City councilors are concerned following news of Burlington’s zoning amendment that could pave the way for Higher Ground’s move out of South Burlington.

The zoning change lifts a 5,000 square foot cap on development in Burlington’s South End and would allow the Higher Ground concert venue to move from Williston Road in South Burlington to the Burton Snowboards’ building on Industrial Parkway in Burlington following a permitting process. That location abuts the South Burlington’s Queen City Park neighborhood and Red Rocks Park.

Councilors decided at the end of their meeting to further investigate the matter and possibly appeal the Burlington permitting process for the concert venue. 

Higher Ground began talks with Burton about moving the concert venue to its South End building in January 2019. Club co-owner Alex Crothers told The Other Paper at the time that the news was “premature” but that it was “no secret” Higher Ground had been seeking a new space for years.  

During the public comment portion of the South Burlington city council meeting, Queen City Park resident Laura Waters asked councilors to talk with Burlington officials about the implications of their zoning changes – which at that time were just hours away from approval. 

According to Waters, most residents signed a petition against the venue’s possible move to Burton’s Industrial Parkway building. 

“Higher Ground serves a purpose that a lot of people enjoy but it does not belong in an area that’s residential,” she said. “It’s going to be just a series of disastrous circumstances for us down there and for the park.”

Waters shared her concerns around traffic entering and leaving the venue via Queen City Park Road’s one-way bridge, which she deemed “an accident waiting to happen.”

Likewise, she was worried about incidents. According to her research, there were 115 police incidents and directed patrols at Higher Ground last year. Those issues involved intoxication, drugs, sex, nuisance and noise, she said, adding that moving the concert venue to a residential area, especially one by a park, would likely increase these incidents.

Councilor David Kaufman was concerned about the Industrial Parkway site’s proximity to Red Rocks Park. He envisioned inebriated concert-goers leaving the venue, heading to the park, and taking potentially fatal cliff dives there.

Waters also discussed noise concerns. While she understood Higher Ground had proposed noise insulation for the conceptual Burton facility, she contended that the vibration of low bass would likely still be felt by those residents closest to the building.

“I don’t know what leverage South Burlington has with Burlington ... but I would urge you to please keep in touch with the city, keep in touch with Miro,” Waters said.

Council Chair Helen Riehle informed Waters that she had contacted the city but had been unable to speak with Mayor Miro Weinberger. She intended to speak with him soon, she said, adding they already meet frequently to discuss matters concerning the airport. 

“Once again, this is Burlington impacting one of our neighborhoods,” Riehle said. “I would encourage any and all people who are abutters, as well as the city council, to express our concerns and be part of that permitting process.”

Councilors Meaghan Emery and Thomas Chittenden had sent messages concerning the zoning change and possible Higher Ground move to the Burlington City Council ahead of its Monday night meeting and vote. 

In his letter, Chittenden expressed concern with noise, incidents, traffic, as well as emergency response to that area. He felt the proposed concert venue location, given its distance from both Burlington and South Burlington police departments, posed a challenge. Moreover, the proposed Champlain Parkway, he wrote, would present a “major obstacle” for first responders trying to access that area of the city. 

“Allowing large concert venue space or other noisy operations attracting large amounts of traffic (both pedestrian and automobile) for this sleepy and poorly accessible part of town does not fit the smart growth development Burlington (and South Burlington) has been committed to for decades,” Chittenden wrote. 

In Emery’s letter, she concurred with Queen City Park resident’s concerns about traffic, increased noise, light pollution and nuisance. She also cited concern for Red Rocks Park where South Burlington has decided to invest a portion of its $1.5 million dollar, 10-year park restoration budget. Off-trail hikers, erosion and invasive species have already led to degradation of the land there. 

“I ask that you carefully consider [residents’] quality of life and the importance of the natural environment in this area, which they so carefully tend to, as you weigh the pros and cons of the zoning change under consideration,” Emery wrote. “Please give this decision the thought, caution, and deliberation it deserves.”

In an email to the Burlington City Council following the zoning change approval, Emery expressed her disappointment with what she felt was a lack of communication. She also cited how her colleagues had said they were unaware of Burlington’s possible zoning change until residents contacted them last week. 

“I feel compelled to speak candidly with you to let you know how deeply disappointed I am that you could not hold off on voting on this zoning change until your next regular meeting in order to hear from South Burlington Councilors and city staff,” she wrote. “Like the airport, this is – to my mind – another example of your callous disregard for your neighbor.”

During the Other Business portion of the South Burlington city council meeting, councilors resumed their discussion of the potential Higher Ground move. By then, Chittenden had been informed that the Burlington council had approved zoning changes. 

Councilor Tim Barritt agreed with his colleagues that there was “distinct interest” in the matter due to the proximity of Queen City Park but added that South Burlington would have no recourse other than talking to the Burlington council and mayor. 

“But if it impacts the traffic and safety on our roads, then I think you have a dog in that fight to at least raise that issue and say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” Riehle replied. “Unless you raise the issue, it doesn’t get resolved.” 

The councilors said that they should communicate with Burlington as it entered the permitting process for projects like the proposed Higher Ground move.

Emery said she wished Burlington could have taken a bit more time to decide upon zoning changes. 

“Well, they think they’ve taken a lot of time because they’ve discussed it for a long time,” Riehle replied. “But they didn’t include us in that conversation.”

The city councilors tasked South Burlington City Manager Kevin Dorn with gathering more information from Burlington officials. They hoped to learn about discussing, and possibly appealing, a permit should Higher Ground apply for one to move to the Burton campus. 

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