After a lengthy debate with the public, councilors unanimously voted to approve a letter accepting the Open Space Interim Zoning Report.
The letter acknowledges the report’s receipt and says it will be used “for planning purposes only.” While the report’s findings can be used to inform future city policy, it carries no policy weight – without further council action.
The letter, which accepted receipt of the report, was created after South Burlington landowners raised questions about whether the city had in fact accepted the report, and what accepting it meant.
The Open Space Report was drafted 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.
The report has proven controversial, with landowners worried councilors will use its findings to create regulations that might interfere with their development rights, or that the city would take the identified land for conservation.
But council members have repeatedly said the city would not conserve land through “takings.” Chair Helen Riehle has said the report could be used to help councilors prioritize land-buying decisions for the city – if and when opportunities arise.
Other community members have expressed concern about the need for the current interim zoning period to make material change in city regulations. They do not want to see the city complete interim zoning without new regulations in place.
During the July 20 meeting, Strong, planning commission member Michael Mittag and land trust member Sarah Dopp spoke about how the acceptance letter was worded.
“It seems like it’s sort of saying, ‘This may end up on a shelf somewhere,’” Strong said.
The letter acknowledges the council’s receipt of the report and its completion, and thanks the volunteer committee who made it. It includes a disclaimer that says accepting the report does not make it part of the city’s Land Development Regulations, City Attorney Andrew Bolduc said.
But the letter, “does not hinder in any way the report being used for planning purposes down the road,” Bolduc added.
Indeed, the letter says, “The Report’s results and recommendations may be used and applied in the development of future City policy, rules, or regulations.”
Discussion at Monday’s meeting centered around clarification that the report was not directly influencing change – though it could in the future.
Dopp said she felt the letter gave an impression of the city trying to cover itself in the future when it might want to “deny the use of the report.”
Councilor Meaghan Emery said she felt the acceptance letter represented the reality of the report, though, and allowed the city the freedom of future policy making.
Mittag offered the final public comment, saying he would leave afterwards because he found the proceedings “disconcerting.”
He said that landowners had insulted volunteers who created the Open Space Report by denigrating it, and that those same landowners asked for clarification about what the city’s acceptance of the report meant.
“You’re all missing the point if you’re going to go along with this,” Mittag said. “It’s a shame what’s going on tonight.”
The council voted 5-0 to approve the acceptance letter as written.
Reached by phone the next day, Riehle added she felt the acceptance letter conversation was important.
“I think it was helpful to have the public conversation about the intention and the language so that nobody actually believes that we’re just going to discount it,” she said.