Zoning changes attract crowd3/12/09

Board tables bylaw approval until later date

March 12, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

After nearly two hours of public testimony, the Selectboard on Monday delayed approval of new land-use rules that critics warned would stymie affordable housing.

The public hearing on Williston’s new Unified Development Bylaw drew an outspoken crowd of about 20 people. They appeared evenly divided between those who wanted the Selectboard to adopt the bylaw as written and those who disliked parts of the 320-page document.

Dana Hood, who owns land he wants to develop off Lefebvre Lane in Williston Village, said the new rules would prevent construction of lower-priced homes.

“I find it a little odd that there’s no chapter in the new bylaws for affordable housing,” he said. “There’s a chapter for lighting, there’s a chapter for signs, but there’s no chapter for affordable housing. It’s piecemeal throughout the document.”

But Maureen Caruso, one of a group of neighboring homeowners who oppose Hood’s development, said it was time to approve the bylaw.

“All the things we’re talking about we’ve gone through for 16 to 18 months,” she said. “I don’t really want to procrastinate any more.”

The sweeping rewrite of land-use rules began more than three years ago with former Town Planner Lee Nellis and has continued with current planning staff, led by Ken Belliveau, and shaped during countless Planning Commission meetings.

Some of the revised code has already been adopted on an interim basis and would be finalized with approval by the Selectboard of the bylaw as a whole.

The new rules regulate everything from housing density to outdoor lighting. They outline the permitting process, establish penalties for zoning violations and even specify standards for bicycle parking.

“The bylaw that you have in front of you represents the work of a lot of people in this community,” Belliveau told the board, noting the “collective brainpower” invested in the task.

He acknowledged the controversy created by one provision that alters how wetland buffers and slopes are treated when considering density. The new rules eliminate such areas when calculating the number of units permitted in a development.

Those changes, aimed at protecting the environment, particularly Allen Brook, would affect the proposed housing project at North Williston Road and Lefebvre Lane. Jeff Atwood, who is working with Hood on the project, complained that the new rules would effectively eliminate the planned affordable housing.

“I strongly oppose the Selectboard adopting the new rules,” Atwood said.

He quoted passages from Williston’s Comprehensive Plan that call on the town to encourage diverse housing affordable for people of all income levels.

Though much of the discussion revolved around wetlands and how they would affect affordable housing, perhaps the biggest change steers new construction toward already developed areas and away from the town’s rural districts.

Allowable density in the residential zone north of U.S. 2 increases from two to three units per acre under the new rules. And in the growth center around Taft Corners, the density is 10 units per acre.

A unique provision increases allowable density in the growth center to 15 units if a developer purchases development rights from a landowner in the rural district.

By increasing density in already developed parts of town, Belliveau said the bylaw encourages compact, affordable housing. And he noted the regulations permit even greater density in the residential zone — five units per acre — when a developer includes affordable housing.

After closing the hearing, board members discussed bylaw provisions and mulled adopting the new land-use rules.

Jeff Fehrs asked Belliveau to explain how the density changes would impact existing subdivisions and the town as a whole.

Judy Sassorossi suggested the town should permit 15 units an acre in the growth center in all cases. She worried that requiring the purchase of development rights to reach that density could drive up housing costs.

“I’m really concerned that it won’t have a positive effect on the (agricultural)-rural district, and will have a negative effect on affordable housing in the growth center,” she said.

An initial motion by Chris Roy to adopt the bylaw with changes failed for lack of a second. Then Sassorossi, saying she’d “like to digest what I’ve heard tonight,” moved to delay a decision. The motion was seconded and unanimously approved by the board.

The board will likely revisit the bylaw at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Monday, March 23.