Selectboard mulls changes to Taft Corners zoning draft

Pedestrian-friendly streets are envisioned in proposed new zoning regulations for Taft Corners as seen in this illustration.

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Feedback from concerned residents and landowners may alter the final form that new zoning regulations for Taft Corners take. 

The Williston Selectboard is considering adopting “form-based code” for the 1,000-acre commercial and residential hub. The code was drafted with the help of a consultant and citizen input over the course of the past two years and recommended for approval by the planning commission. It aims to create a more pedestrian-friendly growth center, with block-style streets, clustered buildings and pocket parks. 

The selectboard opened the proposal to public comment over the course of its past two meetings this month, and will continue to consider it at an Aug. 23 meeting. Feedback so far has surfaced several potential issues with the draft that the board is considering changing. 

Some residents, for example, have objected to building heights that will be allowed, which could top out at 100 feet, according to Planning and Zoning Director Matt Boulanger. 

“(They) will be twice as tall as the Finney Crossing buildings,” resident Marcia Urie wrote in a letter to the selectboard. “This is totally out of scale with the surroundings.”

John Marcotte, a member of the Historic and Architectural Advisory Committee, said that the drawings that have been presented to help residents visualize how development will occur under the new code have failed to accurately depict the proposed building heights.

“What if one or a few scattered buildings of these proposed sizes are built, and then … it is several years before more are added. We can end up with tall standalone buildings,” Marcotte said. “If people strongly object, then it’s too late to lower them.”

Resident Eric Howe noted, however, that vertical development is a way to concentrate growth in Taft Corners and take development pressure off the rural parts of town. The board is considering reducing the allowed building height to between three and five stories.

The board has also fielded requests from landowners to remove their properties from the form-based code boundaries, allowing them to proceed with development projects under existing land use regulations. Snyder Homes has already filed for a permit under the existing regulations for the majority of its proposed neighborhood on the former Essex Alliance Church property on Route 2A north of Finney Crossing. If the new regulations are approved, there is potential that future phases of the project would be bound by them, unless the selectboard agrees to draw the property out of the form-based code boundary, as owner Chris Snyder has asked. 

Allen Brook Development, which controls land near Maple Tree Place on Route 2, and Taft Corners Associates, which controls land around Wal-Mart and Home Depot, are also asking to remain under the current zoning. Taft Corners Associates owners have argued that their area near Interstate 89 should remain friendly to single story retail development, which would be prohibited under the new zoning. The large, national retailers they lease to, they have said, do not want other commercial or residential tenants above their stores. 

The selectboard is considering redrawing the form-based code boundaries to allow all or portions of the Allen Brook, Snyder and Taft Corners Associates land to remain under the current regulations. 

If the selectboard approves the form-based code, all Taft Corners development proposals will be reviewed by the zoning administrator (currently Boulanger) to ensure they conform with the code. Some residents have expressed concern about taking the Development Review Board (DRB) out of the approval process.

“(This) puts all the decision power in the hands of non-elected personnel,” Urie wrote. 

Boulanger noted that there would be an opportunity for people to appeal administrative decisions to the DRB.

John Hemmelgarn, a member of the DRB, supports the move to an administrative-only review. He said the form-based code as drafted is an expression of the will of the people for Taft Corners.

“The form-based code … has been developed with a tremendous amount of public input — input that is focused on aesthetic components, quality of life and citizens’ everyday interface with their built environment,” Hemmelgarn wrote in a letter to the board. “This code will improve how Willistonians feel about their town.

“Significant changes would be contrary to the rigorous public input process that was undertaken, negating what I feel is one of the strongest reasons to adopt the form-based code — public consensus on what we in Williston have decided is best for our town,” he continued. “Changing the code now based on the voices of a relative few would be contrary to the myriad voices heard throughout the process.”

Hemmelgarn is not the only one urging the selectboard to pass the new regulations as drafted. 

“We are lucky to have a growth problem,” Kyle Sala and Lizzy Pope wrote in a co-authored letter to the board. “The form-based code will allow Williston to manage that growth in a more effective and efficient manner. If (it) is not enacted, suburban sprawl will continue to eat away open space, and more disjointed, unfunctional buildings will go up in the growth center.”

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