December 20, 2014

Selectboard OK

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Board split on changes to existing regulations

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

A divided Selectboard approved interim subdivision regulations Monday night that will significantly alter the town’s growth controls, producing a more even-handed system for developers, town officials said.

Approximately 25 people attended the public hearing on two proposed drafts of the interim subdivision regulations. Audience members who spoke were overwhelmingly supportive of the draft titled “Skipping Ahead.” The Selectboard ultimately passed that draft with some minor clarifications by a vote of 3-2.

The regulations are designed to eliminate some obstacles large and small residential projects currently face when attempting to receive the phasing allocations they need to build. Under the current regulations, mid-sized developments have a substantial advantage in navigating the development review process.

The new regulations will ensure that projects are evaluated on a more equitable basis, according to Town Planner Lee Nellis. Small subdivisions outside of the town’s sewer district will not be overshadowed by mid-sized and large projects in the Taft Corners area, where the town hopes to focus growth. Instead, projects will be evaluated on their own merits and not in comparison to dissimilar proposals.

Meanwhile, larger projects will be able to receive phasing on a more advanced schedule, allowing projects to be built faster and more affordably. Finally, the town will better link phasing and sewer allocations in an effort to eliminate instances where developers receive the phasing to build, but do not get the sewer capacity to support construction.

Most of those attending the session said the proposed regulations would produce a more reasonable approach to the residential phasing process, eliminating some of the inequalities that exist under the current rules. Variations of the word “fair” were repeated frequently.

“’Skipping Ahead’ is much more objective, much fairer for everyone across the board, regardless of the district they’re in,” said Cathy O’Brien, a member of the Development Review Board.

Selectboard members Jeff Fehrs and Andy Mikell cast votes against the proposal, saying the regulations needed further study and more time to be considered. The two emphasized that the regulations would have a major impact on development in town the next 10 years and should be fully explored before being activated.

“Too much too fast with too many uncertainties,” Mikell said, explaining his position.

However, Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons and board member Ted Kenney argued the town had already analyzed the regulations and their ramifications in sufficient depth. (Selectboard member Terry Macaig voted to approve the regulations, but did not speak on the topic.) The Selectboard began reviewing versions of the proposed interim regulations in November, and they have been a frequent agenda topic in the subsequent months.

“We need to bring some closure to this process,” Lyons said. “It’s been dragged out to a point that is really inappropriate.”

In order to make the new regulations work, the Selectboard needed to approve changes in the town’s sewer allocation ordinance that would support the new subdivision rules. The Selectboard approved the proposed sewer allocation ordinance by a vote of 4-1 on Monday night. Mikell opposed the ordinance.

The amendments in the ordinance will not go into effect until late July, at the end of a required 60-day period. That amounts to a delay of a few weeks for the developers, who ordinarily would have a chance to seek sewer allocations starting July 1.

Mikell and Fehrs wanted to consider concerns raised in an e-mail from Development Review Board Chairman Kevin McDermott about the impact of the interim subdivision regulations on affordable housing. They advocated having the Planning Commission review the issues at its next meeting.

However, the other three board members decided the issues McDermott raised were not significant enough to postpone the passage of the new rules.

Similarly, the three board members who approved the regulations decided not to incorporate two proposed changes the Planning Commission made for the “Skipping Ahead” proposal. Because the changes were deemed substantive, the Selectboard would have been legally obligated to hold another public hearing on the proposed regulations. The hearing would likely have been scheduled for sometime in June.

Among those supporting the new rules Monday night were Ken Stone and Tom Vieth, who were representing the Williston Interfaith Affordable Housing Committee. They said the new regulations would help bring more affordable housing to town.

Two applicants currently awaiting a ruling on their phasing request also endorsed the proposal. They represented both the small and large ends of the development spectrum.

Jan DeSarno, who with her husband, Dave, has a three-lot subdivision planned on six acres, said the new regulations would make more sense than the current ones.

“We don’t think it’s fair that a small subdivision should be put in with a 300-lot subdivision,” DeSarno said.

Bob Snyder, president of the Snyder Companies, which is one of the developers involved in the 350-unit mixed-use subdivision for the Pecor horse farm, also spoke in favor of the proposal.

“I think it’s much fairer,” Snyder said. “Regardless of size, it opens up opportunities for everyone.”

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