April 21, 2014

Commission grants rare rezoning approval

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By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Planning Commission on Tuesday approved a rezoning request despite misgivings that it would create commercial sprawl in the rural area south of Interstate 89.

The commission unanimously recommended approval of the request by developer Bill Dunn. He wants to construct a building as large as 75,000 square feet on the land for Qimonda, a high-tech company that has outgrown its current facility. The parcel to be rezoned is adjacent to Hillside East, the business park Dunn owns on Hurricane Lane where Qimonda is now located.

Approvals are still needed by two other town boards before the new building can be constructed.

Commission members voiced concerns that the rezoning, the only one in Williston in recent memory, would set a precedent and allow future development along Vermont 2A south of Interstate 89. The area is currently zoned only for residential development.

“The biggest single point is the precedent,” said commission Chairman David Yandell. “It still scares me.”

Neighboring homeowners had strongly opposed the rezoning during previous meetings on the proposal. A handful of them attended Tuesday’s session, but those who spoke seemed resigned that the rezoning would be approved and instead focused on minimizing its impact.

Larry Reed, who lives along Vermont 2A adjacent to the land to be rezoned, urged the commission to ensure exterior lighting didn’t end up looking like “ Bolton Valley with night skiing.” He also asked commissioners to keep a buffer of undeveloped land between existing homes and the proposed building.

Much of Tuesday’s lengthy debate focused on conditions attached to the rezoning, particularly those requiring most of the 55-acre parcel to remain undeveloped and reserving a portion of the land for affordable housing.

Commissioners were divided on the housing requirement. After much debate, they deleted the condition and instead required all but the 12- acre site where the building will be located to remain undeveloped.

They also attached a written statement that said the rezoning was allowed “to accommodate an existing tenant that makes a major contribution to the local economy.” The statement said other property owners who might want to rezone their land should not consider the decision a precedent.

The parcel to be rezoned is in the town’s agriculture-rural zoning district where commercial uses are not permitted. It is also outside the sewer service area, meaning the town would have to extend a sewer line. And the land is in a district that protects ridgeline views.

The Williston Selectboard still has to approve the changes. If it does, the town’s Development Review Board will then have to approve the building itself before anything is constructed.

Qimonda produces memory chips used in consumer products. Its current research and development facility is not large enough to accommodate a planned expansion that could add dozens of high-paying jobs.

The company now employs about 120 people. Qimonda has said it could add as many as 80 workers if a new facility is built.

Neighbors and town officials had suggested the company look at other sites in Williston. But Qimonda said other locations would not provide the quiet, park-like setting needed for research and development of new products.

The commission in November rejected a request to rezone Dunn’s entire 55-acre parcel. He then asked the town to alter its land-use map by placing a 12-acre slice of the land in the commercial zoning district while promising to keep the remaining parcel undeveloped. The change seemed to take the edge off neighbors’ vociferous opposition.

Yandell said he hoped the latest proposal would ease the impact on neighbors and ensure no further commercial development occurs south of Interstate 89.

“I think this is better than what we started with by a long shot,” he said. “We’ve mitigated the impact of this as much as we can. I hope the precedent doesn’t come back to bite us.”

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