Concerns over how the planning commission can incorporate an affordable housing zoning proposal into the current pause in city development spurred most of the conversation at Monday’s City Council meeting.

Making housing more affordable in South Burlington has been a battle and a challenge for decades as housing prices have continually soared in the state’s second-largest city, a market where there is not enough housing, affordable or not, to meet demand.

Inclusionary zoning links production of affordable housing to the production of market-rate housing. Inclusionary zoning already exists in the City Center Form Based Code District, where regulations require that affordable and moderate housing be included in developments with 12 or more dwelling units.

The “affordable” goal is to have households spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

In late August, the affordable housing committee laid out a proposal for applying the standard in all city zones where residential development is permitted. Though the planning commission did not reach consensus on inclusionary zoning citywide, commissioners encouraged the committee to revise its draft for inclusionary zoning to include in the city’s land development regulations.

The council passed an Interim Zoning bylaw last month, essentially pausing any new development in some areas of the city for six to nine months while the planning commission reviews a number of land development regulations and zoning bylaws. The pause came in answer to public pressure from residents concerned about widespread development in the city, particularly in the Southeast Quadrant, which features open fields, views of the Green Mountains, and agricultural land.

During the Nov. 13 public hearing on the Interim Zoning bylaw, members of the city’s Affordable Housing Committee asked the city council to consider adding the committee’s affordable housing proposal on inclusionary zoning to the list of tasks the planning commission has planned. The committee said the pause in considering new projects would be a good time to move ahead with inclusionary zoning, something the committee has been working on for months.

That discussion continued at Monday night’s regular city council meeting, where Councilor Tim Barritt expressed concern that adding more to the planning commission’s plate during such a finite review period would slow down the overall process. That concern rose exponentially after director of planning and zoning Paul Conner said tackling the inclusionary zoning component would require 60-80 hours of commission work.

“Can we boil inclusionary zoning down to one nugget?” Barritt asked Conner. “I really don’t want to slow down the planning commission with their work on Interim Zoning.”

Affordable Housing Committee Chair John Simson urged flexibility.

“I really think it’s a matter of priorities,” he told the council. “If we allow more time to go and allow more development to happen, we have the opportunity simply by passing inclusionary zoning, to have 15, 20, 30, 100 units of housing that our working people, our city employees, can afford, then I think we’ve done something good.”

Simson asked if it was possible in the Interim Zoning work plan for the planning commission, to have some of the tasks spill over past the six to nine month IZ period set by the council, in order to make room for work on inclusionary zoning.

“I just think you tilted way over to the side of stopping development, and I just want you to look at your priorities one more time,” Simson told the council.

Talk turned to perhaps applying the inclusionary zoning proposal only to the land that was exempted from the Interim Zoning bylaw, land that lies within the Transit Overlay District, the Meadowlands Industrial Park, the Ethan Allen Industrial Park, the airport, Shelburne Road, the Auclair property in the Southeast Quadrant, and three small areas just outside the Transit Overlay District.

The purpose of the Transit Overlay District is to provide for a safe, compact, and efficient land use pattern that supports regular, fixed-route transit service (such as bus service), pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. Certain land uses may be permitted only within the Transit Overlay District, or be permitted outside the District subject to conditions. Growth is encouraged in the Transit Overlay District as it relates to accessing other modes of transportation.

Affordable Housing Committee member Sandy Dooley added that the Interim Zoning bylaw is shifting the focus of development on to the Transit Overlay District.

“That’s the ideal place for affordable housing,” she said. “It has an impact of where development is going to take place while interim zoning is in effect. The negative impact is if we don’t do inclusionary zoning for more affordable housing, so it’s not a neutral action.”

Having interim zoning bylaws in place will not affect current plans for development that have already come before the Development Review Board and received plat approval, such as the proposed Dorset Meadows project, which proposes a 164-unit planned unit development on 72 acres in the city’s Southeast Quadrant south of Nowland Farm Drive off Dorset Street.

It was the location and size of the Dorset Meadows project, unveiled at a July 26 Development Review Board meeting, that alarmed many residents and underlined for some a disconnect between the city’s Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Regulations. The public outcry led to the council considering Interim Zoning, to the dismay of developers and other landowners who want to develop their property.

CCRPC Executive Director Charlie Baker publicly commented at the public hearing on interim zoning last month, saying he was also there as a representative of the CCRPC’s Building Homes Together affordable housing program, and as a resident of the Southeast Quadrant. He said he was concerned about smart growth and regional sprawl. He said while he was proud of what South Burlington has done to promote smart growth, he was concerned about slowing down the progress in creating housing here.

“Every house that lands in South Burlington is one house that doesn’t land in Richmond, Huntington, Jericho, name your more rural parts of the county,” Baker said.

He also offered free staff consulting support as the city moves forward in reviewing land use regulations during the Interim Zoning period.

By the end of Monday’s meeting, the council and staff agreed to explore that offer of help from the CCRPC to offset the staff and planning commission work load and will revisit the issue at the next council meeting on Dec. 17.

“They were annoyed that we passed Interim Zoning because we’re supposed to be the birthplace of all new homes for Chittenden County,” Council Chair Helen Riehle said jokingly of the CCRPC’s position.

Dooley assured the council that the Affordable Housing Committee is willing to do everything it can to help include inclusionary zoning into the planning commission’s work over the next six to nine months.

“I think we include the offer of help from regional planning into the conversation,” said Councilor Dave Kaufman, “and come back in two weeks to talk about it and we’ll keep talking about it. We’ll see if we can work it in, but we can’t let in derail what we’re doing with Interim Zoning.”

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