Commission Pores Over Maps of the Future

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Thursday September 01, 2011

At an August 23rd meeting of the Planning Commission, members spent much of their time poring over maps of the future—a particular kind of future, as Director of Planning and Zoning Paul Conner took care to point out. The maps, showing the maximum development possible in South Burlington under current conditions, seek to grant commissioners a better understanding of how today’s planning shapes tomorrow’s neighborhoods.

With the pace of development a hotly contested issue in South Burlington, the Planning Commission continues to hash out a 2011 update to the Comprehensive Plan, or the “city’s guide to the future,” last updated in 2006.  During the update process, commissioners raised the question of how much development is possible under the city’s regulations, prompting Conner to turn to the existing build-out analysis.

With $3,200 in grant money from 2007, South Burlington contracted the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission to study the city’s “infill potential.” Infill potential represents the theoretical maximum development possible in the city, accounting for zoning regulations and existing conditions like roads and buildings. Results, dating from 2009, include four maps charting various types of development: commercial/industrial, residential land use, residential density, and an “Existing and Additional Buildout Analysis.” (Maps are available at

Although the commission will continue to use the infill maps for planning purposes, at issue on Tuesday was whether the maps should be included in the Comprehensive Plan. Conner cautioned that interpreting the maps takes a careful introduction, emphasizing in particular that there is no time limit attached to the analysis: while the study relied on existing regulations and conditions, the date of the city’s maximum build-out cannot be determined.

“There are a lot of assumptions that go into an analysis like this,” said Conner. Nine pages of assumptions accompany the report. For example, some portions of city allow housing and commercial development. The analysis estimated how much would be housing and how much commercial. “We assumed that lots were not going to be merged. That’s a difficult assumption to make,” but the analysis would’ve be impossible without it, he said.

The maps do not include the Southeast Quadrant or City Center, both of which were subject to studies capturing similar data previously. Also excluded is the Burlington International Airport, and Conner said that the study did not consider transfer development rights.

As the Commission debated whether the maps should be included, a member of the audience cautioned them. “I’m a little leery of sticking it out there in the Comprehensive Plan because there’s so much nuance to it.”

Planning Commission Chair Chris Shaw argued in favor of inclusion. “[The analysis] is incomplete and it is speculative, but it does show a good density of where things could happen. People want to know that.”

The commission ultimately favored adding maps to the 2011 update to the Comprehensive Plan, along with explanatory notes. A draft of the Plan will be reviewed by the city attorney, and must receive approval from the City Council for adoption.

SOURCE: Eric Blokland, Correspondent