Parallel projects showcase Williston’s multiple personalities
July 21, 2011By Adam White Observer staff
Planning and managing development in Williston is a balancing act. Throughout all the applications, reviews and permits, the town seeks to simultaneously promote growth for the future and protect the tradition and history of the past.
A pair of mixed-use projects being developed simultaneously in distinctly different areas of town illustrates this dual responsibility. Infill Realty Advisors’ project at 8031 Williston Rd. involves the reconfiguration of multiple dwelling units within a historic property in Williston’s village, while Milot Real Estate’s development, The Hamlet, aims to bring much-needed rental opportunities to the thriving Taft Corners growth center.
“Managing development in Williston is both challenging and exciting,” town planner Ken Belliveau said. “The town is trying to protect its heritage, working landscape and countryside, while dealing with some pretty strong growth pressure. You can’t just stop it, or will it to go away — you have to manage it.”
Center of attention
“There is no rental property in Williston,” said Brett Grabowski.
The owner and driving force behind The Hamlet, Grabowski has already struck gold with the numerous dwelling and business units within the development off Zephyr Lane. His project cleared another hurdle earlier this month, when it gained Development Review Board approval to consolidate several proposed individual dwelling units into a three-story, mixed-use building located near the southwest corner of the property.
The reconfiguration would accomplish several logistical goals, including the creation of additional rental units within the development. According to the Vermont Housing Authority, the rental vacancy rate in Chittenden County currently stands at two percent — and developers recognize this as a golden opportunity.
“(Grabowksi) is looking at that two-percent vacancy rate and saying, ‘here is the demand — let’s go build the supply,’” Belliveau said.
The newly reconfigured building at The Hamlet will reportedly contain a dozen rental apartments, and a pair of approved developments on either side of U.S. 2 in Williston — Finney Crossing and Cottonwood — could conceivably add hundreds more.
“The first building proposed for Finney Crossing is a 40-unit, multi-story building,” Belliveau said. “It’s highly unlikely those will be anything but rentals.”
But the creation of a multi-story apartment building would only be allowed in the town’s growth center, a restriction decried by proponents of similar projects elsewhere as overly prohibitive. Belliveau maintains that the creation of rental properties is in no way prohibited in other parts of town — it just has to fit within a more rigid zoning framework.
“There are apartments in the village,” Belliveau said. “There are duplexes in places like Maple Street, and our bylaws allow anybody with a single-family housing unit to incorporate an accessory apartment — some people call it a mother-in-law or au pair apartment — into the unit. And in the village, you can build to a maximum size greater than other districts. If you have a big garage or barn with a loft, you can turn that into an apartment.”
But size is relative, and nowhere do the buildings come bigger than in Taft Corners. The Hamlet’s three-story building at the center of the DRB’s reconfiguration approval sports a footprint of 4,500 square feet, according to Grabowski. The overall plan for The Hamlet boasts more than 80 units of commercial and residential space among its 60 buildings, which include 47 single-family homes and five duplexes.
The development lies within easy walking distance of many of Williston’s prime shopping, restaurant and entertainment attractions, which Belliveau said is one of the keys to the town’s vision for the growth center. He said studies have shown that most people will typically walk up to a quarter-mile for amenities, and will use automobiles to reach anything beyond that radius.
“What Taft Corners is all about is the future of Williston, what’s to come,” Belliveau said.
It takes a village
Bill Niquette’s company, Infill Realty Advisors, specializes in adaptive reuse projects that breathe new life into existing properties. He first became involved in the project at 8031 Williston Rd. — at the corner of Lambert Lane, near the heart of the town’s village — approximately 18 months ago.
He has since made the decision to make the town home for himself and his family, and has gained some deeper perspective on its philosophies about zoning, growth management and development.
“It’s a very unique situation, but I think it works pretty well,” Niquette said. “It is certainly not the norm to see a town’s most developed part targeted for its lowest density. But it makes sense to me to designate an alternative area for high growth.”
Niquette’s introduction to that trend came when his proposal to move their existing dwelling units out of a historic home on Williston Rd., and recreate them as separate units on the same property while converting the house into commercial space.
Belliveau said that current zoning bylaw allows two dwelling units per acre, and that the 1.1-acre lot in question was in legal non-conformity as configured. But the planning department determined that Infill’s plan constituted an intensification of use, and thus the developers were required to reduce the number of new, individual housing units on the property from three to two.
“What we have now is quite different from what we had originally, but it’s still a good plan,” Niquette said. “I think that’s a sign that the process works. By nature, these types of developments tend to evolve into an ongoing conversation — and I think it’s possible for reasonable people to disagree about what’s appropriate for a site, and work through it.”
But whereas a project in the growth center typically impacts other abutting businesses or developments, Infill’s endeavor encountered some fierce resistance from neighboring property owners on Lambert Lane during a public meeting early in the process.
“I have never heard anything like the kinds of things being expressed at that meeting,” Belliveau said. “Some of them were just outrageous. At one point, someone was complaining that the residents of the new dwelling units ‘might have family gatherings there.’ I’d never heard that expressed as a zoning nightmare before.”
Access issues were also hammered out between the developers and the town; the original plan called for a dead-end cottage cluster accessed directly from Williston Rd., but Belliveau and company suggested moving the entrance to Lambert Lane.
Other residents of Lambert Lane objected, but a bit of research revealed it to be a private road that was in no way deeded to those residents — so Niquette bought it.
Infill will go before the DRB on July 26 to seek its discretionary permit for the project. The project, as currently configured, would produce approximately 3,000 square feet of office space within the existing house — which Belliveau said illustrates the allure of developing within the village, despite its limitations.
“The village gives, and the village takes away,” Belliveau said. “You’re subject to design review that you wouldn’t be (in) other districts, and you have material requirements such as no vinyl siding and true divided-light, wood windows. But you also have a wider array of non-residential uses allowed. It cuts both ways.
He added: “The (regulations) are there to protect essential characteristics of the village that came about over time, and are important to preserve. The village is about the history of the town — its roots.”