The number of residential units in a small area of Brooklyn Street in Morrisville could triple if the town changes its zoning bylaws this fall to allow for more high-density development, much like the kind that has been popping up in other parts of the village in recent years.
This has some people worried that development is proceeding too quickly with seemingly little regard for how the new buildings look.
The area pegged for the zoning change runs along the western side of lower Brooklyn Street and includes the set-back Fenimore Street and Brooklyn Heights neighborhoods, as well as all the houses along that side of the road. According to planning director Todd Thomas, in his planning council meeting minutes, the town selectboard “inadvertently” and “mistakenly” removed multi-family dwellings as a permitted use along the lower part of Brooklyn Street. He said this was done in either 2018 or 2017 during one of the town’s frequent rounds of zoning bylaw changes.
In a letter to residents in the affected area inviting them to attend a June 28 planning council meeting, Thomas included a property tax map showing the current number of housing units on each parcel versus how much would be allowed if the town rezones the area as high-density.
The differences, especially in the two neighborhoods off Brooklyn Street, are stark.
The Fenimore Street neighborhood could increase its current inventory of 30 units housed in 15 duplexes to a maximum of 96 units. Brooklyn Heights also currently has 30 units, but its maximum density would be 124, a four-fold increase.
In addition, the properties that currently line Brooklyn Street, which include a now-shuttered funeral home, could all eventually be torn down and replaced with multi-family dwellings holding anywhere from six to 17 units.
According to Thomas’s minutes from the June 28 meeting — in addition to regularly being held under a tent at Copley Country Club instead of the town offices, planning council meetings are not recorded and do not have a remote meeting option like other boards — some residents expressed worries about traffic and requested that any new development meet historic preservation standards.
A small group of people have also recently aired their concerns about the proposed density changes on front porch forum, especially how it might affect existing municipal infrastructure.
“My concerns are primarily associated with the costs of operating these infrastructures and any and all costs for upgrades associated with any improvements being passed on to existing landowners within the Village District,” wrote David Ring.
Lisa McCormack added the capacity of local schools to that list of concerns, saying, “While we (need) housing that’s affordable to people who work locally, we should examine both the short and long-term impact of potentially adding hundreds of new units in a relatively small area.”
Thomas this week noted that he and the planning council have been discussing changes to Brooklyn Street for a while. It was a topic of discussion as early as January 2021.
Build like it was?
In addition to changing the density on lower Brooklyn Street, planners are exploring a round of zoning changes this fall that would allow for more density in part of the village while also making sure new buildings resemble historic structures they replace.
Planning council chair Etienne Hancock, at Tuesday’s meeting, said changes to the town’s historic preservation bylaws might be the biggest task the planning council has taken up this year. He said the changes are spurred by residents.
“It definitely has started with the complaints from the public who are alarmed at the tear-downs and what replaces them,” Hancock said. “This is our first foray into trying to respond to that in a way that everyone can accept.”
Hancock said it is imperative the historic preservation language is air-tight because Morristown doesn’t have a second layer of advisory government that deals solely with historic structures, such as in Stowe. When asked why the town doesn’t simply form a historic preservation commission, Hancock said it’s already hard enough to get volunteers to serve on the planning council and development review board — the planning council was in recent years downsized from a seven-person body to five, and still doesn’t always get all five of its members to meetings.
The current draft of the zoning bylaws’ historic preservation section was prepared by Paul Trudell, an architect and member of the town development review board, but it is a work in progress. Council member Josh Goldstein said they have been discussing it for months,
“We’re trying to take all of that meat and put it in the meat grinder and make hamburger,” he said.
Some of the language may be esoteric to the layperson but Goldstein said any builder would understand them and be able to use them as a guide — there are things like guidelines for where vinyl siding is allowed and references to “articulation” and “fenestration,” meant to ensure that long expanses of building walls are visually broken up by some architectural feature.
“It can’t just be a straight wall anymore,” Thomas said. “So, no more boxes."
Graham Mink, arguably Morristown’s most prolific developer, argued that there were plenty of buildings constructed 100-150 years old that are “basically boxes.” He said adding more granular requirements means adding more money to a project’s build cost.
Mink is also one of Morristown’s most controversial developers — people have complained about the 133 units he’s trying to get built on a wooded peninsula off Jersey Way, and some of the people at Tuesday’s council meeting referred to his cluster of buildings on Bridge Street as a “ghetto.”
“So, it costs you a little extra money. It’s our town and we’ve raised our children here,” Jessica Dambach said. Dambach is also one of the folks affected by the proposed density changes on Brooklyn Street. “We don’t want it to look like this.”
Mink said his goal with development is to create workforce housing — the lack of which many say is one of Vermont’s most pressing problems — that is market rate, and every extra bit of cost on his end affects what he charges for rent.
“The criticism I receive? Half of it is the buildings are not attractive and the other half is the rents are too high,” Mink said. “Those are two things that are impossible to have going at the same time.”