Don Kerwin and his wife have owned a home in South Burlington since 1963. When they turned 80 they decided to downsize.
After consulting a real estate agent and their family, they found the best way to maximize the value of their two acres was to subdivide and sell it as four lots.
But, they learned, it wasn’t going to be that easy.
Interim zoning bylaw took effect in November 2018, tapping the brakes on land development in the city — with some exceptions — the result of concerns about the pace and scale of development in the city’s future planning.
Although interim zoning has paused development in South Burlington in the past two years, a few applications have come forward. Those that do must go through a dual approval process before applying for a zoning permit.
Before interim zoning, applications for development went before the development review board for review then onto a zoning permit application. But during interim zoning, most applications need to pass through both city council and the development review board before applying for a zoning permit.
The council looks at applications to see if they are consistent with four state criteria and where they’re going with possible future regulations, said Paul Conner, director of planning and zoning.
“They’re not doing a detailed examination in the way the DRB is, where the DRB is looking at all of the zoning rules, the water and the wastewater, the traffic, all that kind of stuff,” he explained.
The added step meant the Kerwins had to spend extra time and money to work toward their subdivision project, Kerwin said — “It was not a pleasant experience.”
It meant numerous visits to both boards, but in the end, the Kerwins’ application received final plat approval from the review board.
A plat is a map of land divisions, including details like individual properties and streets. Plat approval, in general, can be given for a subdivision of land or a subdivision with development, said development review planner Marla Keene.
Kerwin said he was told by his lawyer and the city two of the three subdivided lots will need transfer of development rights approval too.
“We have no intention of building anything on those lots. Kerwin said. “We just want to sell the properties.”
Although the process caused frustration, Kerwin said he is now starting to see what he called the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Get some expert help. Don’t try to navigate the thing on your own. Talk to somebody that knows how the city bureaucracy works,” Kerwin said of the interim zoning application process.
Karen Ryder has lived in South Burlington since 1990 and served on the South Burlington Land Trust for about four years. Ryder is worried about the impact of development on the environment and is opposed to building in the city’s South East Quadrant.
She’d like to see the priority conservation land identified by the Open Space Committee be off limits for development. The city would have to find a process to pay people| who own that land, she said.
The South East Quadrant is historically agricultural land within city limits.
The Open Space Report was created by an 11-member committee as part of the city’s ongoing interim zoning studies. The group was charged with prioritizing the conservation of existing open spaces, forest blocks and agricultural areas to maintain local ecosystems, according to group chair Allan Strong.
From December 2018-March 2020, the committee examined 190 parcels, creating a list of the top 25 they recommended as prime conservation land.
Ryder said she feels for people who planned to sell their land and use the money to retire or meet other needs, but she thinks the city needs to focus on doing what it can to help our environment. She worries that even smaller subdivisions on people’s properties can harm wildlife habitats.
“I’m not one of the people that owns this land that I was planning to sell. I try to put myself in that place, but if there were a way for the city to purchase it at market value that makes a lot of sense to me,” she said.
Ryder hopes towns and cities will comply with Vermont’s “Global Warming Solutions Act,” which lawmakers passed last session and requires the state to meet specified carbon emission reduction goals in the coming years.
Without their participation, it will be impossible to meet those goals, she said.
Businesses in South Burlington need to thrive and support the tax base, Ryder said, but there are places left where people can still build. And while the goals of creating affordable housing and preserving land can seem at conflict, she said she believes the city can conserve properties identified by the open space committee.
“I would like people to take this climate crisis seriously, and I would like South Burlington to take it seriously and to act accordingly,” she said.
The current interim zoning bylaw period will end Nov. 13, though Connor explained it could be extended up to one more year. A hearing to discuss is scheduled for Nov. 2.