Residents and Developers Divided on Interim Zoning

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Thursday July 21, 2011

It was standing room only at South Burlington’s City Hall on Monday. Residents filled seats, lined the walls and sat on the floor during a public hearing hosted by the City Council on a proposed resolution to rein in development. After hearing a report from City Manager Sandy Miller projecting that the so-called interim zoning’s annual cost to the city could range between $95,000 and $195,000, councilors postponed a final vote to July 28. 

More than thirty residents weighed in on the record, voicing a range of opinions about the proposed resolution first discussed at a May 16 City Council meeting (full text of the current resolution is available at www.sburl.com).

Home-owners encouraged the City Council to rely on available processes to tackle challenges to open space and growth within South Burlington. John Simson remained neutral on whether interim zoning should pass, but encouraged the City Council to work with the Planning Commission and the Comprehensive Plan.

Mark Westergard, a Spear Street resident, expressed support for the resolution. “I’m not opposed to development. I’m opposed to bizarre, out-of-control, take-the-money-and-run development.” He had urged the Council to limit the use of Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) and reign in waivers to the Land Development Regulations.

“Planning works in South Burlington,” said South Burlington resident Bill Gilbert, who has previously challenged the Planning Commission on density allowances. “It works for developers, not neighbors.” He encouraged the City Council to redress PUDs and Transfer Development Rights, which spur undesirable high density development, he said.

Others criticized the proposed resolution. Calling interim zoning “heavy handed,” Ed Biggins, a Meadowlands business owner, elicited the first of many rounds of applause. “I’m getting the sense that South Burlington isn’t open for business,” he told the Council

Bill Dailey, one of a host of South Burlington developers testifying against interim zoning, reiterated his warnings from a July 16 City Council meeting: under the implemented-but-not-yet-passed interim zoning, he’s had to lay off three of his eight employees, and worries that he’ll need to lay off two more in the near future.

Rachel Batterson, a staff attorney with Vermont Legal Aid’s Housing Discrimination Law Project, warned the Council that the resolution as drafted could fall afoul of state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Liam Murphy, land-use lawyer and Quarry Hill representative, argued that despite some councilors’ recent efforts to “re-characterize” interim zoning as a slow-down rather than a freeze, it remains a de facto freeze on development. Although developers could go before the City Council for a development permit under interim zoning, three Councilors will routinely vote against new development, he said.

It was freshman Planning Commission member Barbara Benton who elicited the most applause for her blunt statement to the Council, however. During her time in the Air Force, she said, “one of the things we used to say of inexperienced people is that they have all air speed and no direction. I encourage you to find direction.”

At the request of the Council, Director of Planning and Zoning Paul Conner vetted growth figures from the Census Bureau. After correcting the 2000 population count, South Burlington grew by just over 20 percent in the past decade, or around 1.9 percent per year. Developers strove to give the figures regional and historical perspective: Vermont’s growth rate trails many parts of the country, and was significantly higher than 1.9 percent when looking at a 50-year average, they argued.

Sandy Miller presented a draft financial breakdown of interim zoning’s potential effect on South Burlington (also available at www.sburl.com). Cautioning that projections depend on the final resolution and the number and scope of studies conducted, if the Council does pass interim zoning, he tallied a low estimate of $90,000 - $105,000 annually, and a best guess of $195,000. Totals do not include staff time or litigation costs, which “could add significantly” to those totals, Miller concluded.

Quarry Hill developer Ralph Deslauriers presented an independent analysis that looked at South Burlington more broadly. Examining private sector losses as well as interruptions in tax revenue, he estimated that interim zoning could cost the city nearly $2 million annually in lost taxes, $28 million in lost local material sales over two years, and 1,000 jobs.

Overriding Councilor Paul Engels’ move to vote immediately, the City Council will keep open the public comment period until Monday, July 25 at 5 p.m. The Council will vote on the proposed interim zoning resolution on Thursday, July 28.

SOURCE: Eric Blokland, Correspondent