By Luke Baynes
A small sliver of land raised big questions Tuesday, as more than 20 residents filled the Town Hall meeting room for a discussion with the Williston Planning Commission about potential zoning changes in the vicinity of Williston Road (U.S. 2) and South Brownell Road.
The area in question, which is identified in the Williston Comprehensive Plan as an area “where changes to land use rules should be considered,” is designated as such because it comprises a thin peninsula of residentially zoned land in the midst of the Industrial Zoning District West.
While the town’s Comprehensive Plan doesn’t prescribe any specific course of action, the two basic alternatives are either an outright zoning change or a special overlay zoning district. The latter course of action would involve a basic adherence to the fundamental regulations of the underlying Residential Zoning District, with certain specified exceptions or prohibitions.
Although Williston Senior Planner Matt Boulanger didn’t offer a formal opinion on the matter, he ventured that if the town chooses to take action, an overlay district might be the more viable option.
“If I had to take a guess, I would guess that some sort of overlay would be a better solution than an outright zoning change,” Boulanger said. “But I’m not here to tell you that tonight. I’m here to listen and to help the Planning Commission hear what you’re saying and to answer questions about how those things happen.”
Public opinion varied among audience members on a preferred course of action, but there was a general consensus that residents in the area of South Brownell Road and Kirby Lane were the unintended victims of “transitional zoning” practices, which predated current town bylaws and which allowed commercial and industrial uses to encroach upon the residential neighborhoods. As the current Comprehensive Plan notes, “a plume of underground pollution centered along Commerce Street nearby has affected the use potential of many properties in the area.”
“It is probably, I think, the worse mistake Williston’s ever made,” said South Brownell Road resident Nancy Bates.
Opinion was split, however, on changing the area’s zoning. Some residents argued that allowing certain commercial uses in the Residential Zoning District would increase the value and resale potential of certain parcels of land. The counterargument raised by other residents is that by allowing commercial uses it would further decrease quality of life and could potentially raise property taxes in the area.
Sue Greer, whose residence adjoins a vacant parcel of land on the corner of Williston and South Brownell roads, said her property is no longer suitable for residential use and would have greater value if it were rezoned.
“I’m 66, and it’s too busy for me to live there anymore. I don’t enjoy living there,” Greer said.
Dave Messier of Kirby Lane cautioned that a zoning change could eventually spell the end of one of Williston’s oldest neighborhoods.
“Maybe the land at the Williston Road corners, with the open lots, it would be worth more as commercial, and I get that,” he said. “But once that goes, then the neighborhood next to them, their value is going to be negatively impacted directly for their retirement. So their best interest is to sell it, make some profit, and you start a domino effect.”
Boulanger closed the meeting by stressing that it represented the first step in what will be a lengthy and transparent consideration process. He also thanked residents for their input and encouraged them to spread the word about future public meetings.
“If there’s someone you know in the area who’s impacted by what we’re talking about who didn’t come tonight or couldn’t come tonight, please let them know it’s not over and it’s not a done deal,” Boulanger said. “You can be ambassadors back out to your neighborhood.”