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Housing Bills Take Aim at Local Control in Vermont Towns


Published January 16, 2023 at 8:54 p.m.
Updated January 24, 2023 at 3:06 p.m.

  • Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
  • Vermont Statehouse
Three bills slated to be introduced in the Vermont legislature this week aim to clear some of the local obstacles to home construction in downtown areas.

Rep. Seth Bongartz (D-Manchester) has spent the past several months meeting with environmental groups, housing advocates and others to create his bill, which would remove some local control from towns with the aim of making it easier to build homes.

Among other things, Bongartz’s bill, which he planned to introduce on Tuesday, would require towns to allow duplexes to be built anywhere that a single-family home is allowed — and fourplexes to be built in areas connected to water and sewer. Many towns now limit construction to one unit of housing per lot, with lot sizes varying widely.

Bongartz's bill would also set the parking space requirement for any unit of housing to just one, a measure aimed at easing permitting in smaller spaces. Many towns require that each unit have two spaces.

Bongartz said his goal is to clear the way for low- and moderate-income housing in downtown areas where there is open space and to steer development away from farm and forest areas to avoid fragmenting them.

“If we don’t make it easier to build in downtowns, we’re just going to end up with sprawl and houses in the wrong place," Bongartz said. He noted that Vermont has been working for more than two decades on smart growth principals and programs with the goal of reducing the reliance on cars and preserving open spaces. “Not doing this, in my view, would just be kind of sad.”

Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden-Southeast), chair of the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee, plans to cosponsor a bill that is similar to Bongartz’s proposal. She said she'll introduce the proposal on Friday.
The Vermont legislature has directed millions of state and federal dollars to the housing crisis over the past several years, and affordable housing organizations have built hundreds of new apartments. But high prices and a dearth of options are still contributing to homelessness and deterring job seekers from taking positions in the state.

The Vermont Housing Finance Agency estimates that the state needs 40,000 new units of housing by 2030, Bongartz said. Developers are building about 2,700 homes per year, many of them seasonal, he added, instead of the 5,000 to 6,000 needed to keep up with demand.

Rep. Katherine Sims (D-Craftsbury) also plans to introduce a housing bill this week. She'd like to exempt more of the state-designated downtown areas from Act 250, Vermont's land use planning law. That would lessen the power of a community appeal process that often halts development or reduces the size of projects considerably.

“We want to prevent [housing proposals] from being appealed forever or shrunk to a size that the numbers don’t pan out,” Sims said.

Communities would retain control of their downtowns through local zoning rules, she said. Under her bill, municipalities would need to adhere to those rules and not limit projects further.

“If the community has already decided the project is consistent with its vision for planning and development in the community, no one person or 10 people should be able to hold up a project,” she said.
Ted Brady, the executive director of the Vermont League of Cities & Towns, worked with Bongartz and Ram Hinsdale as they created their bills. He’d like lawmakers to focus on reforming the obstacles present in Act 250 rather than taking permitting control from the towns.

"For decades, the state has told town planning commissions to thoughtfully plan in their towns and villages and cities, and now they’re saying, ‘We know what is best for your town or city,'" Brady said.

But Brady, like Sims, wants to see limits on appeals. He described the topic as a “third rail” of Vermont politics — one destined to generate outrage. He said his members consider housing a top priority and know the existing system has to change.

“You get some people together, they don’t like the color of the house, they don’t like the color of the person moving into that housing … and time after time, you see lost opportunity in the number of units," he said. "Obviously, the process is to blame for a lot of housing not being developed.”

While local opposition to new housing has been strong in many communities, Ram Hinsdale said she believes many people also welcome construction in village and town centers. People who need housing for themselves, for their employees or for grown children who want to return to Vermont are eager for change, she said, and their voices haven’t necessarily been heard.
“There are some people with louder voices and deeper pockets, and they shouldn’t be able to keep others from building the type of housing that is needed so young families can move in and build the workforce,” Ram Hinsdale said.

Sims said the issue is crucial to Vermont's future as a rural state.

"People are very alarmed by our housing crisis, and they want to see more affordable housing for low- and middle-income Vermonters," she said. "And what I hear is they want to see housing not on the top of a hill, not in a farm field, but in our more densely developed areas and our village centers."

Correction, January 17, 2022: A previous version of this story misreported the number of cosponsors for Ram Hinsdale's bill.
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 [email protected]. These stories are supported by a grant from the nonprofit Journalism Funding Partners, which leverages philanthropy and fundraising to boost local reporting.