Residents debate Town Plan

March 17, 2011

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

After more than a year of updating Williston’s Town Plan, the Planning Commission held public testimony for the first time Tuesday night, hoping to gauge the public’s opinion on the document. While many of the eight attendees commended the commission’s work in updating the plan that helps guide the town’s direction, one taxpayer took the commission to task for not rewriting a key section.

Jeff Atwood, a local developer who plans to build a small affordable housing subdivision off North Williston Road, said the Planning Commission ignored a crucial part of the Town Plan that deals with Williston’s complex growth management system. Chapter five of the 12-chapter plan notes that Williston should concentrate growth around Taft Corners.

By limiting growth in certain parts of Williston and not allowing some developers to construct their projects all at once, the management system makes it impossible for affordable housing to exist, Atwood said.

“If anyone on this board thinks chapter five has worked for the town so far, I’ll happily debate you all day or debate you all week on this, because it’s wrong,” Atwood said.
Williston must update its Town Plan every five years, like every community in Vermont, in accordance with state law. The Selectboard last ratified a Williston Town Plan in February 2006, which was a substantial rewrite of previous documents.

Commission member Kevin Batson told the audience the group rewrote about one-third of the Town Plan, while updating the rest of the document for clarity. Rewrites and additions included sections on open space, energy conservation and potential zoning changes.

Roger Crouse, a resident who lives along Lake Iroquois, praised the Planning Commission for proposing a zoning overlay district for the lake area. The district could allow the town to adopt zoning laws that differ from what is allowed in that rural part of Williston. The Town Plan also suggests that Williston continue its efforts in cleaning up the lake.

“We certainly have our challenges out there, so I’m glad the plan addresses that,” Crouse said.

The Planning Commission decided not to rewrite the section detailing Williston’s growth management system, which encourages development around Taft Corners and limits what growth can occur in rural areas. Planning and Zoning Director Ken Belliveau explained the system to those in attendance, stating that Williston allows for 80 new housing units to be built per year. Almost two-thirds of those units are available only in Taft Corners.

Atwood stated several times that Williston has flawed development policies. While the Town Plan encourages affordable housing, the way growth management doles out housing allocation to builders over several years instead of all at once destroys any potential for developers to construct homes that can be sold at affordable costs.
Planning commissioners disagreed with Atwood, saying the Town Plan encourages housing opportunities and affordable homes around Taft Corners, near bus lines and supermarkets. It’s the main reason Vermont designated Taft Corners as the state’s first official “growth center,” commissioners argued.

“That surprises me that we’re going to be selective on where we have affordable housing,” Atwood said. “It’s almost isolationist.”

Commission members admitted that they find parts of the growth management system flawed, but decided to let it runs its course. The current system is due to expire in 2015, at which time town planners will make available more housing units.

At the end of Tuesday night’s meeting, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to bring the draft before the Selectboard.