UVM Issues RFP for Development on City Land

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Thursday August 03, 2017

We may never find out the answer to whether the chicken or the egg came first, but is the answer to why a Request for Proposal (RFP) for planned development preceding a necessary zoning change an equally puzzling scenario?

A little more than a month ago, the University of Vermont (UVM) issued an RFP, on June 20, to purchase two contiguous parcels of land in South Burlington. RFPs are due no later than Friday, August 18.

Upon hearing the news, South Burlington Land Trust (SBLT) President Sarah Dopp attended a July 10 property information session hosted by the university where a few SBLT representatives and developers were present. She discussed it with members of the conservation community who were taken aback by the speed and procedure. Then she reported directly to the South Burlington City Council, Planning Commission, and Development Review Board; some members were aware, others were not.

“The way I’m feeling as a land trust person is that I need to be doing something other than just informing people, and there’s only five weeks to do it,” she told the planning commission on July 11.

What is happening at UVM? Where does South Burlington play a role in this?

The proposal is seeking a buyer to purchase two parcels known as the Edlund South and Martin Tracts with the intention of developing housing and making it available to the community. UVM stated that it would consider providing the buyer/developer with an opportunity to market the housing units to UVM facility, staff, and affiliates. UVM also cites that the proposal ties in with Chittenden County’s need for additional housing.

“[When assessing state land], we look strategically at our resources and assets,” explained John Evans, senior advisor to the President and Provost at the University of Vermont. “Does it meet the core mission?”

Sometimes, the most proper investment leads to selling the land.

The two parcels in question account for almost 44 acres along Spear and Swift streets just 1.5 miles from UVM and the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Edlund South Tract, which sits on the west side of Spear Street and south of the I-189 overpasses, is the larger of the two parcels. Edlund consists of 33.99 acres of undeveloped forested land.

The Martin Tract, located on the west side of Spear Street and the north side of Swift Street, has 10.04 acres of undeveloped land.

The RFP discloses that, upon purchasing the parcels as-is, the buyer/developer will need to address necessary zoning changes. Edlund South is currently zoned in an Institutional-Agricultural district and would need the commission’s approval to re-zone the land.

Under current zoning, the university is able to construct the likes of a research building or a dormitory. “It’s interesting that it’s not zoned residential,” Evans said.

The Martin Tract is currently zoned as Residential 1 (R1-PRD). If developed as a planned unit development (PUD), a maximum density of four residential units per acre is allowed. Multi-family dwellings are allowed as part of a PUD and may have up to four units per building.

In selecting a buyer, UVM states that the buyer must demonstrate history of working with the state and municipalities to achieve regulatory approvals such as zoning revisions and demonstrated history of stewardship and community interest.

“I did talk to the Vermont Land Trust (VLT) about it and a couple of other bodies, but the VLT thought that this was a backwards way of going about something like this, that they should really be in touch with the city to talk about options,” Dopp said.

Art Klugo, a member of the planning commission, said that the practice of seeing an RFP play out before extensive municipal input is not a rarity. “It’s not uncommon for an RFP to be issued for them to see what’s being proposed before they actually come and work with an entity. They may find out that there’s really no value there and may not come and ask for anything.”
“To cover the city is not always the way those things go, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t mean the city doesn’t get to play in determining what goes there. Clearly we have some leverage in what’s already zoned,” he added.

Director of Planning and Zoning Paul Conner confirmed that both he and City Manager Kevin Dorn were given a heads up a few weeks prior to the RFP being issued.

In addition to having a potential developer come to the planning commission for a zoning change, the city would have to go through the public hearing process. The project would also need to meet Act 250 standards.

Both housing and natural space are hot commodities in the city, but which is suitable for this area?

From the SBLT, a few concerns include water runoff into Potash Brook which transects the steeply-sloped Edlund property, disrupting an active wildlife corridor, traffic, and wiping out a geographical feature on the Edlund property - a Pleistocene Era sand dune, which was the edge of the Champlain Sea. To pitch a different scenario, Dopp mentioned perhaps connecting to East Woods Natural Area to extend the natural area.

On the other hand, there is also a strong need for housing in Chittenden County. Just last year, a coalition was formed, bringing together members of state and local government, businesses, and housing non-profits with the goal of building 3,500 housing units over the course of five years.

Evans said it is a matter of balancing the university’s needs and the community’s needs.

“We’re trying to do something good, and we hope that people can be open-minded,” Evans said.

Notification of a selected buyer is scheduled for Monday, September 18.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent