The Future of South Burlington: Voter Survey Results for Zoning and Land Use

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Thursday January 24, 2013

About the Series: As described in the last issue of The Other Paper, the hottest issue of the past year has been “Interim Zoning” and the work of the Task Forces appointed to study the central issues surrounding future directions for city growth. On Election Day, November 6th, 2012, SMC Sociologist Vince Bolduc oversaw a survey of 404 voters as they responded to 30 planning-related questions asked by 20 interviewers. The accompanying article is the second of four.


Zoning and Land Use

At the end of the current interim zoning period, the City will need to make some decisions that may change—or maintain—current land use patterns. This week’s focus is on voter attitudes towards various forms of zoning changes.

One of the first questions in the interview was about what citizens wished to see when the interim zoning period expired. After an explanatory sentence, respondents were asked “Would you like the City to increase its control over land use, reduce its control over land use, or leave it more or less the way it is?”  The results appear below. The “don’t know” or “no opinion” responses are not shown.

The same question was asked in a similar 1992 voter survey and the proportion seeking to “increase City control over land use” was within three percentage points. Interestingly, however, the proportion wishing to “reduce” city control over land (21%) is much higher today than 20 years ago when only 9% wished to “reduce” City control.

To address the tensions between “property rights” and the community’s desire to regulate land use, we asked if voters thought of zoning “more as the protection of rights, more as taking property rights away, or somewhere in the middle.” Forty-two percent chose the first option of “protecting property rights,” and 15% thought of it as “taking rights away.” The remainder of voters were in the middle or had no opinion. In 1992, 51% selected the “protecting property rights” option and only 8% thought of it as “taking rights away. In both of these questions, today’s voters are more concerned with protecting property rights. One wonders if the zoning is more burdensome today, or if the property rights advocates have become more persuasive in making their case. Perhaps it is a combination of both.

Before leaving the question of zoning, we asked voters a hypothetical question and then handed them a card with four options listed. “If the City government decides to make a major new commitment to preserve farm land and open spaces, what do you think would be the single best way to do it?”
The City should buy the land from present land owners
The City should offer incentives –such as tax breaks—to land owners to keep it open
The City should use zoning regulations to prohibit development and not worry about incentives or compensation for land owners
Or finally, find some combination of things to accomplish this goal

The results are presented in the accompanying pie chart. “Some combination” of options was the most common choice, followed by “offering financial incentives” to land owners. One wonders what specific combinations the 49% of voters had in mind when they made their selection. It is possible that “some combination” was the only convenient escape from the dilemmas of choosing among the other three difficult options—all either expensive or politically heavy handed.

To better understand voter opinion on these zoning issues, we merged selected questions in order to identify the characteristics of voters with the strongest positions on the three zoning questions. As we can see from some of the analysis, many voters were satisfied with present zoning laws, and a substantial minority even wished to loosen the regulations. It is also clear that there was a fair amount of voter inconsistency from one question to the next. However, our analysis identified a small core of voters who consistently expressed the strongest desire to both slow the rate of housing growth and expand zoning restrictions.

This core consisted of only 14% of the interviewed voters (57 people) who took a strong and consistent position on all three items. The remaining 86% were sympathetic to the restrictive cause on some items, but not on others. On one item for example, we saw that 27% of the voters thought the City should “reduce zoning regulations to restrict the number of new residential neighborhoods” and another 32% felt that the zoning regulations should be “left as is.”  Across questions then, the majority of the interviewed voters were not both strongly opposed to housing growth and consistently inclined to increase zoning restrictiveness.

What do we know about that category of 14% who are consistently opposed to growth and wished to tighten zoning regulations? Further statistical analysis found that 95% have a B.A. or more, 91% own their own residences, 37% live in neighborhoods with very high housing values, and 77% describe themselves as being politically “liberal” or “independent.” This minority is also the least likely to have been born in Vermont, the least likely to believe that “building or expanding businesses will enhance the City’s economic strength” and finally, they are the most interested in using zoning to “prohibit development without incentives or compensation.”

In the last article in this series we saw that there is significant interest in “preserving open and undeveloped land” in South Burlington. In this article we see that there is a great deal of uncertainty about how this could be accomplished. About one in every three voters are willing to increase zoning restrictions, but most voters either wish to “leave it as is” or “reduce” zoning restrictiveness.  Only a small minority is so concerned about the growth of new housing developments that they are willing to simply mandate the preservation of open land via new zoning restrictions.

In the next issues we will look at voter attitudes towards the proposed City Center project, expanding businesses in the city, and increasing the supply of affordable housing.

SOURCE: Vince Bolduc