Despite a Housing Crisis, South Burlington’s City Council Adopts Regs to Slow Rural Development | Development | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Despite a Housing Crisis, South Burlington’s City Council Adopts Regs to Slow Rural Development

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Homes under construction at the O'Brien Farm development - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Homes under construction at the O'Brien Farm development

Sarah Dopp pulled her Volkswagen onto the shoulder of Old Farm Road, a short byway off Route 116 in South Burlington that rises past what was once forest and pastureland and is now, to her great dismay, a construction zone. To the east, Mount Mansfield appeared almost translucent in the distance, as if it had been carved from the dusky blue winter light. On the other side of the road was a row of nearly identical homes in varying stages of completion, each one less finished than the last.

"There they are, all the little ticky-tackies," said Dopp, the founder and president of the South Burlington Land Trust. "'And they all look just the same,' in the words of the old song." The ticky-tackies, she explained, are part of a development called O'Brien Farm. The 460-unit project, which includes plans for 74 permanently affordable properties, will eventually fill the now-empty slope that overlooks Mount Mansfield.

"It's not just an incredible view," Dopp said. "It's an incredible habitat. We've had people coming up here recently, tracking animals. They're finding evidence of deer — deer yards, deer carcasses. All kinds of evidence of critters."

For the better part of two decades, Dopp and other conservationists have fought the creep of suburbia in South Burlington's more scenic and environmentally sensitive districts.  On Monday, she and her allies achieved a major victory: The South Burlington City Council narrowly voted to adopt new regulations that will significantly curtail development in Dopp's neighborhood, known in zoning parlance as the southeast quadrant. The O'Brien Farm project, which lies just outside the southeast quadrant, represents the kind of unchecked sprawl that, in Dopp's view, would destroy the area's fragile ecosystem.

In the southeast quadrant, a 3,200-acre swath bounded by the Shelburne town line, Swift and Spear streets, and the Williston border, the shopping centers and office parks of Vermont's second-largest city feel deceptively remote, even as the planes destined for nearby Burlington International Airport roar overhead. A century ago, the southeast quadrant was mostly farmland; now, the landscape is a tableau of mostly big, symmetrical houses echoing throughout a rural panorama. Dopp herself lives in the southeasternmost corner of the southeast quadrant, in an old farmhouse surrounded by conserved land. "I feel very good about my little part of the world," she said.

In recent years, this part of the city has provided the backdrop for a public argument over land development regulations that, since 2018, has consumed more than 70 city government meetings, incited dozens of sparring editorials in South Burlington's local weekly newspaper, the Other Paper, and galvanized a group of citizens to form a political action committee to elect city councilors who support restricting development.

Monday's council meeting seemed to settle the debate, if only superficially. Three councilors — Meaghan Emery, Tim Barritt and chair Helen Riehle — voted in favor of the regulations; the remaining two, Thomas Chittenden and Matt Cota, opposed them.

But the skirmish has revealed deeper fault lines in the battle over how to address the state's housing crisis. Staunch conservationists, such as Dopp, have argued that climate change has made the preservation of the southeast quadrant's natural resources an existential imperative; a contingent of developers and affordable housing advocates insists that restricting development will exacerbate both the housing and the climate crises by forcing people to move farther away from the economic hubs of Burlington and South Burlington.

The new regulations contain a raft of environmental protections, including a ban on nearly all development in designated wildlife habitats; a conservation requirement that would essentially limit residential density in most of the southeast quadrant to one single-family home per acre; and mandatory 100-foot wetland buffers in residential areas, twice the state minimum. In total, 71 percent of the land in the southeast quadrant will be off-limits to development.

"This is probably the most significant package of land development regulations in South Burlington since the implementation of zoning in the 1950s," said Sandy Dooley, who serves as vice chair of the city's Affordable Housing Committee.

In numerous op-eds and council meetings, Dooley, a former chair of the city council, has argued that the new regulations will only widen the economic divide between the southeast quadrant and the rest of the city. The southeast quadrant is the most affluent corner of the state: With a median income of just over $140,000, it would surpass Norwich as the richest town in Vermont if it were its own municipality.

"Government and zoning has played perhaps the most influential role in creating neighborhoods that are segregated by socioeconomic status," Dooley said. In her view, climate change has supplied a moral justification for those who want to halt suburban growth: "It accommodates their resistance to change and their desire to act in response to a global crisis."

