Maintaining Open Space: DRB Seeks Solutions

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Thursday October 13, 2011

Months after a heated public debate over land-use and smart growth has calmed, developer Tom Hergenrother, Jr., bearing plans for a six-acre subdivision, found the Development Review Board still wrestling with how to preserve open space in South Burlington’s agrarian southeast.

“We’ve seen this situation before,” said board vice-chair Bill Stuono at an October 4 meeting of the DRB. “We have small- to mid-sized projects, and the applicant says the project doesn’t warrant any open space provision because of its size.”

The problem, said Stuono, is that when those projects receive individual approvals, there’s no collective preservation of undeveloped land. “Before you know it, we get no open space preserved,” Stuono said.

Hergenrother, owner of Dorset Links, LLC and represented by engineer David Burke, hopes to build seven homes and one duplex at 1500 Dorset Street, projected to sell for $450,000 apiece. Development plans account for two on-site wetlands, which Burke says will be legally protected.

In September, Burke met with Alan Quackenbush, Vermont’s state wetlands coordinator, at the site. According to Burke, Quackenbush deemed the wetlands marginal and is in the process of re-categorizing them under state statutes, easing restrictions for nearby development. Under the plans presented on October 4, the wetlands would be included in two of the proposed private lots, although the homes would not infringe on the wetlands.

For the DRB, the wetlands presented an opportunity for the neighborhood to plan for protected community land. “Why not separate [the wetlands lots] out and make it a common lot for the development,” which would add one or two additional, unbuilt lots to the subdivision, asked board chair Mark Behr. “The wetlands will be on lots that become common land and open space.”

Under state law, Burke told the board, the developer cannot encourage recreation in the wetlands. “There are some class III wetlands out there that have some reasonable function and value,” a prerequisite to protecting them, said Burke. “These aren’t them.”

Plans for a city recreation path along the subdivision’s northern border would be included in the plans, said Burke, and home lots range from a third to three-quarters of an acre, large enough to allow for gardens and recreation activities.

Additionally, bumping the subdivision up to ten lots, Burke said, would invoke state oversight under Act 250 land regulations. “If we don’t create a lot, it’s not an Act 250 project.”

Stuono, taking a long-view of the DRB’s role in preserving open space, pressed Burke to consider adding community recreation and open space provisions by shuffling lots and possibly downgrading the duplex to a single family home, while keeping clear of the Act 250 threshold.

“Whether or not our current ordinance and pattern of development preserves open space can be debated,” he said to the board. “There are some people who say that we’re not really preserving open space like our ordinance is recommending that we do.”

“It’s my experience that when you plan for open space,” concluded Stuono, “that open space gets used.”

SOURCE: Eric Blokland, Correspondent