The Housing Crisis Is Invigorating Efforts to Reform Small-Town Zoning Codes in Vermont | Development | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Housing Crisis Is Invigorating Efforts to Reform Small-Town Zoning Codes in Vermont

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Published October 5, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


MATT JENKINS
  • Matt Jenkins

The village of White River Junction shows what smart growth can look like. Close to 250 units of multifamily housing have been added to the downtown district in the past decade, said Lori Hirshfield, director of the Department of Planning and Development for the Town of Hartford, which includes the Junction.

The additions were created as a result of updates to the rules that restrict and shape development: zoning. 

Over the course of two decades, small shifts in Hartford's land-use regulations have had an outsize impact. They have included easing parking requirements, building size limits and downtown growth caps. As a result, Hartford has been able to permit more lower-cost housing projects.

"The one thing about zoning is that it should never be stagnant," Hirshfield said. "Every community should, at least once every 10 years or so, look at their zoning and say: 'Does this still make sense to us?'"

Most small towns across Vermont, however, have not revamped their codes in decades. Some bylaws date back to the 1960s and '70s and favor sprawling, suburban-style development. That led the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development to issue bylaw modernization grants totaling $500,000 to 41 municipalities this year.

Those communities are now taking steps to allow more compact development in town centers, easing the process for approving duplexes, triplexes and accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. In tradition-minded Vermont, towns and their residents are showing a high level of interest in making some changes. The urgency of the housing crisis is fueling the momentum.

Preston Bristow, Chester's zoning administrator, said he was surprised by the level of support for the updates. At one community workshop, he recalled, "Everyone was saying our town is going to die if people can't afford to live here." That's a sea change from past years. "Forty years ago," he said, "everyone was worried about Vermont being overdeveloped."

Many other town administrators said the same: Their constituents are desperate for more housing, and antidevelopment attitudes are softening. 

In Wilmington, near southern Vermont's ski resorts, housing for workers is in short supply — a concern echoed in many of the state's most popular tourism destinations, which rely on those workers. Matthew Bachler, a senior planner with the Windham Regional Commission, which advises multiple towns that got the grant, said community members have been asking how they can help ease the crisis.

Wilmington has formed a steering committee that is comparing its existing zoning with what its changing demographics require. The committee plans to propose small shifts, such as allowing larger buildings with more tenants.

Similarly, West Rutland is removing certain requirements for parking spaces, encouraging developers to use more of their lots for housing — a move that's proven to be better for pedestrians and the environment. Town planners are also introducing some new concepts to the community, such as permitting homes to be built closer to roads. The goal is to revitalize the downtown and increase the amount of housing possible on a given property. The shift, town manager Mary Ann Goulette said, allows West Rutland to grow without the constraints of a midcentury ideal of suburbia. 

The Town of Essex, meanwhile, is working to remove some of the barriers to building three- and four-unit dwellings. Now, instead of being subjected to a separate approval process, such proposals will be treated the same as single-unit dwellings. "We're just sort of trying to make it a little simpler for the 'missing-middle' housing to be approved," city planner Darren Schibler said. The term refers to less expensive housing such as duplexes that have largely not been constructed in recent years.

The Town of Chester, which received a grant, is also trying to make it easier for duplexes, triplexes and ADUs to be constructed on preexisting sewer lines rather than on new ones. The hope is that such projects will keep building costs down and discourage sprawl.

Chester's Bristow cautions, though, that residents don't want rampant development, either: "It's something that, politically, we have to be really careful about. They don't want too much change too fast."

Today, large single-family homes dominate Vermont's housing market. They're not ideal for either older Vermonters who are looking to downsize or young families seeking affordable housing.

That's why state officials are advising towns across Vermont to build up their downtowns rather than build out into suburbs or rural areas. That strategy lines up with the broader conversation across the country about the importance of communities where people can walk to stores and services. Building up a preexisting downtown area also allows developers to connect to established water and sewage lines. 

A vibrant downtown boosts curb appeal, as well. Duplexes and triplexes were the building blocks of many quintessential Vermont towns. Back then, development happened largely without restriction. 

"The fact that communities are wanting to have these conversations and getting it, it's heartwarming," said Chris Cochran, director of community planning and revitalization for the state.

The first set of grants was successful enough to warrant a second round, with up to $650,000 in funding. Applications close in November, and Cochran said there's already been a steady flow of applications.

Jacob Hemmerick, the planning and policy manager for the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, acknowledged that successful bylaw reform takes a great deal of public outreach, consensus building and debate. But the need for more housing has led to a tipping point. "Deliberation and incrementalism is an important part of Vermont's tradition," Hemmerick said. "But it can, I think, become exclusionary at times."

That tension has certainly been at play throughout the zoning modernization process. Town planners emphasize the importance of public hearing sessions and a full exploration of options.

Planners hope that as these changes become law, small-town Vermont becomes more open to housing opportunities. And that may just be the ticket for widespread change. The energy certainly seems to be in the air. Said Hemmerick: "If every little town does a little, there's not a need for one little town to do everything."

The original print version of this article was headlined "In the Zone"