South Burlington is no stranger to civic squabbles concerning the pace of its suburbanization, which accelerated after the postwar population boom in the second half of the 20th century. (Dopp grew up in Mayfair Park, a subdivision between Hinesburg and Williston roads that once had a covenant forbidding the sale of homes to non-white buyers.) For decades, Dooley and her husband, retired Vermont Supreme Court justice John Dooley, fought against the Quarry Hill condominiums, which would have obstructed their view of the Green Mountains from their living room window on East Terrace.

Their case eventually made its way to the state supreme court, where a panel of retired justices ruled that the couple's right to their view extended only the width of their lot. The condos went up. "It was entirely about the height of the buildings," said Sandy Dooley. "It wasn't antidevelopment; it was antidevelopment over a certain height."

The current South Burlington zoning drama began in 2018 when a group of southeast quadrant residents hired an attorney to prevent the construction of Dorset Meadows, a 160-unit development on a 40-acre parcel in their neighborhood. The residents argued that the land had been intended for conservation and, therefore, was vital to preserving what remained of the southeast quadrant's rural character. In response to the pressure, the city council declared a period of interim zoning, which gave the body temporary veto power over any new development proposals in that part of the city.

By that point, the Dorset Meadows project, led by developer and Essex Junction real estate agent Peter Kahn, was too far along in the application process for the council to quash it by fiat. But it died in Development Review Board hearings, to the neighbors' glee, because the developers failed to produce a management plan for the riparian areas on the property. Two southeast quadrant residents, Steven and Dunia Partilo, eventually bought the land from the developers for $1.8 million and placed it in permanent conservation.

The city has remained under interim zoning since the Dorset Meadows debacle. During the three-year interregnum, the city hired an environmental consulting firm to assess which areas should be prioritized for conservation; meanwhile, a volunteer committee conducted its own survey of the city's scenic and ecologically significant locales.

Both inquiries concluded that the southeast quadrant contained the most critical conservation areas within city limits. Based on those findings, the planning commission drafted a new set of land development regulations, with a much stronger emphasis on conservation.

In the weeks leading up to Monday's vote, the city council quarreled over the proposed regulations. At a meeting in early January, Councilor Matt Cota, who strongly opposes the new regs, introduced a list of 22 suggested amendments in which he called the wildlife habitat blocks, as defined in the environmental consultant's report, "legally indefensible." (In January, the University of Vermont, the largest landowner in South Burlington, threatened to take the city to court if the new regulations impeded its ability to develop its property. When the city agreed to give the institution leeway for projects related to educational endeavors, the university's lawyers backed down.)

Cota, the executive director of Vermont Fuel, thinks that it makes economic sense to develop more housing near the region's biggest employers, including UVM and Beta Technologies. For better or worse, he said, South Burlington already has the infrastructure to support a larger population than the more rural exurbs, such as Hinesburg and Milton. "We don't want people to move to the far reaches of Chittenden County because they can't find housing here," he said.

Mount Mansfield seen from Old Farm Road, near the site where more housing units are planned for O'Brien Farm - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Mount Mansfield seen from Old Farm Road, near the site where more housing units are planned for O'Brien Farm

In his 2022 budget address, Gov. Phil Scott noted that there were only five homes for sale in Chittenden County within reach of a buyer earning the state's median income of $62,000. South Burlington Councilor Thomas Chittenden thinks that the regulations swing too far in the direction of conservation, at the expense of the city's obligation to meet the dire need for housing. He objects, in particular, to the rule that allows development on just 30 percent of a parcel in the southeast quadrant.

"This is an arbitrary threshold that just prevents housing stock from being built in this area," said Chittenden, a lifelong resident of the southeast quadrant and a state senator. "It decreases the density, which is what some are advocating for, because frankly, they don't want to see as many people living out in this part of town."

The new rules have already stymied some would-be developers. Last spring, while the regulations were still in the works, Alan Long, a lifelong South Burlington resident, submitted a proposal for a 49-unit housing development on a 39-acre parcel of land off of Spear Street that his family has owned for generations. The project included a mix of housing types, including single-family homes and more moderately priced duplexes and carriage houses.

