Planning Commission approves new bylaws2/5/09

Selectboard will get final review in the coming weeks

Feb. 5, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

After a year and half of debates, revisions and countless Planning Commission public hearings, Williston’s Unified Development Bylaws are ready to move on to the Selectboard for final approval. The commission voted unanimously to approve the bylaws at Tuesday night’s meeting.

The revamping of the bylaws has been a necessary task for the Planning Commission and Planning Department after Williston obtained a Growth Center designation by the Vermont Downtown Board in 2007. A growth center designation aims to minimize sprawl by concentrating growth in a specific area. Seen as out-of-date in most chapters, the new Williston bylaws have streamlined rules for lighting, signage, zoning and development.

The Selectboard has already approved portions of the new bylaws on an interim basis. If the board approves the new document, then the full bylaws will become the standard. If not, the Selectboard would return the bylaws to the Planning Commission for possible revisions.

Much of the new bylaws document was written by former Town Planner Lee Nellis, but it was finished by new Planning and Zoning Director Ken Belliveau, along with Senior Planner Matt Boulanger.

Tuesday night’s meeting was the last chance for the public to weigh in on the new bylaws before the Selectboard sees the final version. About 15 people turned out to either support the new changes or to disagree with what was being presented.

Waterbury developer Jeff Atwood, who owns property in town and is hoping to build an affordable housing neighborhood on land between North Williston Road and Lefebvre Lane, was vehement in his opposition to some of the changes. He took issue with a new wetland and steep-slope designation that could significantly reduce the number of housing units that could be developed on certain properties.

In the new bylaws, wetlands and steep slopes would not be considered “open land,” therefore developers would not get credit for the total amount of acreage they own in order to build more homes. Atwood argued that not only would the new rules affect his development, but also other future affordable housing developments.

“You’re off here, you’re missing it and I respectfully disagree with you,” Atwood said, adding he believed the commission does not support the idea of affordable housing in Williston.

Atwood’s planned eight-unit subdivision could be cut in half if the new laws are approved. He said he feels “forced to” take his concerns to the Selectboard in coming meetings.

Williston resident Charlie Magill also turned out to oppose the new open land designations. He referred to property behind the Town Hall, which he said would be good for affordable housing, but would be affected under the new laws.

“It’s right to have buffers for wetlands, but when you say it doesn’t count as open land, you have a buffer on a buffer,” Magill said. “There has to be a balance.”

Planning Commission member Debbie Ingram said affordable housing is a top priority with the commission and town planners, with housing being concentrated in certain zoning areas.

“We’ve tried very hard to advocate for affordable housing,” Ingram said.

Also discussed at the meeting were the inevitable changes that could ensue in the coming years in regards to the new bylaws. Planning Commission Chairman Dave Yandell said he expects to discover pieces of the laws the commission missed and make corrections as they surface.

Belliveau explained citizens would be able to petition for changes, or the Planning Commission could notice errors and make its own changes.

“It’s expected (the bylaws) will change in the future, just like the old bylaws were expected to go through an evolutionary process,” Belliveau said.

The Selectboard is expected to get a first look at the completed bylaws at next Monday’s meeting on Feb. 9. One or more public Selectboard hearings are expected before the bylaws are voted on and possibly adopted.