Growth center group recommends Williston

Town could be first in state to win status

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Efforts to tame sprawl around Taft Corners received a boost last week as a state committee recommended growth center status for the commercial hub.

The Planning Coordination Group, or PCG, unanimously voted to approve Williston’s application for the designation. The Expanded Downtown Board, which has the final say, is scheduled to consider the application later this month.

If approved, the Taft Corners area would become Vermont’s first officially designated growth center. Established under legislation passed in 2006, the growth center program aims to reduce sprawl by concentrating growth in specific areas.

Winning approval would help shape Williston’s future growth. The town’s Comprehensive Plan calls for dense development connected by grid streets around Taft Corners.

The idea is to remake the district into a pedestrian-friendly downtown, with a mixture of housing and commercial buildings. It is now mainly a car-centric haven for big-box stores.

That transformation, however, depends in part on expensive transportation improvements, specifically new grid streets and sidewalks that would cost millions of dollars.

Growth center status makes towns eligible for tax increment financing. A mechanism to fund infrastructure improvements, it allows towns to borrow money against anticipated property tax revenue increases generated by new development.

The program also eases rules for new development. Developers who build projects in the growth center pay smaller fees to offset the use of agricultural land. Williston has already won interim approval to use that tool to guide development.

The Planning Coordination Group’s vote to recommend approval of Williston’s growth center came after a lengthy meeting on Sept. 26.

Town Planner Lee Nellis said Williston got the committee’s recommendation largely because it worked hard to allay concerns expressed by interest groups involved in the process.

“In the end, we got both the smart growth people and the business groups to support us,” Nellis said. “The fact that the town was willing to be cooperative was key.”

The PCG imposed several conditions as part of the recommended approval. They require Williston to become a member of the Chittenden County Transportation Authority, ensure town bylaws support smart growth, add sewer capacity and support other infrastructure improvements.

Downsizing the design

The town also altered the growth center’s boundaries. As originally proposed, it would have encompassed about 1,400 acres, running from the eastern end of the Williston Village west to an area about halfway between Harvest Lane and South Brownell Road.

That area was later cut roughly in half. The growth center now extends just past the South Ridge subdivision to the east and excludes Wal-Mart, The Home Depot and two nearby parcels to the west. The other boundaries run north to Allen Brook and south to Interstate 89.

Nellis said the originally boundaries were designed to comply with a requirement that village centers be adjacent to growth centers. But he thinks the downsized district will pass muster if program rules are interpreted to allow Williston’s configuration, which features a historic village and a commercial center separated by a largely undeveloped area.

Brian Shupe, program director for Burlington-based Smart Growth Vermont, said his organization thought the growth center as originally proposed was simply too large. He said such a huge area would encourage the same sort of scattered development that the program was intended to prevent.

Shupe, whose organization recently changed its name from the Vermont Forum on Sprawl, acknowledged that Williston’s reputation as the poster child for ill-considered development makes it an unusual candidate for the program.

“The irony was not lost on us,” said Shupe. “That is what made this particularly challenging. The town in the past made land-use decisions that for better or worse led to sprawl.”

But Shupe said he was pleased that the town listened to the concerns of his group and other organizations. He said Williston deserved credit for “reaching out to the different interest groups and building consensus.”

Though Williston has in the past been known as the town that allowed development to run amuck, its more recent land-use policies and efforts to meet growth center rules helped it win approval, said Joss Besse, coordinator of the Vermont Downtown Program.

“I think the legislation recognized that Vermont will continue to grow, so the question really is where and how, not whether we will grow,” Besse said in an e-mail. “While some may wish we could go back in time and change past decisions, really all we can do is start from where we are and move forward. I think the PCG felt the town had made a strong effort to do the kind of planning expected in the statute, which led to the unanimous decision to recommend approval.”

The Expanded Downtown Board is scheduled to meet on Monday, Oct. 22 in Montpelier to consider the PCG’s recommendation and possibly vote on Williston’s application.