After a year of discussion and evaluation, the Interim Zoning Open Space Committee identified 25 parcels as top priority conservation areas in South Burlington.

The committee originally surveyed 189 parcels and whittled it down to a figure that members felt was digestible for the city council.

Allan Strong, chair of the committee, presented the committee’s report to the city council Jan. 21 and at the committee’s meeting later that week, triggering concerns from the development community and some landowners.

Despite it not being a regulatory document, and adopted by the city council, arguments are being made that it can prematurely influence the planning process regarding how these lands are treated and have an adverse effect on their property values.

The committee was charged by the council with “the prioritization for conservation of existing open spaces, forest blocks and working landscapes in South Burlington in the sustenance of our natural ecosystem, scenic viewsheds and river corridors,” according to the report.

An inventory of the city’s most precious open spaces is one of the four areas being assessed in this round of interim zoning, which is set to conclude this February, unless the council decides to vote for another, final, three-month extension. 

The city is also assessing the future of Transfer Development Rights (TDR), doing an overhaul of how Planned Unit Developments are handled in the Land Development Regulations, and conducting an economic cost-benefit analysis of potential development.

The work of the open space committee, will, in large part, influence the other pieces of the Interim Zoning puzzle, such as how those Transfer Development Rights are handled.

Meanwhile, the pendulum continues to swing between the urgency to conserve the city’s open spaces and address the state’s affordable housing crisis. 

“A lot of work has already been done on open space in the past,” said Strong at the committee meeting. The 2002 Open Space Strategy, 2014 Open Space Report, and 2005 Arrowwood Environmental Final Report were among reports referenced. 

 “We’re hoping that this builds on and provides a little more context and maybe more objective criteria in terms of thinking about our resources, but it’s not done in a vacuum,” said Strong.

The parcels

Of the 25 parcels, 20 of them are privately owned; the remaining five belong to the University of Vermont. These parcels total over 1,300 acres – 1,040 of them private, 304 from UVM.

Several of these high priority parcels are organized around significant natural resources: The Great Swamp, Potash Brook watershed, as well as the Muddy Brook and the Winooski River watershed.

The Great Swamp region has some Natural Resource Protection zoning and other areas that allow for development. The committee points out that the connection between Dorset Farms and South Village “has fragmented this ecosystem and further development will continue to degrade its functionality.”

The Potash Brook watershed is completely within city boundaries and covers about half of South Burlington, which is where 12 of the 25 parcels reside. While the committee admits that the city may not be able to conserve all the parcels, with it being an impaired watershed, additional impervious surfaces could provide challenges. 

The parcels near the Muddy Brook and Winooski River watershed are close to the downstream portions of these watersheds.

The UVM properties comprise of agricultural land, natural resources and forested land, but there are some limitations based on zoning. The recent RFP for the sale of the Edlund Tract, however, sheds light on potential opportunity for the city should the university wish to sell more in the future. The committee is recommending that the city confer with the university to discuss its long-term goals.

The process

The committee used a two-tiered, parcel-based approach with spatial data sources to get to the results in the report. 

In the first tier, the committee identified parcels that were both greater than four acres in size and had less than 10% of impervious surface using a mapping layer developed by the city and the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.

Members then took regional resources into account by using the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources BioFinder 2016 database and filtering by the “highest priority” and “priority” layers. Of the 189 parcels, 71% – or 133 – were included in these priority areas.

The second tier looked at five categories: water resources, wildlife habitat, forest resources, aesthetics and agriculture, each with their own subcategories of natural resources. Members ranked all the subcategories on a one to five scale, one being the most valuable. 

Of the 133 parcels, 94 of them contained valuable environmental and natural resource attributes in at least three of the five categories. After eliminating parcels that were already conserved, that brought the count to 72.

Another 47 parcels were then removed from the priority list due to a number of factors: they were within areas such as Technology Park, Meadowlands Industrial Park, or were completely within the Natural Resource Protection area; small parcel size; they contained a single family home; among other criteria. The 72 parcels still have conservation value, Strong reiterated, but 25 was a more manageable number to bring to council.

Even if many aren’t conserved, the hope is that the report will help inform smarter planning.

“If a development has to go on one of these parcels, anything we can do to minimize the damage to natural resources is really important in thinking about not only following regulations but also trying to think about doing this in a way that’s as carefully-crafted as possible,” Strong addressed at the council meeting.