Long's property is sandwiched between two subdivisions, South Pointe and South Village, which consist mainly of large single-family homes and condominiums on treeless lots that cost, on average, between $400,000 and $700,000.

"We don't want to put up 10-story apartment buildings, because that's really not in keeping with what we think the southeast quadrant should look like," Long said. "On the other hand, we don't want to just build single-family homes. We've always thought that having a diversity of housing types and income levels was a good thing to encourage some young people to move into South Burlington."

The city council scuttled Long's proposal, because parts of his development would have encroached on the wetland known as the Great Swamp, an ecological feature the new regulations deem a top conservation priority for the city. After deducting the swamp-adjacent acreage, Long could only build 30 units, which would take a considerable bite out of his bottom line. 

"I don't expect the public to line up in favor of individual landowners," Long acknowledged. "Nobody is concerned about us losing some of our family asset. But if they were in our shoes, I think it would bother them plenty."

He feels that the debate over development versus conservation has created a false dichotomy. "It costs you nothing to espouse conservation, and it's very easy to label landowners and developers as the bad guys, even if you recognize that there's a need for more housing," he said. Long partly blames his situation on what he calls the "not in my backyard" crowd, who can energize public sentiment against development.

"Folks who are in need of lower- or middle-income housing don't get a vote, because they don't live here yet," he said. "And they can't afford to live here."

The new regulations will allow for approximately 830 units of housing in the southeast quadrant, compared to 1,180 under the previous rules, according to Paul Conner, the city's director of planning and zoning. Councilor Barritt, who voted for the regulations, maintains that the opposition has overstated the impact of the potential housing loss. Through a practice called inclusionary zoning, the regulations mandate that new housing developments with more than 12 units keep 10 percent of the inventory permanently affordable for buyers. But Barritt argues that those lost units wouldn't make a dent in the need for more affordable housing in the county — and that the vast majority of development in the southeast quadrant would be priced to recoup the developer's costs.

"Even if you could secure a big enough block of land to build on, I don't think there's any way you could build housing in the southeast quadrant that could really be considered affordable, except for those inclusionary zoning units," Barritt said. There are more appropriate locations in the city for affordable and middle-income housing, he suggested, such as the already congested Route 7 corridor.

"There's an empty parking lot across from Zen Gardens, on Shelburne Road, and there was a plan, like, three and a half years ago to build a block of very small apartments there, which would be very affordable, I think," he said. "And it's right on the bus line. So there's a transportation conduit, and there's also a supermarket not that far away that somebody can walk to."

He rejects the argument, advanced by Dooley and others, that concentrating affordable housing in areas that are already less green and more densely populated constitutes a kind of de facto segregation. "There is no land discrimination going on," he said. "I mean, that's the current state of the city today — there are some more urban areas, and then there are some more rural areas. And don't forget," he added, "that our rural areas have a huge connection of recreation paths that everybody is allowed to enjoy."

But others feel that the conservationist furor over the southeast quadrant has missed the point. "Climate change is a regional problem, not a neighborhood problem," said Vince Bolduc, who serves with Dooley on the Affordable Housing Committee.

Bolduc, a retired professor of sociology at Saint Michael's College, also worked on the volunteer committee that surveyed South Burlington's open spaces to help with the city's conservation efforts. By limiting development in the southeast quadrant, he believes that South Burlington will simply outsource the housing shortage to farther-flung communities — and, in the end, the city will still suffer the consequences of the area's collective carbon footprint.

"If we don't allow people to live in South Burlington, they will leapfrog into more remote areas of the county, and those people are going to need to travel further, and there's going to be more region-wide sprawl," Bolduc said. "And nobody wants to live with that."  

One of the photo captions in this story has been updated to clarify the view of Mount Mansfield in relation to the site slated for future construction.

Correction, February 23, 2022: A previous version of this story misidentified the boundaries of the 3,200-acre swath described in the article.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Zoned Out | Despite a housing crisis, South Burlington's city council adopts regs to slow rural development"

Locked Out logoSeven Days is examining Vermont's housing crisis — and what can be done about it — in our Locked Out series this year. Send tips to lockedout@sevendaysvt.com. These stories are supported by a grant from the nonprofit Journalism Funding Partners, which leverages philanthropy and fundraising to boost local reporting.