Board stymied on zoning rules (5/7/09)

Another public hearing to be scheduled

May 7, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Amid continuing concerns about affordable housing, the Selectboard on Monday again delayed action on Williston’s new zoning rules.

The Selectboard on Monday revisited the proposed 320-page unified development bylaw, talking about how the rules would affect housing costs and trying to reconcile differences with the Planning Commission.

But at the end of about an hour-long discussion, the board opted to schedule yet another public hearing rather than vote. Under state statute, a hearing is required whenever the originally proposed zoning is substantially altered.

Much of the discussion revolved around one provision that put the Planning Commission at odds with the Selectboard. The rule omits wetland buffers and steep slopes when calculating how many units of housing are allowed on a given parcel.

That provision prompted complaints from developers and concerns from the Selectboard that it would reduce Williston’s already small supply of affordable housing by limiting the amount of units on some parcels.

The Selectboard had asked the Planning Commission to reconsider the rule. But Chairman David Yandell said after three meetings the commission concluded the provision was necessary to balance housing needs and environmental protection.

The buffer rule should be viewed in the context of other zoning revisions, Yandell said. The bylaw also increases housing density in some districts, creating additional opportunities for affordable housing.

“I guess our conclusion is we have moved significantly toward affordability, especially when you factor in all the other sites in town that have higher density,” he said.

Planning Director Ken Belliveau said wetland areas and buffers comprise just 2.6 percent of Williston’s land area. He emphasized the number is approximate and based on an existing map, which may omit some wetlands. The figure also does not include floodplains and slopes, two other areas where development is forbidden.

But some Selectboard members were still worried that the new rules would limit construction of lower-priced homes.

Chris Roy questioned the wetland figure. He wondered how many wetlands the map omitted and noted it failed to show municipal land behind Town Hall that has such areas.

Belliveau acknowledged the only way to identify all wetlands is to physically inspect each parcel in town.

“An experienced scientist has to go out and walk the land,” he said.

Roy also wondered if the new rules would produce only two kinds of housing: Large, expensive homes like those in some of Williston’s larger subdivisions; and multi-unit buildings around Taft Corners.

“Are we eliminating that whole middle band of housing?” he asked.

The Planning Commission was also concerned that more modest homes would be “sequestered” in certain parts of town, Yandell said. But he said having rules that steer affordable housing toward Taft Corners was in some ways desirable, putting new residents near public transportation, stores and services.

Work on the bylaws began more than three years ago with former Town Planner Lee Nellis and continued with Belliveau and the Planning Commission.

The new code makes numerous changes large and small to zoning and development rules.

Perhaps most significantly, the bylaw increases allowable density in the residential zoning district north of U.S. 2 from two to three units per acre. It also allows developers to build 10 units per acre in the designated growth center around Taft Corners, and up to 15 units when affordable housing is included.

Those numbers, however, are subject to the altered rules governing wetlands and slopes, which are no longer included in the density calculation. Belliveau said in an interview that as a practical matter the change would most likely affect projects proposed near Allen Brook in the residential zoning district.

Another public hearing was triggered not only by potential changes to the wetland rules but by another alteration that would require open space to be marked.

Selectboard members and a firm that works with developers had complained that new rule would require burdensome and unnecessary surveys. The Planning Commission revised the provision to allow those markings to be determined during the development review process.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said the public hearing will likely be held early next month.