Burlington Planning Commission Endorses Rezoning UVM's Trinity Campus | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


Burlington Planning Commission Endorses Rezoning UVM's Trinity Campus


Published December 20, 2022 at 10:57 p.m.

Trinity Campus - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Trinity Campus
The University of Vermont should be allowed to build more student housing on its Trinity Campus, as long as it agrees to be more transparent about its growing student population.

That’s the recommendation of the Burlington Planning Commission, which endorsed a set of zoning changes for the campus on Tuesday night.

The commission voted 4-1 to forward the proposal to the Burlington City Council but will include a memo urging councilors to first negotiate an agreement with UVM to rein in the number of students who live off campus.

Planning Commission chair Andy Montroll said he hopes the memo will give the council leverage to negotiate with UVM, whose students crowd the city’s rental market.

“I doubt they're going to move forward with this resolution until they've dealt with the student body issue,” Montroll said of the council. “I would be surprised if they approve this without a separate agreement.”
The commission’s vote is in response to a proposal from UVM to build a new student housing complex on its Trinity Campus, a 21-acre tract off Colchester Avenue in the city’s east end. The campus already houses 600 students, but UVM has proposed developing 520 more beds — 400 for undergrads and 120 for grad students — plus a dining hall on the site.

The plans require a zoning change. Under the current rules, structures must be at least 115 feet from the Colchester Avenue property line; the new zoning would shrink that distance to 65 feet, though UVM had originally requested permission to build just 25 feet from the property line.

The proposal would also allow UVM to build higher — up to 45 feet at the lot's front and 80 feet in the back, compared to the existing 55-foot limit — and cover 60 percent of the lot with buildings, instead of 40 percent.

Mayor Miro Weinberger supports the zoning change, which is part of a 10-point housing plan he released last year to address the city’s housing crisis. Weinberger’s plan also calls for changing zoning to allow residential development in parts of the South End where it’s currently prohibited. On Tuesday, commissioners took public testimony on that proposal but deferred a vote until early next year.
UVM has pitched the Trinity plan as a way to ease the city’s housing shortage, but residents worry it could make things worse. First-year and sophomore students are required to live on campus, but juniors and seniors aren’t. Because the Trinity dorms wouldn't be reserved for juniors and seniors, neighbors fear the new dorms would allow UVM to enroll more first-year students who would eventually move off campus.

There's cause for their concern. UVM hasn’t built any new student housing since 2017 even as its enrollment has increased. And while the university once pledged to build one new housing unit per new undergrad enrolled, that agreement with the city lapsed in 2019, and UVM has refused to negotiate a new one. Meantime, the university enrolled one of its largest first-year classes ever this fall.

UVM officials have dismissed speculation that the Trinity plan would help grow enrollment. At the same time, they haven’t been particularly forthcoming about future plans for growth.

Recognizing this, a contingent of city councilors formally asked the commission in May for help making “UVM tangibly commit to a maximum number of off-campus students.” Montroll, the commission chair, said Tuesday that such language can’t be written into zoning but that the commission’s accompanying memo shows support for the councilors’ request.

Rezoning Trinity “shouldn’t be done in isolation,” Montroll said.
Residents who attended the virtual meeting largely agreed. Loomis Street resident Todd Schlossberg said he thinks the council should push for UVM to agree to only house juniors and seniors in the new dorms.

Otherwise, “we're enabling the university to increase enrollment without being accountable,” Schlossberg said.

Commissioner Alexander Friend suggested not approving the zoning change until and unless UVM negotiates with the city, but he didn’t find support among his colleagues. Friend cast the only “no” vote on the proposal.

“It’s like there's a flood in town and we’re lining the banks of the tributary with concrete,” he said.

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