Revised zoning could reshape shopping center

Town seeks in-fill projects at Taft Corners Park

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

New zoning rules could clear the way for more development in a long-dormant retail center that includes many of Williston’s big-box stores.

The Selectboard later this month will review 17 chapters of the revised zoning ordinance called the Unified Development Bylaw. The chapters cover administrative procedures, development standards and the agricultural-rural zoning district.

But the most notable changes concern the mixed-use commercial zoning district. The district includes the western portion of Taft Corners Park, home to Wal-Mart and The Home Depot, and some adjacent land. For years, no new development has occurred despite ample open land.

“The zoning over there has frozen everything in place,” said Town Planner Lee Nellis. “The changes are designed to let landowners and developers do something creative.”

Nellis said the new rules will permit additional in-fill projects while moving away from the type of development that has occurred in the past.

“You could not build another box, either large or small, that looks like the existing boxes,” he said.

The type of store Nellis refers to is typified by Wal-Mart. That store and others in Taft Corners Park have often been criticized because of their box-like appearance and huge parking lots that discourage pedestrians.

The new zoning ordinance summarizes the problem: “There are currently a large number of large, monolithic, single-story buildings in this zoning district, most of which have long dead walls and are surrounded by large expanses of pavement.”

Precise comparisons with the existing rules are difficult because the new ordinance consolidates several existing zoning districts that govern Taft Corners Park. Current rules are different for each district.

But in general the new zoning specifies what uses are permitted rather than trying to forbid certain types of development, which Nellis said was the case with the existing rules. The idea is to allow flexibility while furthering the town’s goal of creating compact, pedestrian-friendly development.

The new rules require sidewalks to directly link buildings to sidewalks along streets. Parking must be located on the side or rear of a building.

The revised zoning takes a carrot-and-stick approach: exceptions will be permitted if a project provides the type of development the town wants.

For example, building heights are restricted to 36 feet. But structures may be 52 feet high if affordable housing or a parking garage is part of a project.

Flexibility is promoted by allowing developers in essence to pick their own requirements. The new ordinance lists nine design elements, and each new project must have at least three of them.

The list includes smaller shops wrapped around a larger retail space, sidewalks wide enough for outdoor dining, a small park or sports venue. Other options include affordable housing, a mix of retail and service businesses or multiple stories.

Jeff Davis, managing partner of Taft Corners Associates, which owns Taft Corners Park, acknowledged criticism of his development but noted shoppers continue to flock to its stores.

Davis said he is proud of the retail center as it now stands. But he said the zoning changes would allow him to fill in vacant spaces between the big-box retailers.

“There’s lots of development potential in Taft Corners Park,” he said. “I think what the town is headed for is a more downtown presentation.”

Taft Corners Park covers 209 acres, Davis said, of which roughly 45 acres is undeveloped. The development has about 500,000 square feet of retail space.

Zoning enacted several years ago to prevent more big-box development “made things so restrictive that you can’t do anything,” Davis said. He cited building dimension requirements as one rule that prevented the construction of even smaller retail outlets. And he also noted that changes in the market have made it tougher to attract large retail stores. Indeed, since Marshalls opened in 2002, no new stores have been constructed in Taft Corners Park.

The town struck an agreement with Davis in 2000 that allowed him to build two more box stores. Marshalls was one of them. But for years now, the lot where that third store is permitted has sat vacant.

Nellis said the new zoning will not supersede that agreement, which was made amid town officials’ fears of out-of-control big-box development. Davis will still be permitted to build that final 40,000-square-foot store.

But Nellis said zoning that prevents any development actually hurts the town, which needs a critical mass to construct grid streets that will tie together a future downtown. “There’s nothing to be gained by the town of Williston by having these lots growing weeds,” he said.

A public hearing on the new zoning ordinances will be held during a Selectboard meeting on Monday, Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. The session takes place in the Town Hall meeting room.