Council Votes Down June 17th Interim Zoning By-Law

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Thursday June 23, 2011

Addressing a room packed with concerned residents and developers, South Burlington’s City Council Chair Sandy Dooley requested the audience comply with the distributed Meeting Participation Guidelines to ensure order during what was expected to be a contentious discussion regarding the interim zoning that went into effect June 17th. And it was.

Item number 9 on the agenda was, “Discuss Interim Zoning By-Law Resolution. Consider approval or modification.” This By-Law document was a very short time in coming from a 1-month old discussion about the possibility of entering a moratorium period on development in South Burlington (see The Other Paper May 19th Edition at www.otherpapervt.com). The maximum period under the law is 2 years and can be applied broadly to all development in all of the city, or two specific types of development in specific areas.

Also, in order for the City to put such a by-law into effect one of two conditions must be met. According to City Attorney Amanda Lafferty, the City may enter into such a by-law if it is either, 1) “conducting or has taken action to conduct studies,” or 2) “is holding a hearing for the purpose of considering a bylaw, a comprehensive plan, or an amendment extension, or addition to a bylaw or plan.” For the purpose of this effort, the first condition is being used as a basis to argue for interim zoning, and as of June 17th the City has entered into the Interim Zoning By-Law as drafted and posted at www.sburl.com, pending final Council revisions and approval.

Chair Dooley emphasized that the purpose of the meeting was to focus on the scope of the current draft of the By-Law, and not on any job loss or cost impact, sparking a question from the audience about whether or not residents have missed their opportunity to comment on the costs. A public hearing that will allow the discussion of such issues is currently scheduled for July 18th.

Early in the conversation, a poll of those present showed a 50/50 split among residents on whether or not they agreed with the By-Law as written. The opinion among non-residents, presumably developers, was unanimously against interim zoning. Clearly this method lacks scientific polling rigor as do the separate meetings and emails from like-minded citizen’s on both sides of the issue that were referenced by many during the Monday night meeting.

So it is difficult to determine where the majority of public sentiment lies. Certainly there is large scale concern about development in South Burlington, but there is a great lack of clarity on what type of development is good development. Those that support the June 17th By-Law draft have continually expressed an urgency to the situation that requires a development moratorium. Opponents are largely concerned with the costs in jobs, City revenue, study costs, and of course, developer revenues. Opponents also see other avenues of achieving the same “Smart Growth” objectives, such as the development of a strategic plan, changes to the City’s Comprehensive Plan, and changes to Land Development Regulations.

Each Councilor shared his or her opinion on the proposed By-Law, starting with Chair Dooley who favors a more narrow scope, so as not to negatively impact efforts toward producing affordable housing. Councilor Emery largely shared Chair Dooley’s sentiment. Councilor Knapp expressed disfavor of the bulk of the proposed By-Law, emphasizing that, “We have to be careful not to take that which we cannot pay for.”

The main proponents of the draft were Councilors Engels and Greco. Engels stated his motivation for supporting the By-Law is his view that there is a need to stop the trend of making SB a “haven for developers.” “It’s a joke” he added. Developer Larry Williams responded with a caution that it is dangerous for [public officials] to make such sweeping statements because of the risk of their immediate acceptance as the truth in the absence of supporting evidence.

Councilor Greco provided largely anecdotal evidence of an urgent need to pass the By-Law, listing air quality and stormwater runoff issues, recent survey data (which has not yet been analyzed)on related development questions, and a study of which she is aware that shows multi-unit developments cost more to the community than they generate in revenue. Resident Leslie Williams pointed out that air quality and stormwater runoff are always issues—nothing makes them different today than before.

In the end, the Council voted 3 to 2 against the By-Law as written, and 3 to 2 in favor of drafting a more narrow scope for public hearing on July 18th. The three in both cases were Chair Dooley, and Councilor’s Emery and Knapp. The minority were Councilors Greco and Engels. In the interim, the June 17th By-Law will remain in effect.

SOURCE: Michelle Boyer, Correspondent