Planners quash development restriction idea

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The Williston Planning Commission on Sept. 1 cast aside a request from the newly formed Citizens for Responsible Growth to require open space protection of at least 50 percent of a subdivision in the Residential Zoning District.

After fielding roughly 200 responses to a wide-ranging survey about land development in Williston, the planning commission instead chose to initiate a broader look at development patterns across all zoning districts. A “forum on growth” event is planned for this fall, and the planning and zoning department is fielding proposals from contractors to help redraft the zoning rules in the Taft Corners growth center. 

“The planning commission is sympathetic to the value of open space, but it is complicated, and there was stronger input in the survey on some other factors,” planning commission chair Chapin Kaynor said Monday. “So we decided to take a longer-term view. We feel like we have a wealth of information to follow up on without making that specific change.”

He said dissatisfaction with the look and feel of Taft Corners, an interest in the interconnectivity of pedestrian/cycling paths and the potential allowance of commercial enterprises in the residential zone were among the themes that emerged from the survey.

Whether a proposal to redevelop the Catamount Country Club golf course on Mountain View Drive into a 140-home neighborhood — which has earned preliminary approval from the Development Review Board — spurred the idea to protect 50 percent of a subdivision as open space was the subject of debate at the Sept. 1 meeting.

Citizens for Responsible Growth member Terry Marron denied a causal link, pointing instead to a January blog post from Planning Director Matt Boulanger with the sensational headline “500-unit project proposed at Mountain View and Old Stage Road” as the impetus for the formation of the group. The post describes a project that was proposed in the early 1980s but never built. It does, however, mention the Catamount Golf Club redevelopment plan. 

The citizens group began meeting shortly after that, and developed the 50 percent open space proposal in the spring. According to Kaynor, about 10 parcels of 10 or more acres remain undeveloped in the residential zoning district that the restriction would affect. But golf course developer Chris Senesac and landowner Alex Kourebanas said they believe the proposal was aimed at forcing a redesign of their development. 

“I started this project under a given set of rules, and it would seem immensely unfair to force us into changes this far into the project,” Kourebanas wrote in an August letter to the commission.

In a June letter to the commission, Senesac said a 50 percent open space requirement would make it harder to develop affordable homes; the golf course redevelopment shows plans for about 50 price-controlled, perpetually affordable homes.

“Increasing the open space requirement to 50 percent … could possibly be looked upon as a means to discriminate against those of lesser means and backgrounds,” Senesac wrote. “This is in stark contrast to town planning goals.”

Former Williston Planning Director Ken Belliveau submitted comments to the commission in August on behalf of Senesac and Kourebanas. He said town planners and residents have worked over decades to identify high value natural areas desired to be protected. When they are present on a parcel up for subdivision, they limit the developable area. 

“This can be seen in a number of existing developments that have large open space land areas because of the presence of streams, steam buffers and other wetland resources,” Belliveau wrote. 

Meanwhile, planners are pushing ahead with a redo of the zoning regulations that govern the Taft Corners growth center. On Tuesday, the commission considered proposals from contractors interested in helping the town create what is known as “form-based code” for the district. Taft Corners is known for its large retail chain stores as well as the Finney Crossing commercial and residential neighborhood. 

A form-based code would change the zoning from regulating what uses are allowed to instead regulating how buildings look, what building materials are used, building height and setbacks.

“It wouldn’t change what’s built, but there is a lot of land for infill,” said Kaynor, mentioning the area surrounding the Hannaford store. “There are a lot of opportunities for new construction.”