St. George mulls zoning changes

Public forum scheduled for Wednesday

April 1, 2008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

St. George will hold a public meeting next week on new zoning that steers development toward the center of town and away from hillsides and farmland.

The forum is scheduled for Wednesday, April 23 at 7 p.m. The session, scheduled to last about two hours, will be held at St. George Town Center.

Officials hope the hearing will prompt comments from residents on the proposed changes, which reduce allowable density in much of St. George while increasing density in the middle of town along Vermont 2A.

St. George, with about 750 people and 2,300 acres, has a fraction of the population and land area of most Chittenden County towns. Except a few businesses, a mobile home park and some small subdivisions, it remains largely undeveloped.

"We are probably the only town in Chittenden County that has a clean slate," said Planning Commission member Connie Kendall. "We get to start fresh to a great extent."

The new land-use rules would create seven zoning districts. Roughly half the town would be in either the rural district, which allows one unit per 10 acres, or the limited development district, which permits only one unit for every 25 acres. The current zoning has five districts, with the most restrictive one allowing one unit for every 10 acres.

Kendall noted that topography plays a significant role in the zoning. She said low-density districts are dominated by hills and ridges, including Mount Pritchard.

The new zoning eliminates the recreation district while creating others. The new village center and village residential districts permit denser development than what is allowed in that area — a sliver of land straddling Vermont 2A near the municipal offices — under the current zoning.

In the village center district, as many as 20 units would be allowed per acre. The highest density now allowed in any district is about three units per acre.

Spurred on by development

With two new subdivisions now undergoing the development review process and more projects potentially on the way, updated land-use rules are urgently needed, said Planning Commission Chairman Scott Baker.

"We are expecting pretty heavy pressure to develop farmland," he said. "The wave has come."

The proposed subdivisions, nine units each, are located on property that comprises roughly a quarter of the developable land in town, Baker said.

Dan Pillsbury has proposed one of the two subdivisions. He owns 160 acres of land in St. George. He closed his dairy farm operation in 2006 and now hopes to develop some of the land.

Pillsbury, who is also on the town's Planning Commission, said he generally likes the proposed zoning. But he wonders how he and other large landowners will be compensated for new restrictions on their property.

A portion of his land would under the new rules be restricted to one unit per 25 acres. Some of the land lies along a hilltop with views of Lake Champlain, Pillsbury said, making it an attractive site for homes.

Baker said the town is looking at ways to offset the impact stricter zoning would have on some landowners. The town could award density bonuses for those who cluster development on just a portion of their property, Baker said. Or it could allow the transfer of development rights from one property owner to another.

In any case, he added, the new zoning would not affect the proposed subdivisions, which would be grandfathered under the current rules.

In writing new land-use rules, St. George is combining its subdivision and zoning regulations into one unified document. A new town plan was passed about two years ago.

The subdivision rules were written in 1980 and zoning was established in the '80s, so there are conflicts between the town plan's broad goals and the outdated land-use rules, Baker said. The idea is to dovetail zoning with the town plan.

Kendall said the Planning Commission hopes residents will also provide guidance on issues related to allowable uses in each of the zoning districts. Still being considered is whether to permit large retail stores, automobile dealers and industrial facilities.

Kendall acknowledged that the zoning changes may provoke pointed commentary. She said she welcomes the input.

"Folks may come in with strong opinions about the density of their property," she said. "I'm really looking forward to that discussion."