South Burlington’s Gift: The Voice of the People; IZ Committees Disband Under City Charge

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Thursday May 23, 2013

In the year that the Interim Zoning Committees worked tirelessly researching, discussing, and crafting reports, something extraordinary happened. It’s what every municipality strongly encourages to help shape its future.  What usually makes or breaks a decision is the voice of the people. As the city undergoes changes, what stands out is the passion and curiosity of the public’s opinion.

On one hand, public participation is not a new concept in South Burlington. Whether it’s  discussion of the F-35, educational programs, or a DRB application,  there will be --inevitably--at least one resident affected. At a special City Council meeting on May 15, civic engagement was a highlight of discussion, with a particular focus on two Interim Zoning groups.

The Affordable Housing Committee and the Sustainable Agriculture/Food Security Task Force have completed work with their consultants, and both groups recently presented their final reports to the Planning Commission. Understanding that these reports were completed with a substantial amount of expert information and recommendations, the Council had to decide the fate of the committees and task force. Council Chair Pam Mackenzie provided a brief overview of a new City function, the Staff Review Committee. Staff would be charged to review the reports, relay them to other appropriate city departments/commission, to evaluate if additional action is needed. If Council action is needed, it will return to Council.

What would this mean for Sustainable Agriculture/Food Security Task Force and Affordable Housing Committee future efforts? 
Essentially, it means their work as a group will come to an end. Mackenzie gave each councilor a moment to express their thoughts before hearing comments from the public; Greco answered first.
“The consultants were tasked to do only a portion of what that charge was. There’s much work that needs to be done,” she said specifically of the task force. On a broader spectrum, she said, “ These [IZ group] efforts have generated more public involvement in our city - more than [there’s been in] many years,” she said.  Shaw and Nowak took a different approach. 

“The work from the reports is at a good breaking point,” Shaw said. “These reports are not going to get lost or sit on a shelf--that’s the Staff Review Committee. The work comes at a cost and resources, and like Interim Zoning itself, the city needs a break to evaluate these recommendations,” he said. 

“I believe everyone’s input into the groups was wonderful, but it was with the idea that there would be a definitive end to this,” Nowak said. “I have faith in this process. I think it’s going to work.”

Riehle positioned between the two, and said that some groups could find a home in an existing committee (i.e. Open Space to existing Natural Resources Committee), but that others, such as Affordable Housing, do not. This could be resolved with a Housing Trust or a new committee.

What did members of the public have to say about this?
John Simson, the chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, said that his group had more or less disbanded, but members express deep interest in forming a new group.

Laurel Williams, Natural Resource Committee Chair, made this statement as a citizen, and it became a common theme through the end of the meeting:

“When people are excited about something--and of their own accord more or less--that they gather together and they try to give you their opinion and do work and have a strong common goal...that’s a gift from your citizens. They’re doing work for you for free. They’re giving you their time and their energy.”

Form Based Code member Will Raap also expressed a need for these committees.

“It’s smart economic development for a city to say ‘food, energy, housing are the majority of the budgets in the city,’” he said. “Why shouldn’t we cultivate it--you don’t have to put staff into it; put people to be control of their life.”

Sarah Dopp, South Burlington Land Trust President and active public participant, stressed that the committees have tremendous energy, established expertise, and that some of the tasks are continuous actions more than they are recommendations. Keeping the committees would allow them to continue those tasks.  Affordable Housing member and former councilor Sandy Dooley made the suggestion to establish a time table, especially if Council is considering taking action on the recommendations.

After hearing from the public, Council came to a conclusion. Shaw motioned that Council-appointed work of the Sustainable Agriculture/Food Security Task Force and Affordable Housing Committee and and their Council liaisons will end. Council encourages those groups to continue their work privately and advise, as they deem appropriate, to the Planning Commission and City Council; council thanks the committees and liaisons for their work and asks them to forward their work to the Staff Review Committee, and the Committee will report to the Council on June 3 with a timeframe to process those recommendations. Nowak seconded the motion, and council voted unanimously in favor. 

For citizens interested in being a part of the community conversation in a big way, consider the  volunteer and employment opportunities for the city or becoming involved in a newly-formed committee run by the public. Postings for the city will be available on the city’s site,, on their Facebook page (, Front Porch Forum, and The Other Paper.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent