The Comprehensive Plan: Looking at the Big Picture for Future Planning

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Thursday February 20, 2014

As the city continues to juggle numerous planning projects, South Burlington must not lose sight of the big picture: the Comprehensive Plan.

The Comprehensive Plan is a guide to the city’s future land use as per State law as well as broader policies and goals that will shape the South Burlington of tomorrow. Unlike the Land Development Regulations (LDRs), the Comprehensive Plan is not a zoning ordinance, although, according to State law, the Comprehensive Plan and the LDRs must align with one another for consistency.

The guide remains in effect for five years unless it is replaced with an updated plan. The city’s Planning Commission is in charge of developing and maintaining the plan, and the City Council has the final say whether or not the plan is adopted. The City Council re-adopted the 2006 plan on March 9, 2011. In 2012, the Planning Commission broke into groups and addressed various chapters and objectives, making several changes. The Planning Commission and Planning and Zoning staff are continuing to review and update the plan for 2014.

The Comprehension Plan has been a companion to the city for decades. By means of the Vermont Planning and Development Act, Title 24 of the Vermont Statutes Annotated, Chapter 11, the state grants and encourages the city to create the forward-thinking document. The first ordinance adopted in South Burlington was in 1947; the Official Municipal Plan was adopted in 1953, the very first in the state.
The Comprehensive Plan, which has the latest update from Aug. 2012 uploaded on the city web site ( under Planning and Zoning tab), consists of four sections: an introduction, statement of policy, community assessment, and attachments. 

After the introduction, commissioners have worked at length on the Statement of Policy which includes the city’s vision statement and a “Top Ten” list of goals for the city to help achieve the vision. The goals include a variety of topics, including having affordable homes, establishing a city center, conserving natural areas (plus agricultural resources, air quality, etc.), providing effective services (education, public safety, infrastructure, wellness and others), and supporting a diverse and vibrant economy.

Also under this section, commissioners have taken a deep dive into the Comprehensive Plan’s five pillars of land management and the objectives and strategies affiliated with them:

• Social Infrastructure (population and growth management, housing, economy, community facilities and services)

• Gray Infrastructure (transportation and energy)

• Blue Infrastructure (water resources and stormwater management; water supply and wastewater treatment) 

• Green Infrastructure (ecological resources, historical and cultural resources, recreation resources, and agricultural resources)

• Future Land Use (a general overview, central district, and four quadrants: Northwest Quadrant, Northeast Quadrant, Southwest Quadrant, and the Southeast Quadrant)

The Comprehensive Plan also contains a plethora of resources to use to help implement the plan, including zoning, city funds (TIF, Capital budget and program, impact fees), official map, municipal policies, and land acquisition. These resources are often referred to as “the toolbox”. 

There hasn’t been a lot of movement with the Comprehensive Plan since the fall, Director of Zoning Paul Conner said, but staff will be working on a priority list from the Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission asked staff to consolidate similar or redundant strategies. Furthermore, staff is looking to address new regulations for Comprehensive Plans as mandated by state statute; this includes regulations for flood resiliency and any plans for designated downtowns.

The Planning Commission has an overflowing amount of work, which has caused the committee to hold extra meetings outside of the regular Tuesday meetings (bi-weekly). Since the 2006 plan was re-adopted, the city has experienced Interim Zoning, the two-year pause on city planning that recently expired. With the formation of four volunteer groups--Affordable Housing, Sustainable Agriculture/Food Security Task Force, Open Space, and Form Based Code--the Planning Commission was presented with a multitude of professional recommendations to consider for future city planning and will have to decide what to infuse in the Comprehensive Plan. Planning Commission and staff will also need to complete a final review of all maps as they align with the Comprehensive Plan.

Along with many Land Development Regulation amendments, the Planning Commission has been heavily involved with Form Based Code, South Burlington’s soon-to-be regulatory process in the future city center; commissioners have had several working sessions reviewing the Form Based Code draft language. The Comprehensive Plan thus far has an umbrella for any Form Based Code items being addressed. 

Some items under consideration for Form Based Code could trigger the need to again amend the Comprehensive Plan; one such example is if the code calls for inclusionary zoning, which would require that affordable housing be integrated in all developments. The plan would need to include specific stated policies for that, Conner explained.

At the end of the process, the Planning Commission will take all the goals and objectives and look at a priority list of actions for the next few years. The commission has not yet decided whether to have the priority list attended to annually or to incorporate the call-to-action within the plan, Conner said.

The Comprehensive Plan takes cues from all city staff and committees, regional entities, and--very importantly--the public. When the Planning Commission completes a draft of the Comprehensive Plan, statutory regulations require the commission to warn a public hearing. There will then be at least two public hearings before the City Councilors who will be the ultimate decision-makers of whether it warrants an adoption.

The Comprehensive Plan is on a tentative list of projects identified for 2014. In addition to the plan, the commissioners will also aim to complete the review of draft City Center Form Based Code, complete stormwater and low impact development regulations, review draft city-wide regulations, initiative the Chamberlain-Airport neighborhood plan, initiate the Traffic Overlay District overlay/update, and provide direction on city-wide regulation updates for Affordable Housing Transferable Development Rights, the future of the land and regulation language. Comprehensive Plan language must remain broad enough when working on these items.

The most recently adopted Comprehensive Plan is available for viewing on the city website. For additional questions, the Planning and Zoning department can be contacted by phone (802-846-4106), or attend a Planning Commission meeting which fall every second and fourth Tuesday of the month.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent