It was a marathon City Council session Monday night that was continued until the next meeting on a familiar and divisive topic: Interim Zoning.
The over five-hour meeting tackled the ongoing topic of development in the city, particularly in the Southeast Quadrant, and public concern over the loss of green space. Roughly 70 people attended the meeting, which began at 6:30 p.m. and went to midnight. The highlights were a joint session with the city planning commission, and a presentation from a concerned citizens group over a perceived disconnect between the current land use regulations and the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Discussion followed regarding possible action on a resolution to request a public hearing on potential draft Interim Zoning bylaws. But in the end, the council decided to continue the discussion to the regular Oct. 15 meeting in order the glean more answers and understanding of the two presentations given Monday night regarding development.
“This came about when members of the public asked questions of the council about growth and development in the city, and we didn’t have the answers,” said Council Chair Helen Riehle. “Our hope is to continue the conversation about where we are with growth and development and the facts.”
The subject of Interim Zoning bylaws lurks in South Burlington’s recent past. In 2012, Interim Zoning was approved and in effect for two years. It is a bylaw in which city development is put on hold for up to two years in order to allow an assessment of current zoning regulations and the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
The issue divided the city. Opponents saw it as anti-business, supporters welcomed the freeze, but in the end, new pro-development council leadership moved on and the pace of building in the city continued according to current regulations.
If Interim Zoning was approved by the council, it would not affect current plans for development that have already come before the Planning Commission and received plat approval, such as the 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. This is the heart of the city’s Southeast Quadrant, which features open fields, views of the Green Mountains, and agricultural land.
It was the location and size of the Dorset Meadows project, unveiled at a July 26 Development Review Board meeting, that alarmed residents and underlined for many the disconnect between the city’s Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Regulations. The Dorset Meadows project is in compliance with both, thanks to the existence of Transfer Development Rights.
The original purpose in establishing the Southeast Quadrant was to encourage open space preservation, scenic views and natural resource protection, wildlife habitat preservation, continued agriculture, and well-planned residential use. To enforce these goals, the SEQ is eligible for Transfer Development Rights. A developer purchases the development rights of another parcel and transfers it to a parcel that is planned for denser development, thus leaving the former parcel open in perpetuity. The base density in the SEQ is 1.2 units per acre. The total allowable density in the Neighborhood Residential zoning area is four units per acre and up to eight units per acre on developable land in the Village Residential sub-district.
Comprehensive Plan Overview
For the joint meeting portion of Monday night’s meeting, the Planning Commission presented a thorough and in-depth look at the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Commission Chair Jessica Louisos and Planning and Zoning Director Paul Conner tag-teamed on the presentation, the result of many hours of work by Conner and the commission. There were maps on future land use, where housing units have been developed in low versus medium-density areas, graphs showing the percentage of affordable housing units and where they are located, the percentage of open space versus the percentage of developable land city-wide, as well as maps showing proposed developments.
“We’re looking at buildable area and specific criteria of what it would look like regarding open space, building types, street types, land allocation, and densities to get into land development regulations as new subdivision regulations,” Louisos explained. “But we’re giving flexibility without requiring creativity, without the benefits to the city.”
The presentation covered the Southeast Quadrant as well, showing approximately 50 percent development and 50 percent natural resource protection with three wildlife corridors running north-south.
Conner estimated there are roughly 20 landowners who own all of the potentially developable land remaining in the in the SEQ area. Councilor Tom Chittenden asked what was the total amount of developable acreage in the SEQ, and Conner said he could get that information. Chittenden added that he would like to see the city positioned to possibly acquire the developable parcels in the SEQ in the future.
One area of concern has been the impact of ongoing development on municipal services such as police and fire protection, education costs, and water and sewer service. Conner explained that these areas of city services each look at impacts differently.
“The police and fire departments are about people and development,” he said. “ Public Works is about efficiency, plowing one road with more residents,” adding that conversations have begun with all city departments regarding development impacts.
Earlier in the meeting, the council approved a Municipal Planning Grant application that will allow Conner and the Planning Commission to create a user-friendly, illustrated guide to the Comprehensive Plan for residents.
“So, it’s not just text describing what a good neighborhood is,” Conner said, “but it’s pictures, too.”
Louisos said she expects the guide to be ready by March or April 2019.
“With something this big, we want to make sure it’s right,” she said.
Alyson Chalnick and Eleanor Miller then presented a slideshow outlining the concerns of a group of residents who have been meeting regularly.
“This is the work of a group of people regarding our concerns with the preservation of open space in our community,” Miller told the council. “We feel we are on a path to unsustainability with too much growth and too much development.”
Miller said the group disputes the population growth projections used by the planning commission, which they said are flawed because they are based on estimates since the U.S. census is done every 10 years and isn’t going to be done again until 2020. The planning commission estimates that the population in South Burlington increased by .75 percent between 2010-2016, well within the Comprehensive Plan objective of 1-1.5 percent.
“We argue that the city’s population already exceeds the target population,” Miller said.
The presentation cited the Comprehensive Plan’s expectation that the city population will be 18,310 by the year 2025, but had a census number for 2017 that put the city’s population at 19,141.
The group also noted the concerns of city officials over the last few years regarding how continuing development will affect services and funding. They included remarks from former Fire Chief Doug Brent made in April 2018, saying the budget is not sustainable, that budget cuts concerned him, that an equipment replacement plan was scrapped, and other issues.
There were also concerns across public works, recreation and parks, and other departments.
Then there were the conservation issues.
“We want to make sure you understand that we’re talking about more than just money,” Miller said. “We think these changes are not sustainable environmentally, either.”
She cited concerns over the wildlife corridors, the ag soils, the scenic views, and biodiversity.
“We’re concerned about many things,” Miller said, “but mostly the beauty, sustainability and health of our neighborhoods. They’re there, they’re beautiful, and we want them to remain there for our children.”
In closing, Miller said the group was not proposing anything new, but rather urged the council to look at the Comprehensive Plan and implement it in a more effective way.
“We’re asking you to do something so there is a better connection between our vision and what we actually do,” Miller said, which was greeted with applause from the audience.
Council Chair Riehle then moved on to the discussion of a possible Interim Zoning bylaw and opened the meeting up for public comment. One by one, they came. Most urged the council to draft Interim Zoning, comparing the current development situation to being on the edge of a cliff. However, a few people said they felt Interim Zoning would be a huge mistake.
Local developer Evan Langfeldt of O’Brien Brothers Agency urged the council not to enact Interim Zoning.
“I think a number of people in this room went through the previous interim zoning process and don’t take it lightly,” he said. “It was a divisive and polarizing time in the city and no one wants to go through that again.”
Resident John Simpson agreed.
“If you are considering Interim Zoning, please don’t,” he said. “But if you do it, please don’t do it for the whole city. If you want to do it for the Southeast Quadrant, we could probably survive that. But, be cautious.”
Councilor Meagan Emery then introduced the proposed resolution. After extensive discussion, the council decided not to act, but to continue the discussion to the next regular meeting on Oct. 15 and have some of the council’s questions answered for that meeting. For his part, Conner boiled down the issue to one question.
“Ultimately, the question for the long term is, what does success in the Southeast Quadrant look like?” he asked, “taking into account the discussion tonight.”
SOURCE: Lee Kahrs, The Other Paper