The South Burlington Land Trust’s wastewater ordinance proposal is about more than just the sewer.
In November, members of the land trust proposed changes to the city’s current ordinance to help direct growth in specific areas of the city. While councilors tabled the discussion, the proposal revived a debate in South Burlington about hot topics like affordable housing and climate change.
So, what is in the proposal and why is sewer at the center of these issues?
According to a letter from the land trust’s board of directors to the city council, the group’s interest in reexamining the sewer ordinance was piqued after the city hired consultants to prepare for the South Burlington Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security Action Plan.
Those consultants suggested limiting wastewater capacity to “help to direct growth towards City Center and the transit corridors where higher density development is desired.”
Some proposed changes to the wastewater ordinance could include the creation of a sewer service area, which would define where developers could hook up to city sewer. Another change could include the creation of a five-year sewer capacity allocation plan, which would limit total capacity for a period of time in an effort to slow development.
In the proposal, the land trust focuses primarily on city center and the transit overlay district as areas where growth should take place. Members of the board of directors researched and developed the proposal this summer before presenting it to city council in November last year.
Councilors asked the planning and zoning department to examine the proposal and return in December with their thoughts.
In a Dec. 21 city council meeting, Paul Conner, director of planning and zoning, broke down the current wastewater ordinance for councilors and offered some of his own questions. He wondered, under the changes, what would happen if any of the limitations were met?
“That’s the key question to me which makes this a challenging issue to wrestle with,” Conners said. “What if someone wants to build a new house and the rules say, ‘No, you can’t build a house this year?’”
Contributing to sprawl
Land trust president Sarah Dopp sees the sewer ordinance as a useful planning tool. According to her, the ordinance in its current state is vague and allows developers to request sewer on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“We feel that contributes to sprawl because there are no clear guidelines to how many people can apply for sewer use at a given time, and how much they can capture in whole,” she said. “It doesn’t serve us well. It gives a randomized patchwork type of development.”
Dopp worries that the city has experienced what she called ‘unbridled growth’ in the absence of clearer regulations.
Tom Chittenden, a city councilor and state senator, pushed back against this claim, arguing that low density does not serve the affordability or environmental interests of the city.
“If we don’t allow thoughtful and adequately dense housing to develop in closest proximity to our population centers, it will push this demand further into our hillside communities like Jericho, Westford and Underhill,” said Chittenden, increasing carbon dioxide emissions from increased travel, among other downsides.
Sandy Dooley, who is vice-chair of the affordable housing committee, a member of the land trust and a former city councilor, argued that the proposal is inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan and ongoing interim zoning work.
She argued that other municipalities who experience more competition use sewer ordinances if they have limited capacity.
“We have ample capacity in our sewer system,” she countered. “I would not say the sewer ordinance is a vehicle for regulating development.”
For both Chittenden and Dooley, providing affordable housing seems to be a bigger fish in need of frying.
While those in favor of a stricter sewer ordinance stress that they are also in favor of affordable housing, many wonder if large housing developments address the problem of affordability; or if they create a band-aid that doesn’t address a deeper societal issue.
“Not having access to city sewer space will prevent more mammoth developments that are eliminating the rural lands of South Burlington,” explained Rosanne Greco, who sits on the land trust board of directors and helped to research and write the proposal.
Dooley worries amending the current sewer ordinance could worsen equity and further segregate the city’s wealth distribution — residents flush with cash and resources can live near empty rolling hills, and residents living paycheck to paycheck can live in the inner-city.
“There’s gotten to be more and more concern about how zoning is used in ways that actually reduce equity and opportunity as opposed to increasing equity and opportunity,” said Dooley. She points out that historically, zoning has been used to further racial segregation such as redlining. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the regulations themselves were racist, but that those wielding the words used them to promote racism.
How does Dooley see that playing out in practice? One proposed change in the ordinance would stop developers from hooking up to the city sewer in certain areas, like the southeast quadrant and the open space zoning district. This wouldn’t prevent someone with a smaller development plan, which wouldn’t need high sewer capacity, from purchasing a private septic system and continue building.
“Somebody who is quite wealthy could build a new house in the southeast quadrant without relying on city sewer. But no one else with means could,” said Dooley.
Greco pointed out that even if large developments that include affordable housing were built in the southeast quadrant, residents would need a car to access services like grocery stores, health clinics, the library and more.
“In the southeast quadrant, you can’t get a loaf of bread, milk, toilet paper; you can’t do anything without having a car or calling a taxi,” said Greco. She counts herself as pro-affordable housing, but questions the benefits of adding large housing developments in an area far away from city services.
“We need smart planning,” she said. “If you want people to have affordable housing, put it near services where they can walk to public transit.”
Fighting for the climate
Arguably, a common thread among opponents is a suggestion that the land trust seeks to preserve open spaces as a special interest — not on behalf of the South Burlington community.
The southeast quadrant, where a majority of open space in South Burlington exists, also houses some of the city’s wealthiest residents.
“What troubles me is this proposal could easily promote socio-economic segregation in other words,” said Dooley.
On the other hand, Greco sees this as a fight to save the planet. Environmentalism, by nature, benefits everyone, she said — not just members of the Land Trust or wealthy residents in the Southeast quadrant.
“We’re in double jeopardy,” she said. By cutting down trees, disrupting grassland and soil, she said the community is “destroying things that will help us in the climate emergency,” and ensuring fossil fuels will be used in perpetuity.
Greco emphasized that hooking up to city sewer is not a right, nor a guarantee. “It’s an option that the city can grant or not grant,” said Greco. “There is no entitlement to hook up to sewer. That’s why many towns use ordinances.”
Dopp agreed. “Once you destroy open space and wildlife, it’s gone,” she said.
At the Dec. 21 meeting, councilors handed off the proposal to the planning commission to examine after interim zoning expires.
Interim zoning was extended on Nov. 2.