As a lawyer, Kelsey Peterson has mostly worked on the adversarial side of land use, but as South Burlington’s new city planner she’s excited to build up rather than tear down.
A year ago, the job was still frozen in the city budget, but vaccines and economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic helped to thaw numerous South Burlington positions last spring. While the job is new to her — this she stresses — Peterson brings legal, social and sustainability expertise on land use, from her time as a lawyer in New Hampshire to her time working with Inuit communities in arctic Canada.
“South Burlington is a patchwork of all kinds of different things. I find it to be very interesting and very compelling to be working on, to try to bring everything forward in an equitable and inclusionary way,” Peterson said.
She joined the department this month.
While the city began as a suburb of Burlington, with many people living locally and commuting to work elsewhere, South Burlington grew to have a bustling heart of its own with commercial and industrial areas, neighborhoods and schools, agriculture, recreation parks and swaths of green open space.
This was one of the reasons Peterson was interested in the job. In a way, it’s “kind of disconnected,” she said, with zoning and land use regulations changing across districts over time. Now, she’s interested in how to take the city’s distinct flavors and marry them in a way that builds community.
Peterson grew up in Fletcher and describes herself as “one of those people who gives directions by what the building used to be three owners ago.” Before moving back to the Green Mountains earlier this year, Peterson served on a local planning board and conservation commission in New Hampshire, while working as an environmental and land-use attorney. In law school at the University of Colorado, she clerked in trial and superior courts.
“As a lawyer doing land use, you do spend a lot of time opposing projects and opposing changes and regulations. I’m pretty happy to be taking some of that experience, but putting it toward what I feel is a more productive side of planning — more building it up than tearing it down,” she said.
Before law school, Peterson worked with Inuit communities in Nunavut, Canada, while receiving her master’s degree in geography. Her research, which looked at planning and community development from a social science perspective, focused on the impact of a gold mine on a local Indigenous community. She described it as research into “corporate social responsibility principles,” through examining how rural communities are changed, personally, culturally and environmentally, by that scale of economic development. She interviewed local nurses, teachers, elders, families — all different members of the community to gauge how they were feeling impacts from the gold mine.
Pushing for equity
In her own experience working through the pandemic, Peterson has noticed new conversations around planning and what people value in their community. For her, remote work wasn’t as swell as she expected — it was rather isolating — but she’s noticed more of a de-emphasis on commercial office space with a move away from commuting.
The pandemic has also shifted conversations to focus more on equity, Peterson added.
“When we were in the lockdown phase of the pandemic and people were in their houses or their apartments, and then tried to get outside, there wasn’t much outdoor recreation or a park system or bike and pedestrian networks, things like that, in close vicinity, especially to affordable housing,” Peterson said. “I think there’s definitely some more focus on, instead of just building housing, building the amenities around housing that make it more of a community and more livable in those locations.”
The city planner role supports the South Burlington Planning Commission’s objectives and projects, and helps to envision long-range planning for the city. The planning and zoning department is quite collaborative, with team members often working with the affordable housing committee, bike and pedestrian committee and other stakeholders, Peterson noted.
Director of planning and zoning Paul Conner added that he is thrilled to bring Peterson on board to tackle “important long-range planning opportunities for the city.”
The department has been understaffed since the previous city planner departed in 2020 and the job was frozen. With Peterson as city planner, Conner said the team will be able to continue updating land regulations for infill development and transferable development rights, update zoning and transportation policies, support affordable housing, continue land conservation and create the city’s first-ever climate action plan.