Town takes step toward growth center designation

Program could help pay for new streets

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston has moved closer to receiving growth center designation, a state program that could help the town pay for infrastructure improvements around Taft Corners.

The Vermont Downtown Development Board last week designated part of Williston Village as a village center. The area includes the portion of the village closest to U.S. 2 between Old Stage and North Williston roads.

The approval “is an important step” on the way to getting growth center designation for the Taft Corners area, said Williston Town Planner Lee Nellis.

If Williston wins approval as a growth center, the town could become eligible to use tax increment financing to pay for improvements such as new roads. Town officials have proposed a series of grid streets around Taft Corners to better handle current traffic and future growth.

Tax increment financing is a mechanism for financing debt for infrastructure improvements. Public projects such as new roads increase the value of property and attract more development. The additional property taxes generated by the growth are used to repay the debt.

The program also relaxes rules under Act 250, the state’s land-use law, allowing developers to more easily receive permits for projects in the designated area.
Williston’s pattern of development has been atypical for a Vermont town. The central village has little commercial development. Meanwhile, the area two miles away around Taft Corners has become a regional shopping destination.

That configuration may make it tougher for the town to qualify for the growth center designation. The law requires growth centers to be contiguous with village centers.

The program permits exceptions for towns with geographic or natural barriers between two areas. In Williston, town officials hope the state will consider the wetlands along the two-mile stretch of U.S. 2 to be such a barrier.

Joss Besse, coordinator for the Vermont Downtown Program, said it would be “premature” to say if Williston’s unusual configuration will prevent it from receiving growth center designation. The program’s governing board has yet to finalize rules.

The village center designation comes with its own benefits. It allows property owners in the district who improve or renovate their buildings to qualify for tax breaks.

The provision, however, may have a limited effect in Williston because it applies only to property used for commercial purposes. Only a handful of businesses exist in the village.

Though property owners converting a residence to commercial use could qualify for the tax breaks, strict zoning permits only certain types of businesses in the village and so would likely limit growth.

The law establishing the growth center program was passed by the Vermont Legislature during the 2005-06 session. The bill was written in part by Sen. Ginny Lyons-D, Chittenden County, a Williston resident who chairs the Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

The program is intended to prevent sprawl by maintaining the state’s historic pattern of development, which concentrates growth around villages and keeps open land in outlying areas.

Williston’s interest in the program could be considered ironic. After all, the Taft Corners area is often cited as a prime example of sprawl.

But Nellis pointed out that the town has made strides in recent years to prevent sprawl by encouraging dense, environmentally friendly development around Taft Corners while limiting growth elsewhere.

“Whatever you might think of the past, that was then and this is now,” Nellis said.

The growth center program is competitive, limiting the number of towns that can qualify for financial incentives. South Burlington and Colchester are among the towns that have expressed an interest, Besse said.

The Downtown Development Board will hold a public hearing on the program on Monday, Dec. 11 at 1 p.m. at the National Life Building in Montpelier.

Comments at the hearing will help guide the rule-making process for the program, Besse said. The goal, he said is to start accepting applications by March.