Taft Corners zoning rewrite becomes law

Public hearing set for July 5

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

A split Williston selectboard voted to move forward with the rezoning of Taft Corners on Tuesday over the objections of the area’s primary landowners.

The board voted 3-2 to set a July 5 public hearing on the new zoning regulations, which are aimed at creating a more walkable and bikeable commercial and residential neighborhood, in line with stated goals in the Town Plan. 

According to Planning and Zoning Director Matt Boulanger, the mere setting of the public hearing makes the regulations law, affecting any new development applications in Taft Corners. Terry Macaig, Ted Kenney and Greta D’Agostino voted in favor of setting the public hearing. Jeff Fehrs and Gordon St. Hilaire voted against, preferring more time to seek compromise with the developers.

The Planning Commission worked for two years with interested residents and a land development consultant to craft the regulations and recommend them for adoption to the selectboard. The rules prescribe the size and look of buildings, as well as their relation to streets and parks — rather than the traditional zoning approach that regulates building uses. An official map was created to mandate a series of new streets and green spaces that are aimed at creating a downtown feel.

Development applications in the district will be governed by the new code and not require approval from the Development Review Board as they have in the past. 

The three largest landowners in the district — Al Senecal of Allen Brook Development, owner of Cottonwood Crossing; Chris Snyder of Snyder Homes, developer of Finney Crossing and proposing a new neighborhood on the former Essex Alliance Church property; and Jeff Nick and Jeff Davis, co-owners of Taft Corners Associates, owners of the Walmart/Home Depot lot and surrounding undeveloped land — urged the board to reconsider the rule changes. 

Davis said the landowners shared their concerns with the planning commission and its consultant, Washington D.C.-based Geoffrey Ferrell, over the past several months.

“The answer was no to everything we said,” Davis said. “It’s very frustrating to have someone from Washington D.C. come in and tell you what you are going to do with your land and not understand the nuances of Vermont.”

The zoning will prevent single-story commercial buildings, commonly called “big box” stores. That is misguided, according to Nick, who said there should still be a place for car-centric development in Taft Corners, particularly in the area south of Marshall Avenue near where the existing large retailers are located.

“Requiring multi-story buildings in this area will significantly change the character of this area and will not support the businesses already there,” Davis and Nick co-wrote in a June 2 letter to the selectboard. “These retailers contribute large sums of money to Williston’s tax base and we should be working to complement them and keep them strong.”

Large retailers are successfully adapting to the challenge posed by online shopping, Nick said, and their interest in Taft Corners property remains strong. But large national retail brands are not compatible with the multi-story, multi-use buildings envisioned in the code.

“I can’t imagine anyone would want to live above an O’Reilly Auto Parts,” Nick said.

Planning commission chair Meghan Cope said the new regulations reflect the will of residents as shared with planners over the zoning rewrite process.

“I realize this is a big step, but there is a lot of unhappiness right now in town with the style and pace of development in Taft Corners,” she said. “If we do nothing, that will just continue.”

A first phase of Snyder’s proposed neighborhood on the Essex Alliance Church property recently received Development Review Board approval and can proceed under the traditional regulations. Future phases, however, will be subject to the new code, Boulanger said. The same is true at Finney Crossing, where, while the vast majority of the neighborhood is constructed and occupied, some parcels remain undeveloped. 

Snyder asked the planning commission to exempt the Essex Alliance Church parcel from the new code but was denied. He prefers the traditional Development Review Board hearing process.

“Having discussions in front of a board is a very positive thing in my mind, and I think we come out with better projects,” he said. “By shifting the burden to the zoning administrator, you lose that process.”

In calling the public hearing, the selectboard welcomes residents to weigh in on the regulations on July 5. Any substantive changes that result would require additional public hearings.

The following clarification has been added to this story after publication: This story reflects the fact that the selectboard’s setting of a July 5 public hearing puts new Taft Corners zoning regulations into effect during a 150-day window while the board takes public comment. The board, however, can change the regulations or decline to enact them after taking public comment. If the board votes to enact the changes, they would go into effect 21 days later, unless a petition is filed for a popular vote to repeal the amendments before they take effect.

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