Invisible housing planned in North Williston

Settlers Village would contain 49 units in sandpit

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Two brothers have filed plans to build an “invisible” subdivision at a sandpit they own on North Williston Road.

Settlers Village would include 27 single-family homes and 11 duplexes. It would be located between the Williston Woods senior housing subdivision and the railroad tracks on North Williston Road. Mike and Dan Fontaine own the sandpit and an adjacent farm next to the Winooski River.

Williston officials in recent years have become concerned about piecemeal development in areas like North Williston, which are in the agricultural-rural zoning district and are not served by public sewer. But Town Planner Lee Nellis said the project’s unique, well-hidden site may help it win approval.

“There’s a piece in the Comprehensive Plan that deals with ‘exceptional’ rural development,” he said. “Projects in the agricultural-rural zoning district that are invisible and on good soils get special consideration.”

The project, of course, will not actually be invisible. But Nellis explained the sandpit’s topography would hide the development from the road and existing residences.

“It’s in a bowl, literally, a bowlful of sand,” he said.

The sandy soil is ideal for creating a septic system, Nellis said. And the nearby farmland would help the project satisfy the town’s open-space requirement for new subdivisions.

Mike Fontaine emphasized that the plan is preliminary and subject to change based on the town’s input. But he said he hoped the project would offer affordable homes for young families who are now priced out of the market.

“That’s really what we’re shooting for is to build a community where young people can live,” he said. “There’s no more kids left in this neighborhood. I can’t even get enough together for a baseball team.”

Kerstin Foley, Mike Fontaine’s wife, said the development would allow the land to be used after the sand runs out and provide retirement money for her family.

“All our assets are wrapped up in the land,” she said, adding that the money will also provide a hedge against an uncertain future for family farms.

Plans call for the project to be built in two phases. The first will comprise 13 units arranged on a cul-de-sac on a used-up portion of the sandpit. The second will include 36 units in the part of the sandpit now in use. The later phase will be built when the sand supply is exhausted, which Fontaine figures will take five or six years.

The subdivision would be accessed via a private road that runs directly off North Williston Road.

Zoning rules require 75 percent of a development in the agricultural-rural zoning district to remain open space. According to the plans, only 60 acres of the total 283 acres will be developed.

Foley said much of the open space is agricultural land near the river, which her family intends to continue farming. Nellis noted that much of that is considered wetland, which could not be developed in any case.

The project will have to be built over several years under the town’s phasing rules. Williston limits new home construction to 80 units annually, and only 12 homes each year may be constructed in the agricultural-rural district.

Some of the homes under that quota have already been permitted. But Nellis said the “pipeline is less full” after the next two or three years, meaning Settlers Village could squeeze in under the cap if it is built out slowly enough.

The unusual land – sandy soil for a community septic system, abundant open space and a hidden location – make it a good prospect for development, Nellis said.

“Of all the parcels of land within the rural part of town, this might be the best for development,” he said.