Planning Commission hesitant to change density bylaws (4/9/09)

April 9, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

The Williston Planning Commission met Tuesday to revisit a small portion of the new Unified Development Bylaw. Specifically, the commissioners discussed a section of the 320-page bylaws that would limit building density on properties with significant wetlands and steep slopes.

Last month, the Selectboard sent the bylaws back to the Planning Commission, asking them to revise the section.

In the new bylaws, wetlands and steep slopes are not calculated when determining the number of units permitted for development, while certain zoning districts would see an increase in allowable housing density. The impetus behind the wetland changes was to protect impaired waterways, such as Allen Brook, from pollution. Critics say the plans add buffers to wetlands that already have buffers.

The proposed change has caused a stir with one project. Waterbury-based developer Jeff Atwood and project co-applicant Dana Hood opposed the changes by saying the new bylaws would eliminate any chance of affordable housing on the property they wish to develop.

Their project won growth management approval with the Development Review Board last month, allowing them to build under the old bylaws. Still, Hood attended Tuesday night’s Planning Commission meeting to offer his opinions.

“Had our project not come under the old bylaws, we would have been killed by the new bylaws,” Hood said.

The commission looked at maps of wetlands in town and discussed how other towns and states determine density issues in regards to wetlands.

Planning Director Ken Belliveau said wetlands only constitute about 1.3 percent of Williston. Breaking that down even further, the proposed density changes affect only three properties, including the Atwood-Hood project, and the land between Town Hall and Interstate 89.

Planning Commission Chairman David Yandell seemed wary of making any major changes, especially with such a small part of town affected. He said the proposed language ensures development will occur on appropriate lands, and not on properties surrounded by wetlands.

“To say we’re not supportive of affordable housing and then to change the bylaws for just one site, it’s not fair,” Yandell said.

The commission made no final decisions Tuesday and will continue researching the issue at its next meeting. Belliveau said the discussion is moving in the right direction, and the maps the Planning Department provided have helped considerably.

“When we display some of the same information to the Selectboard, it’ll help them as well,” Belliveau said.

The next Planning Commission meeting is scheduled for April 21 at 7:15 p.m. in the Planning Department office.