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Building a Better 'Burb

Local Matters


Published March 23, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

A huge housing development slated for South Burlington has received preliminary approval from the city's Development Review Board. Should the project receive final approval from the city and state regulators, it will be the largest development ever built in South Burlington.

By most standards, the 220-acre South Village, east of Spear Street at Allen Road, would also be one of the most innovative developments in the state. Reflecting a design philosophy known as "New Urbanism," South Village would incorporate architectural and land-use concepts that recall the way towns and cities were built for centuries, before suburban sprawl became the norm.

Developer David Scheuer, president of the Retrovest Companies, explains that South Village would look like a historic Vermont village, with dense residential neighborhoods clustered around a town center and surrounded by working farmlands and undeveloped open space. The design blends many of the more desirable aspects of village life, such as narrow streets, diverse housing styles and community gathering areas, with a modern emphasis on environmental protection.

"The whole focus of this project is to create an ambiance that puts pedestrians and street life first," says Sheuer. "This is really about the evolution from the privatization of open space to a common, shared space. From that point of view, we think it's really a step in the right direction."

Unlike the typical cookie-cutter approach to suburban housing, in which 75 to 100 percent of available land is developed, South Village would have a much smaller "footprint" and develop only about 25 percent of the available land. The rest would be devoted to parks, pedestrian walkways, green spaces and a native-plant nursery and organic farm co-managed by the Intervale Foundation. Retrovest has also received a nonbinding commitment from the Gailer School, which has expressed an interest in building a campus on the site.

South Village would feature about 330 new homes of various styles, including single-family houses, cottages, multi-story townhouses and semi-attached condominiums. One of the project's primary goals, Scheuer explains, is to provide Chittenden County with more "workforce housing" -- that is, homes that are affordable to people who earn between 75 percent and 125 percent of the state's median income. Retrovest is also working with South Burlington on a program to give housing priority to city employees such as schoolteachers, firefighters and emergency responders.

Despite its many attractive features, however, the project is not without opponents. Some neighbors who don't necessarily oppose the entire project have specific concerns about increased traffic and impacts on nearby brooks and wetlands.

Dan Wetzel lives in Dorset Farms, a development due east of the South Village site. A biologist by training, he objects to an east-west connector road that would cut directly across the wetlands. "There are a lot of frogs in that swamp," says Wetzel. "The larger animals can usually take care of themselves pretty well, but amphibians and reptiles don't do so well when you put a road across their swamp."

South Burlington resident Skip Vallee, owner of the Maplefields chain of gas stations and mini-marts, expresses concern about the project's impact on nearby Bartlett and Monroe brooks. "They've got all these roads carving up the most sensitive wildlife area," says Vallee. "In fact, the state of Vermont has said it's so sensitive there should be 300-foot buffer zones in it."

But Scheuer says he believes those impacts can be mitigated and that the wetlands concern won't be an issue "from the regulators' point of view... We've worked really hard to be responsive to the neighbors," he says.

Barring any unforeseen delays or court challenges, Scheuer says he expects to break ground on the first phase of the project by early 2006.