Zoning changes proposed to encourage infrastructure improvements
By Greg Elias
Williston has a problem: too many commuters, too little money for road improvements.
Just 26 percent of Williston residents who work do so in town, according to the 2000 Census. Meanwhile, using state Department of Labor figures, Town Planner Lee Nellis estimates that roughly 9,000 non-residents drive to work in Williston. And that number does not include shoppers traveling to Williston’s many retailers, or motorists passing through on the way to somewhere else.
A draft of the town’s new Comprehensive Plan includes a provocative idea about how to address the issue: change zoning to encourage developers to pay for infrastructure improvements like a network of grid streets around Taft Corners that would reduce traffic along the town’s clogged thoroughfares.
“Williston’s vision of a pedestrian-friendly, design-conscious, mixed-use commercial center cannot be realized if a higher intensity of use is not allowed,” the plan states. “But allowing more intense use can be tied to community benefits.”
The proposal has already drawn opposition from Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons.
She said in an interview Monday that she dislikes anything that could clear the way for more big-box stores.
“I don’t really want to open up old wounds about big boxes,” she said. “I think we’ve been through that and it’s not productive for the community.”
The provision is just one aspect of the proposed Comprehensive Plan, which will be considered during a public hearing later this month. The plan, last updated in 2000, will cover a five-year period running until 2010. In addition to transportation, the plan addresses land use, housing, education, energy and other topics.
But transportation is perhaps the one area where the town needs the most help if it is to realize the vision of community with smooth-flowing thoroughfares that also offer alternatives to driving. Nowhere does the town need more help than with the network of grid streets that the plan envisions connecting thoroughfares like Route 2 and 2A and Marshall Avenue.
Though the old Comprehensive Plan called for grid streets, the new plan for the first time specifies where they should be built. They include a loop road from Zephyr Road off Route 2A to Route 2 across from Maple Tree Place; a street from Route 2 just west of Talcott Road to Sycamore Street; a street from Harvest Lane near Home Depot to Route 2A south of Marshall Avenue; a street linking Marshall Avenue to Wright Avenue near Northfield Saving Bank; and a street connecting Commerce Street and Wellness Drive.
The projects would cost millions of dollars, and the town does not have the financial resources to build them without a major property tax increase or help from developers. Yet they are a key part of the new plan, said Nellis.
“You can’t have the type of development the town wants without the grid streets,” he said. “The grid streets are one of the most important things in the entire plan.”
Changes frozen out?
The town has some clout – and the developers’ self interest – to facilitate funding for the roads, Nellis said. The town can require developers to build some of the roads as a condition of approval for new projects. And without the roads, Nellis said, there won’t be access to some of the projects now being considered.
But for existing developments like Taft Corners Park, home of Wal-Mart and Home Depot, the proposed plan takes another approach.
The plan calls for consolidating zoning districts and relaxing zoning rules for developers who make infrastructure improvements. It states that the numerous zoning districts have not resulted in the dense, infill development envisioned by the previous plan. Instead, the existing zoning has “frozen the ‘big box’ pattern of development in place.”
That statement appears to be a reference to Taft Corners Park, where developer Jeff Davis fought with the town for years to build stores in the project. The town finally struck an agreement with Davis in 2000 that allowed construction of 4 Seasons Garden Center and one more big-box store. The remaining development was supposed to be smaller-scale buildings containing a mix of uses.
4 Seasons was built, but the site where the box store is permitted has remained vacant, as has the remaining open land in the development.
Davis did not return phone messages seeking comment for this story.
Nellis said the agreement hasn’t produced the result the town wanted.
“What they came up with is an agreement that is simply never going to be implemented, except for he can build that one more big box,” Nellis said. (The Selectboard) wants there to be smaller shops, they want there to be different kinds of shops, they want there to be a greater variety of things. That can’t happen with the zoning restrictions they imposed.”
The right incentives
Nellis said the town can offer incentives without adding to the much-criticized box stores that dominate Williston’s retail landscape. Any changes in zoning that benefit developers will come with strings attached.
“So it will never be that we just change the zoning and open it up carte blanche,” he said. “It will always be they can take advantage of some trade-offs and incentives if they choose to do so.”
Lyons said she has no interest in changing the agreement with Davis. She said the town is only about halfway through the 30-year period she believes it will take to build out the Taft Corners area, and she wants to give the existing rules a chance to work.
Lyons favors a different approach to easing traffic congestion: attract better-paying jobs that will allow employees to afford Williston’s relatively pricey homes instead of commuting from far-flung towns.
“We should work with developers to attract higher-paying jobs” Lyons said. “There’s lots of things that can be done with economic development. It’s not just about growth.”
The transportation portion of the plan does not just address road-building. Alternatives to driving such as a park and ride, sidewalks and bike paths, and mass transit are also covered.
The plan calls for construction of a park and ride, more sidewalks and bike paths and additional mass transit. It also urges the town to join the Chittenden County Transit Authority. The town helps fund the existing bus service, but it is not a CCTA member, which would likely require a bigger contribution but would give the town a greater say in routes.
As for sidewalks and bike paths, the new plan maintains the status quo. Voters approved a bond last year that should provide funding for sidewalk and bike path projects over the next five years.
In addition to the grid streets, the plan also calls for several smaller road improvements such as additional traffic lights and turn lanes along existing roads. Unlike road-building projects, the town does have the means to complete much of that work.
The town collects impact fees on new developments, and has $748,298 in the bank earmarked for transportation improvements, according to Finance Director Susan Lamb. That money, perhaps combined with state and federal grants, can fund many of the smaller projects, Nellis said.
“If you’re talking about installing a traffic signal, the impact fees really make a contribution,” he said. “If you’re talking about whole new roads, that’s tough.”
A group effort
The plan represents thousands of hours of work over the past 1-1/2 years by about 40 people, including members of citizen task forces, the Planning Commission and town staff.
Work on the plan started in October 2004 with a kick-off meeting, followed by the formation of the task forces. Individual groups considered three broad topics: housing and growth, land use and natural areas, and transportation and public facilities.
The groups met through March of this year. The Planning Commission then discussed the plan at numerous meetings before unanimously approving the current draft on Nov. 15.
The Selectboard, which has already previewed the document, is required to hold two public hearings on the plan before a final vote on it. The board could make changes to the proposed plan.
The Comprehensive Plan serves as a blueprint for Williston’s future. The state requires municipalities to have a plan if they have zoning. Nellis notes that a law passed last year mandates that plans be consistent with zoning.
“It’s the backstop for all land-use decisions,” he said. “When you’re in the position Williston is in, still trying to catch up after years of rapid growth, you have to have some guide to how you invest your funds and what you do.”