The Interim Zoning Debate

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Thursday June 16, 2011

Opinions differ on Development Freeze

With soaring population growth worrying many residents, South Burlington’s City Council took the first step on June 6 to freeze development in parts of the city. A so-called interim zoning period of up to two years proposes to coalesce a community’s worth of opinions, backed by studies and expert advice, into a vision for the city’s future that will guide growth while preserving farmland and wildlife corridors.

The still-nascent and controversial proposal would revisit planned unit developments—PUDs, or mixed-use clusters providing for a variety of residential and commercial uses—and development waivers, as well as the city’s current ad hoc strategy for preserving open space outside of the southeast quadrant.

Opinions conflict, however, on the need for an interim zoning period. In a packed-room City Council meeting on June 6, the vast majority of residents backed a freeze, citing frustrations ranging from bottle-necked stormwater systems to unchecked density in new housing developments as the city strives to keep pace with a ballooning population.

According to the 2010 census, South Burlington grew by 20% over a decade to 17,904 residents—a stark contrast to Chittenden County’s already high 7% growth rate. At the City Council meeting, residents argued a need to reexamine development processes: “The right approach is interim zoning,” emphasized one audience member representative of a common opinion.

Some appointees of the city’s Planning Commission disagree. In a collective Planning Commission letter sent to the City Council prior to the June 6 meeting, Commissioner Marcel Beaudin wrote that the commission’s work on updating the Comprehensive Plan—and particularly the Ten Goals—is a good start to what should be an inclusive, participatory, public visioning process. “I think interim zoning may be premature until we are guided by a consensus of South Burlington’s Goals, i.e. vision.”

Commissioner Tim Duff weighed in on PUDs: “I am concerned that if we enact interim zoning and complicate and restrict the ability to allow PUDs there will be more land subdivision. A fragmented and less efficient landscape will consume more raw land and require more city infrastructure.”

For many, the issue underlying PUDs is density and the primary vehicle by which developers are allowed to increase dense development: transfer development rights, or TDRs.

For nearly two decades, South Burlington has preserved farmland and open space while clustering development by allowing builders to purchase a bevy of development rights from around the city and transfer them to a single property: while the developed property would be denser than otherwise allowed under zoning, the undeveloped properties from which the rights were harvested remain preserved into perpetuity.

This strategy began in 1992 and was updated in 2006, after the city invoked a year of interim zoning to consider development pressures on the agrarian southeast quadrant. With the rewrite of the South Burlington Land Development Regulations, TDRs were adopted and honed: certain portions of the city would “send” development rights—meaning they would remain largely preserved—while other portions of the city would become “receiving areas” slated for denser construction.

Roseanne Greco, a fresh face on the City Council, singled out TDRs in a separate interim zoning resolution she presented at the June 6 meeting: “Transfer of development rights need to be reevaluated and assessed in regards to their impact on the quality of life of the neighboring communities and the remaining open space,” she wrote, “and other options to preserve open space need to be explored.”

Although City Manager Sandy Miller could not be reached by press time, he testified at the June 6 City Council meeting that the studies on preservation strategies during the southeast quadrant’s 2005 interim zoning cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Municipal belt-tightening to redress a massive gap in South Burlington’s budget reduced Planning and Zoning staff by 25%, and Miller also warned that an interim zoning period could reduce city revenues by cutting the number of applicants paying fees associated with development and zoning review. That revenue, he continued, has already been earmarked in the fiscal year 2012 budget and is even more important next year because fees were increased to help plug the budget hole.

The next hurdle for interim zoning, however, is legal: the City Council’s varied opinions on the necessity of interim zoning must cohere into a specific resolution meeting standards outlined by the Vermont state law, or the zoning could be overturned by the courts.

“Vermont courts have recognized that interim zoning is not meant to be a stopgap measure or an end run around the standard bylaw adoption,” wrote the Vermont League of Cities and Towns in a memo on interim zoning statutes. Interim zoning serves as “an emergency planning tool” (emphasis is theirs).

The City Council’s June 6th resolution currently resides with City Attorney Steve Stitzel, who will iron out the language to meet state standards. South Burlington will announce the proposed resolution shortly, in advance of a public hearing scheduled for July 18.

SOURCE: Eric Blokland, correspondent