What is the future of the village?

Aerial photo of the village of Williston, Vermont

Planners tackle rewrite of village land use regulations

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Nineteen-eighties-era fears about strip mall development sweeping down Route 2 through Williston Village gave rise to strict residential density caps and limited commercial options in Williston’s Village Zoning District.

The regulations have succeeded in preserving the village’s historic charm, but town planners believe it’s time to rewrite the rules for a new era of land use, where property owners can create a more dense population center and entrepreneurs can take a shot at a wider array of businesses. 

Town Planner Emily Heymann is working with the Historic and Architectural Advisory Committee on a draft rewrite of Chapter 42 of the Williston Development Bylaw, which outlines land use regulations in the Village Zoning District. The district runs along Route 2 roughly from Southridge Road to just past the four-way intersection at Oak Hill Road and North Williston Road. Nine businesses and dozens of homes are within its boundaries, as well as Town Hall, the library, Williston Central School and the Old Brick Church. At the heart of the zone is a nationally registered historic district.

“The current standards do not encourage development that will achieve the long-term goals of incremental change, diverse housing and business opportunity,” said Heymann. “The town must adopt something new that looks to the future and encourages the many ways in which the village can remain a vibrant and real place.”

Village property owners will be notified through the mail and online channels of upcoming public input opportunities in the coming weeks, Heymann said. There will be additional public input opportunities as the draft regulations are advanced to the Planning Commission and the Selectboard later this year.

The existing rules limit residential density to two units per acre. About 40 percent of the homes in the village have non-conforming, multi-tenant housing that predates the 1980s-era regulations. The new code would do away with density limits and instead adopt a “form-based” approach that prescribes the way buildings look — with allowances for certain roofing, siding and fencing materials, for example — and ensure they are in scale with their surroundings. 

“The town’s goal is to encourage residential vibrancy,” Heymann said. “People love the village, they love the feel of it. Yet our development standards are discouraging the kind of density that gives the village its character.”

The new regulations would also loosen restrictions on the type and size of businesses allowed in the village in favor of rules about compatibility within the neighborhood — such as the way trash is managed and screening parking lots to prevent headlight glare. The current regulations restrict businesses in the village to less than to 4,000 square feet (2,500 square feet on any one floor) and prohibit small-scale food service operations, allowing only “full-service” restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts, Heymann said. 

“We field calls from entrepreneurs all the time: ‘Hey I want to put this use in this space,’ and it makes total sense but it’s not allowed in the village,” she said. “That’s why we’re working on the village bylaw amendment … It doesn’t really matter what happens inside the building, so long as the nuisances and outdoor spaces are appropriately managed for the village.”

The Historic and Architectural Advisory Committee is recommending the creation of a town fund to help property owners in the village pay for restoring homes to the new standards.