Interim Zoning Update and Viewpoint from your City Council Chair

Despite the early workday hour, more than thirty residents filled South Burlington’s City Hall on July 6 to hear City councilors voice their opinions on a proposed interim zoning resolution. Hotly contested is the extent to which the Council will reign in development in parts of the city amid concerns about controversial growth and the preservation of open space. Developers and their legal representatives expressed disfavor, citing lost jobs, imminent layoffs, and legal challenges already in the works.

The 8:30 a.m. meeting convened at the behest of councilor Rosanne Greco, who sought to give the City Council, any three or more of whom may not convene without warning the public, a chance to appraise each other’s approaches to interim zoning. “Up to today,” Greco told The Other Paper, “the five of us have never sat down and discussed our approaches to our city, particularly how we use our land.”

The need for discussion among councilors was palpable. Residents don’t want to see the Council “squabbling,” said Meaghan Emery early in the meeting. Paul Engels sought to dispel the notion that he and Greco “cooked up” the first interim zoning resolution, and Greco expressed confusion over where the most recent, revised interim zoning resolution came from. “That one just appeared,” she told The Other Paper. “From what, I don’t know.”

Councilors took turns outlining their views on the role of the City Council in general and their approaches to interim zoning.

Greco emphasized her desire to hear the public’s voice throughout the process and hewed to her desire to see the proposed regulations expanded in scope to combat environmental degradation. “Overdevelopment was definitely an issue for me,” she said. “We have overgrown. We haven’t done development in the smartest manner. In fact, we’ve done it foolishly.”

Engels, like Greco, would like to see a broader scope for interim zoning bylaws to redress density stemming from planned unit developments. Density should be in urban centers, he said, not “in the middle of a hayfield.”

Council chair Sandra Dooley said that “the biggest concern that drove me to run for City Council was our Land Development Regulations.” The regulations, she said, weaken or have the potential to weaken neighborhoods. She expressed concern about open space as well as height waivers, which she said were significantly broadened in 2003.

Emery concurred, saying she’d like to “tweak” the Land Development Regulations and focus on affordable homes. “We do have to find housing for people who come from all walks of life.”

Jim Knapp, the councilor who has steadfastly opposed interim zoning, saw it differently. “We have a process for looking at our Land Development Regulations. It’s called our Planning Commission.”

(The Planning Commission discussed an update to South Burlington’s Land Development Regulations at their June 28 meeting: see Planning Commission Synopsis.)

Knapp went on to cite concern about affordable housing and environmental issues in South Burlington, but said interim zoning is not the best way to redress those issues. “I think we’re premature,” Knapp continued. “I’m not yet convinced that our interim zoning meets the minimum qualifications for adoption.”

Impact on Developers

Once the Council opened up the floor to public comments, developers weighed in. One member of the audience warned that checking development would drive builders elsewhere. “If there’s development that you want in the future,” he said, “you’re not going to get it.” He went on to say that he’s already lost a significant sale due to uncertainty over interim zoning, and if the trend continues he’ll be forced to lay off over half of his eight employees. Another builder expressed a similar potential for lay-offs.

Pat O’Brien, a long-time South Burlington developer, encouraged councilors to look beyond those dense developments around the city that may have spurred them to support interim zoning. Transfer development rights preserve open space, he said, and members of the Council need to look at those preserved spaces as well as developments when considering the impacts.

Joe Sinagra, who represents developers around the state as executive officer of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association, told The Other Paper that his members tell him interim zoning would be “a major blow.”

“Our industry is the last one to come out of the recession,” he said. “People are just getting back to work. That’s why this proposal could be so much more damning for the industry.”

Legal Challenges

Taking his turn to voice an opinion on interim zoning, Quarry Hill representative and land-use attorney Liam Murphy didn’t mince words. “I think it’s illegal and inappropriate,” he told the Council, citing a host of issues with the process by which the revised resolution was made public as well as with the language of the resolution itself.

“They have made effective two different proposals, neither of which has ever been voted on. I just think that’s not the proper procedure,” he told The Other Paper.

“The ordinance as drafted is very badly drafted,” he continued. The definition of “residential neighborhood” is so broad, said Murphy, that a councilor could go nearly anywhere in South Burlington and “say there’s a problem here, because of the way they’ve defined neighborhood.”

Murphy also said that he represents clients who recently sought development permits in South Burlington and were turned down because of interim zoning bylaws. “I have a number of clients who will go to court, challenging the adoption and application of the zoning ordinance if the City Council does pass it,” he said.

Dooley remained unperturbed by the threat of legal challenges. “We will be taking into consideration any information that articulates a basis for a legal challenge with the city attorney,” she said.

Concluding the meeting, the Council stated a need for further information on the financial impact of the proposed interim zoning, the process of buffering, and historic large developments around the city.

The Council will take public comments at the July 18 hearing. A vote will come sometime after, once the Council has had time to “digest it and reflect on it,” said Dooley.

SOURCE: Eric Blokland, Correspondent

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