Density debate delays bylaw approval (3/26/09)

Selectboard wants revisions to proposal

March 26, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

A debate about housing density stalled approval of new development rules on Monday as the Williston Selectboard sent the regulations back for revisions.

The board voted unanimously to ask the Planning Commission to change portions of the proposed, 320-page Unified Development Bylaw.

The provisions in question would increase allowable housing density in certain zoning districts but restrict development in some cases by omitting the required buffer around wetlands when calculating how many units may be built on a given parcel.

Selectboard member Chris Roy expressed the strongest doubts about the revised density rules. He said the changes could have the unintended consequence of steering too much development into certain areas of town as developers avoid building near streams and wetlands.

Judy Sassorossi also had reservations. She said rules intended to protect the environment could instead produce more scattered development.

“We are in the middle of a densely developed area,” she said. “If enough housing isn’t available in the core of Chittenden County, are we just creating a situation where we’re pushing people out into outlying areas like Franklin and Washington counties? Are we just making people drive from further out?”

Sassorossi also raised a number of smaller concerns with the bylaws. She even suggested the town should revise one section that forbids livestock in residential areas, suggesting that up to six hens should be permitted so homeowners can have fresh eggs. That idea drew chuckles and grins from fellow board members.

The board also directed the Planning Commission to reconsider another provision that requires a property owner to physically mark land zoned as open space. Sassorossi said the rule would be impractical and expensive.

But most of the debate revolved around the new density rules.

The bylaw increases the allowable density from two to three units per acre in the residential zoning district north of U.S. 2, which includes Williston’s largest subdivisions such as South Ridge and Brennan Woods. A developer building in the town’s designated growth center around Taft Corners could construct 10 units per acre, and up to 15 units when affordable housing is part of the project.

But another provision excludes required buffers around streams and slopes from the density calculation. So a developer working with a 10-acre parcel may for example only get credit for half that much land when determining how many units are allowed.

Waterbury developer Jeff Atwood urged the board to eliminate that provision. He said the change would greatly reduce the number of units permitted in his proposed subdivision on North Williston Road and rule out construction of affordable housing in that project — as well as many other places in town.

“I’m a firm believer that if it is allowed we won’t achieve any affordable housing in this district,” he said.

Board members seemed to be swayed by the argument, although Ted Kenney said any alterations to the proposed bylaws should be made for the good of the entire town, not to benefit a particular developer.

Ken Belliveau, Williston’s planning director, said the existing zoning rules could result in too many units being clustered on land that contains streams and wetlands and so negatively impact the environment. He noted the new restrictions are offset in part by the fact that Williston, unlike other towns, includes land used for access roads in the density calculation.

Still, he acknowledged the new rules “push the envelope” on wetland protection and are more restrictive than other places he has worked.

Work on the new bylaw, which in its current form was assembled piecemeal over decades, began more than three years ago with former Town Planner Lee Nellis. Belliveau took over the job when he was hired last year. The Planning Commission and the Conservation Commission have shaped the rules during numerous meetings.

The Planning Commission will now reconsider the bylaw. That could happen as soon as its next scheduled meeting on April 7, Belliveau said in an interview.

But he also noted commissioners felt strongly about the density rules and may refuse to make changes. If so, the Selectboard could simply overrule the commission, altering provisions it objects to before approving the new rules.