The South Burlington City Council is revisiting a controversial measure that would put the brakes on development in the city for up to two years. The proposal, similar to one rejected by the council in July, is so divisive that it elicits hyperbolic reactions from supporters and opponents alike. Critics decry it as a “radically antibusiness” move that will drive up property taxes. Supporters call it a “breath of fresh air” that will save South Burlington from overdevelopment. Both sides agree the measure would dramatically redefine how future construction, commercial and residential, proceeds in the city for years to come.
Supporters of the measure, which goes by the benign-sounding interim-zoning bylaw, contend it would simply give the city some breathing room from new building projects while city planners put the finishing touches on a new, five-year comprehensive plan. A draft of that plan, which is due out in February, is expected to recommend a new type of zoning, called form-based codes. This approach favors mixed-use development, small-scale farming and affordable, cottage-style housing. Such goals contrast sharply with South Burlington’s reputation for suburban sprawl on Williston and Shelburne roads.
But opponents of the interim-zoning bylaw say the measure is anything but a breath of fresh air. They describe it as a “total building freeze” on all new construction, regardless of whether it’s environmentally responsible. Critics say it would put South Burlington’s business community in a “choke hold” that could potentially strangle Chittenden County’s real estate, development and construction industries.
“It’s a complete moratorium,” says Evan Langfeldt, director of business development for Technology Park Partners, a 177-acre business campus in South Burlington, which is home to, among other businesses, Ben & Jerry’s and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Langfeldt points out that GMCR’s new offices are in a LEED-certified building, an industry gold standard for eco-friendly construction. As Langfeldt puts it, “This is the type of development we should be doing more of.
“Obviously, we have a vested interest in the ability to continue to build on our property, as do other developers and the construction industry in South Burlington,” he adds. “But it’s not just the development and construction communities who are saying ‘Hold on!’ Residents of all shapes and forms are saying, ‘Wait, where’s this coming from?’”
V/T Commercial does about a third of its business in South Burlington. Owner and principal broker Tony Blake, who’s been in commercial real estate for 28 years, says he’s never seen a municipality adopt such a drastic measure. As he puts it, “You put something up like this and what does it say to the rest of the state? ‘We don’t want you!’”
Evanfeldt and Blake also express outrage that the city council “warned,” or issued a public notice, after business hours on Friday afternoon, December 16, for a public meeting on Monday, December 19, regarding the interim-zoning bylaw — five days before Christmas. They suggest supporters on the council were trying to slip this one “under the radar,” as Blake put it.
But council chair Sandra Dooley, who cosponsored the measure, bristles at such conspiracy theories. She denies that interim zoning is a “moratorium,” describing it a “different process” that, with few exceptions, would simply require developers to bring all new proposals to city council for approval before being referred to the city’s Development Review Board.
“It’s a balancing of what your goals are and what your tools are to achieve that,” Dooley says. “In the past, our land-development regulations have not supported our comprehensive plan as well as they could have.”
Dooley, who supported the measure defeated last summer, says this one is even more comprehensive and inclusive. It encompasses South Burlington’s southeast quadrant, an area south of I-89 and east of Spear Street, which contains some of the city’s largest tracts of undeveloped real estate.
Councilor Rosanne Greco, who was elected to the city council last March, says she introduced the first interim-zoning proposal last year. She says her goal is to address the city’s rapid population growth, which exceeded 20 percent in the last decade, making it one of Vermont’s fastest-growing municipalities.
Greco ran for office on promises of preserving open space and slowing unchecked development. She says interim zoning would give the city time to adopt new land-use regulations that better reflect the goals and values of a majority of city residents.
Many of those goals, she explains, were articulated during a four-day planning session in October, during which about 200 residents met with an outside consulting firm to discuss the creation of a village-like city center off Dorset Street. As residents mulled concepts for a city center — including pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets, affordable, single-family cottages, small-scale agriculture, and mixed-use development — Greco says that many residents expressed a desire to expand these goals citywide.
“If we allow development to continue as it has been continuing,” she adds, “then by the time we want to adopt form-based codes, it’ll be too late.”
Interestingly, Greco’s own interim-zoning bylaw was defeated last summer because she voted against it. The proposal had become too watered down for her to support, she explains.
This time, Greco plans to vote yes. She refutes claims that interim zoning would bring construction in South Burlington to a grinding halt, noting that as many as 700 housing units have been approved but not yet built. Some of those are in the southeast quadrant. “No one is putting … hammers down in the foreseeable future,” she says.
South Burlington resident Larry Williams says he’s more worried about the impact on his property taxes than on his business, Redstone Realty. When this proposal arose last summer, city manager Sandy Miller estimated that it would cost the city between $235,000 and $695,000 over two years, mostly in lost permitting fees.
To make up for that revenue, Miller has suggested adding a penny to the property-tax rate, which would raise about $277,000.
Williams points out that Miller’s estimates don’t include the cost of potential litigation that will likely result.
Ironically, Williams agrees with Greco and Dooley that form-based codes would be “appropriate and good” for South Burlington. However, “I don’t think it takes interim zoning to make it happen.
“Part of my frustration is, a lot of thought, effort and work by citizens went into the zoning that’s currently in place in South Burlington,” he adds. “As far as I can tell, you’re slapping them in the face by doing it this way. What’s the emergency?”
South Burlington resident Lisa Ventriss echoes a complaint heard from other critics that city council tried to “rush this through” during the holidays by holding a public meeting just before Christmas.
“That’s not kosher,” says Ventriss, who emphasizes that she’s speaking on her own behalf and not for her employer, the statewide Vermont Business Roundtable. “If this is such a big concern, this needs to be vetted in the full light of day, with ample opportunity for the public to comment.”
Greco dismisses those criticisms, too. “The only thing we voted on on December 19 was to discuss this in public. Nothing else has happened yet.”
A public hearing on the interim-zoning bylaw is scheduled for Tuesday, January 17, at 7 p.m. at the Orchard School, 2 Baldwin Avenue, South Burlington.