Zoning proposal prompts concerns

St. George discusses new land-use rules

May 1, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

St. George residents last week debated new land-use rules that would steer development toward the middle of town while imposing stricter limits elsewhere.

The April 23 session at St. George Town Center drew more than 30 people who crowded into the small room filled with folding chairs for a lively, two-hour discussion.

Some critiqued zoning changes aimed at creating a compact village near the center of town along Vermont 2A. In addition to the town offices, that area now has only a mobile home park, a gas station/convenience store and a couple of small businesses.

"I don't understand why we need a downtown," said resident Candace Boyd. "We have a downtown in Williston. We can spit to it."

The discussion focused on two of the seven proposed zoning districts: village neighborhood and village center. The other districts would permit sparser development, including one that allows densities of only one residential unit per 25 acres.

The village center district would encourage dense, mixed-use development by permitting as many as 17 units per acre. It would feature multi-story buildings with little or no setbacks.

"The purpose is to basically create a small village or downtown," said Brandy Saxton, the consultant helping the town create new zoning. She showed aerial maps of Taft Corners in Williston and Church Street in Burlington as examples.

But some residents wondered if the idea was practical given that St. George does not have the public water and sewer systems to support larger-scale development.

Others worried that dense development would only create more traffic headaches along 2A. Residents have long complained about commuters who speed through town, endangering and aggravating those living along the road.

Planning Commission Chairman Scott Baker said more traffic would actually signal success.

"I think that every great place in the country has a lot of traffic," Baker said.

Dense development and many pedestrians, he said, would make vehicles move more slowly.

Resident John Barth suggested placing the town center on a new road parallel to 2A.

"If you put the town center off the main road you wouldn't necessarily have to solve the traffic problem," he said. "I don't think you are going to stop the flow because a lot of people commute."

Another resident thought the entire district should be moved south to the intersection of 2A and Vermont 116, noting that few motorists would be willing to drive out of their way to visit St. George.

Others worried the new zoning could create the kind of development seen in Williston and South Burlington.

"I appreciate efforts to do this kind of zoning," said Phil Beliveau. "I just don't want to end up like Shelburne Road or Taft Corners."

Dense in the center

The proposed village neighborhood district also generated debate. Saxton described the district, running along both sides of Vermont 2A just north of the village center district, as featuring a "little commercial and a lot of residential." The idea, she said, is to create the kind of compact development seen in the center of a "typical New England village."

The district would permit homes on quarter-acre lots, considerably smaller than typical in St. George. Much of that part of town is currently zoned for two-acre lots.

St. George Town Clerk Barbara Young, who owns a home in the district, said she preferred to keep the current zoning.

"I don't think that's why people moved here is to have quarter-acre lots," she said. "They would have lived elsewhere."

Baker said smaller lots are needed to attract the critical mass of residents needed to form a compact, pedestrian-friendly village.

But some residents worried that the new district would attract "cookie-cutter" subdivisions and warned infrastructure was inadequate to handle all the new people. Without sewer and water, they said the new zoning could result in scattered two- and three-unit subdivisions.

In all, the proposed zoning would allow approximately 2,000 new residential units, Baker said. St. George's current population is roughly 750.

Selectboard Chairman Tom Carlson questioned whether the town would ever see that amount of new development. The St. George town plan has long called for development surrounding the Town Center, but except for the Simon's convenience store, no new construction has occurred for years.

"Do we want to double the size of the town 10 years from now, 20 years from now?" Carlson said. "If we're not expecting it to happen, why are we doing it?"

Baker said the town needs new zoning now — the last substantial revision to the rules occurred more than 10 years ago — lest scattered development happen without adequate controls. He noted applications for two subdivisions are pending that involve roughly a quarter of all the developable land in town.

"The threat is very real that there is going to be a lot of development," he said. "We're trying to guide that as responsibly as we can."