Commission considers 50-foot, Waivable Buffer

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Thursday October 20, 2011

Poised to wrap up months of updating the city’s building codes in preparation for a public hearing, the Planning Commission on October 12 rendered a last-minute amendment in response to an “emergency” request from members of the Development Review Board. Citing regulations allowing large, multi-family buildings within ten feet—and in some cases, within as little as five feet—of neighboring property lines, DRB vice-chair Bill Stuono asked the Commission to consider instead a 50-foot, waivable buffer.

“Ten feet is basically just the width of a table,” said Stuono, who, along with DRB chair Mark Behr, brought the request following recent, contentious DRB hearings. “You can have large buildings ten feet from property lines. We’ve had examples of this, where the DRB has had to approve it,” because the proposed project adhered to the city’s Land Development Regulations.

New buildings maintain standard distances from property lines—a setback—usually ten feet along the lot’s side and thirty feet in the rear. The DRB may waive setbacks down to five feet for planned unit developments (PUDs), which usually include larger or multi-building developments.

On October 4, the Development Review Board approved final adjustments for developer John Larkin’s controversial 30-unit, four-building PUD located at 725 Hinesburg Road. Stuono, who said one of the buildings in that project was located seventeen feet from a property line where neighbors held to a 30-foot setback, called it a recent example of why the Planning Commission needed to act quickly.

“Our [the DRB’s] hands were completely tied. It went to Environmental Court. We were mandated to approve the project” because it complied with the city’s regulations, he told the Commission, “even though I would say there’s nobody on the DRB who likes it. We don’t want to be in that scenario.” 
Stuono encouraged the Commission, which is charged with drafting changes to the city’s land regulations, to include a proposed draft amendment adjusting the city’s setback requirements for PUDs, to be included with a dozen other proposed amendments to the Land Development Regulations slated for a November 8 public hearing.

Paul Conner, director of Planning and Zoning for South Burlington, said that the city supported increasing the setbacks, but cautioned against a 50-foot buffer for all PUDs. Smaller lot PUDs would pose a significant challenge for developers required to adhere to the large setback requirement, said Conner, who recommended a smaller buffer in the near-term and longer consideration of setback requirements in the future. 

Commissioner Bob McDonald saw the setbacks as part of South Burlington’s broader development patterns. “We’re trying to be more like a city, where we reduce our setbacks,” leading to denser neighborhoods balanced by preserved open space, he said. While he supported larger setbacks in “strictly residential areas,” he thought the buffers had the potential to “hamper smart development” in mixed commercial-residential areas.

“The whole purpose of a PUD is innovative use of land,” said commissioner Tim Duff, who proposed a lesser setback of a waivable 30-feet. “If we’re pushing the setbacks greater for a PUD, then we’re technically consuming more land. We’re going the wrong way with the concept of a PUD.”

The Commission voted unanimously to propose a draft amendment, dropping the proposed buffer to 30 feet and weighing McDonald’s concern about commercial-district growth. The proposal, although still subject to revision by the city attorney and Planning and Zoning staff to meet legal standards, reads:

“The portion of a PUD that borders a residential zoning district must contain a setback of 30 feet along its perimeter exclusive of the front of the parcel. The DRB may waive this requirement at its discretion by reducing these setbacks to no less than the zoning standards on directly adjacent properties.”

After the November 8 public hearing, the Planning Commission will make any changes deemed appropriate, and vote on whether to send the thirteen proposed LDR amendments to the City Council. The Council must by law hold at least one public hearing on the amendments before holding a final vote.

SOURCE: Eric Blokland, Correspondent