resolution bans “additional dwelling units or construction of commercial properties.” Existing properties may expand by 20% of their current footprint. This would encompass concerns over undeveloped land west of the Chamberlin School, which faces development pressures related to the Burlington Airport home buy-out program.

2. A prohibition on all Planned Development Units, or PUDs, in residential and mixed-use districts.

3. A prohibition on all PUD waivers everywhere, which includes transfer development rights, or TDRs.

4. A prohibition on all waivers of the South Burlington Land Development Regulations (LDRs) throughout the city. Paul Conner, director of Planning and Zoning, advised the Council that developers prohibited from obtaining a waiver through the PUD regulations—a voluntary form of development—could still obtain a waiver under the standard LDRs.

Although four of five City Councilors voted in favor of the resolution, opinions varied on the need for a development moratorium.

“We’re marring the unique Vermont brand in South Burlington,” said councilor Roseanne Greco. Vermont offers respite from snarled traffic and strip malls, she argued, and is in danger of tarnishing its pastoral legacy.

City Council chair Sandra Dooley expressed concern over the city’s growth rate, which ran 25% higher than expected according to 2010 census figures. With a dearth of low-income housing, South Burlington needs to focus on how it will grow.

Councilor Meaghan Emery favors the moratorium, arguing that it grants time to develop a strong Comprehensive Plan and amend PUDs.

Councilor Paul Engels agreed with Emery’s emphasis on PUDs and the included TDRs, which are restricted to the southeast quadrant. While well-intentioned, the purpose of TDRs has been “perverted,” he said. “I was shocked by the density level [in the SEQ].”

The lone dissent came from James Knapp, who argued that interim zoning would be a waste of resources. “Open space is an economic, not a regulatory issue,” he said. He also worries that the legal obligations to invoke interim zoning have not been met, an issue that city attorney Stitzel addressed at length.

Were the City of South Burlington to face legal challenges to the interim zoning resolution—which would postpone developers for up to two years—they would have to prove that current zoning processes are incapable of protecting and regulating South Burlington’s planning goals. “While the state of Vermont has something of a reputation for being a ‘green’ state,” he told the Council, “the current Vermont Supreme Court is not necessarily living up to that reputation.”

The Supreme Court “has established with case law some very, very difficult standards for communities to meet to establish a defensible regulation,” said Stitzel. He advised the City Council to hone a clear, consistent reason for a development moratorium.

Sandy Miller, South Burlington’s City Manager, weighed in on the financial impact of the proposed interim zoning. Next year’s budget relies on revenue from fees levied by the Development Review Board, Zoning, and impact uses, all of which would cease under interim bylaws. Planning studies, a legal necessity during interim zoning, have not been budgeted, and he’s not sure where the city would locate funding. Those studies would tax an already reduced Planning and Zoning staff, he concluded.

The city attorney will release a formal draft of the interim zoning resolution within a few weeks. In accordance with state law, South Burlington will warn of a July 18 public hearing to discuss the resolution.

SOURCE: Eric Blokland, Correspondent