Planners hope to overhaul land-use regulations in Williston’s ‘growth center’
By Jason Starr
Taft Corners may be ready to evolve past the “big box” store era.
It’s been roughly two decades since a large national retailer — the Wal-Marts and Home Depots of the world — built a store in Williston, and town planners are preparing for the likelihood that there won’t be any more.
To that end, they have hired a consultant to embark on a yearlong project to overhaul Taft Corners zoning, engaging the public in a visioning session this spring, launching a website at www.mytaftcorners.com and introducing the social media hashtag #mytaftcorners for people to share what they like and don’t like about the area, and what they hope for its future.
“The damage has been done a little bit with existing box stores, and we have the opportunity with this plan to figure out what our version of a modern urbanist architectural style will look like and sculpt our own future in that way,” Emily Morton, a member of the town’s Historic and Architectural Advisory Committee, said at a December meeting.
Town planners intend to incorporate citizen input about how the area should develop and expertise from its Washington D.C.-based consultant into new building standards that prescribe how new structures can look — a so-called “form-based code.” That differs from existing land-use regulations that mandate what types of uses are allowed in particular zoning districts.
Taft Corners is a state designated “Growth Center,” a 1,000-acre area around the intersection of routes 2 and 2A and the Exit 12 interchange of Interstate 89. Williston’s zoning regulations have directed the majority of the town’s land development there. Building design standards in the existing regulations “are not entirely unified with one another, nor do they follow an overarching plan,” Planning Director Matt Boulanger wrote in a memo about the project to the selectboard. They are also vague, for example: “Use a variety of colors and materials, but with restraint.”
The efficiencies afforded by the state growth center designation has helped spur significant new development. The Finney Crossing neighborhood has added hundreds of new condos and apartments, a hotel and grocery store; a similar mixed-use neighborhood, Cottonwood Crossing, is under construction nearby.
But these developments have “failed to meet community expectations,” Boulanger wrote in a memo last year.
He elaborated in an interview Tuesday: “Most of what I’ve been hearing is that a lot of the newer buildings in Taft Corners are boxy and somewhat drab, and sometimes they obscure views of the mountains that used to exist from some of our roads.”
Boulanger estimates that about 25 percent of the 1,000-acre area remains undeveloped. The undeveloped land is primarily owned by companies that have already built in the area, such as Cottonwood Crossing’s Allen Brook Development and JL Davis Realty, which partly owns the REI plaza. The towns’ form-based code consultant, Geoffrey Ferrell Associates, plans to interview the private landowners before writing the code.“How they see the world in terms of what might be coming to Williston in the future … will be part of the process,” Boulanger said.
Part of the undeveloped land is behind Hannaford, where town planners envision a grid-style layout of new streets. A form-based code will result in “diverse, interesting, walkable streetscapes” in that area, Boulanger said.
Putting form-based code in place now will also prepare the town for the possible redevelopment of the big box stores.
“Retail is changing so much and so fast right now,” said Boulanger. “Those stores have been there for some time and they are probably not representative of what’s coming … This code should anticipate and understand what the adaptive reuse of a big box store might be like.”