Initial Feedback

Was a parcel-based approach a good decision? It depends on who you ask.

Jeff Nick is one of the owners and partners of the Hill Farm property; the parcel accounts for around 100 acres. “Maybe about 20 of them should be on that map,” he told the committee. 

At the committee meeting, he warned of the consequences of flagging an entire parcel as a conservation priority, especially if only a small portion of a parcel has those natural resources. 

“Right out of the gate, the developer’s in a bind because there’s public outcry because even though only 10% of that land may be sensitive, the whole 100 acres gets thrown into the whole process; that’s not fair,” he said. “I can see how it’s going to play out, and it’s not going to work very well.”

Another developer, Andrew Gill of O’Brien Brothers, acknowledged that the open space committee report was completed by a volunteer group of citizens, many of whom sit on other city committees. He encouraged involving experts

“Let’s take this report, use it as a starting point, and let’s put some actual environmental scientists in the process,” he said. 

“I think this is great,” said resident Steve Crowley. “The fact that you’ve taken highly-valuable, un-boundaried natural resources and matched them up with parcels seems brilliant to me, so, thank you.”

Resident Noah Hyman agreed. His property spans nearly 32 acres.

“I really like that they’re parceled because it increases everything that’s already been conserved. It makes the wildlife stronger,” he said. “On most maps, only the part that’s toward the Great Swamp and the woodlands is conserved,” he said of his property. “But living there all this time---all the action is in the field ...That’s where the animals are getting their food, that’s where the hawks are hunting their small prey, that’s where the bobolinks are nesting, and that’s never been on one of those maps until this one.”

Jennifer and Robert Morway own 15 acres and are part of the Auclair family. When they purchased their property in the Southeast Quadrant, it had the potential to house 60 units. Although they do not intend to do that or have the TDRs to do so, seeing how this report influences the TDR recommendations coming out of interim zoning could be flagged as a financial concern.

“It all comes crashing down on the landowner, not South Burlington,” Robert Morway said.

“We’ve been through so many interim zoning freezes and changes,” Jennifer Morway added. She stressed the need for the rankings to be as accurate as possible. “I see these maps as dangerous because they are used over and over again.”

As a matter of process, this report, as well as the other work coming out of interim zoning, has not yet been approved by the city council or has legal binding.

Nonetheless, there is still some apprehension as to how the report will be viewed. Gill cited a section of the land development regulations (15.18) that says the DRB may seek the input of the natural resources committee, some members of whom created the report. 

“It’s conceivable that that committee could reference this and say, ‘this is designated as open space’ and that the board would then be considering that in their decision,” he said. “It’s understating the significance of the role these committees have via this standard.”

Liam Murphy, a lawyer representing the Windjammer Hospitality Group, proposed a disclaimer to be added to the report stating that it should not be used to inform any regularly process – be it the DRB, Act 250 or court – until it is adopted in the city’s Comprehensive Plan or Land Development Regulations.

Looking out for the landowners

No matter where people stand on the report itself and how it is used, the need to inform the landowners of the 25 parcels was a unanimous opinion.

“Give the property owners, especially the 25 that have been identified, the opportunity to come before you and express themselves one way or the other,” said resident Leo Nadeau. “If they show up and at least have some defense or concern they want corrected, they would be given the opportunity to do so before that report is posted. I think that would be fair for this community to do that for its citizens.”

The hope is that landowners interested in selling their land for conservation should be able to receive fair market value for land that is developable and land that has development restrictions, Strong said.

Rosanne Greco, a member of the South Burlington Land Trust, chimed in about the SBLT’s Cents for Conservation proposal, which advocates increasing the yearly conservation fund contribution by two cents. The city’s Open Space Fund is a one cent yearly contribution and would take about 70 years to raise the funding needed to raise roughly $10,000. The increase could raise enough money to purchase the 1,000 acres in about 14 years.

“It would increase your taxes for $68 a year,” Greco said. That is based on the average family house tax. The average condo tax would be a little over $48 annually. “It would be temporary. It is doable.”

At the rate that South Burlington’s rural lands are disappearing, almost all will be gone in the next decade, according to the South Burlington Land Trust.

A public hearing on the status of interim zoning will be held Tuesday, Feb. 11, 6:30 p.m. at city hall.

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