The Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission worked on over 25 projects in South Burlington last fiscal year, including preparing an emergency management plan and providing transportation to elderly folks and people with disabilities.
Still, more work needs to be done to fix the county’s strained housing market and to streamline energy policy, according to executive director Charlie Baker.
“It’s maybe the longest list I’ve seen around the county. You have a lot of projects that are in the capital program and a lot of different construction things happening so I guess I’ll say congratulations on that,” Baker said in reviewing the commission’s annual report at a South Burlington city council meeting Oct. 4.
In addition to many major projects finished or underway, South Burlington has various projects in the regional planning commission’s transportation improvement program that fall under the Vermont Agency of Transportation for design or construction. Some projects in the commission’s highlight reel include bicycle- and pedestrian-related projects, transportation planning and technical assistance.
Bicycle, pedestrian connections
The commission continued to work last year on a plan for a continuous bicycle and pedestrian connection on Route 7, following Queen City Park Road from South Burlington to the Burlington bike path at Oakledge Park. A study, which includes identifying key destinations and connections, such as the Hannaford Plaza, Red Rocks Park and bus stops, will be finished next year. The total consultant budget clocked in at $85,000.
The commission took more steps toward building a multiuse path connecting Williston to South Burlington, by updating land use and environmental data, developing a more detailed conceptual design, updating cost estimates and outlining next steps.
Considering the potential future influx of development around Route 116, Kimball Avenue, Tilley, Kennedy and Community drives, the commission tackled a land use and transportation plan in the area. Finished nearly a year ago, the plan notes the area’s stretches of undeveloped land adjacent to predominantly mixed industrial and commercial buildings. It “evaluates potential future scenarios in this area, their impacts to the existing transportation network, and develops recommendations for transportation improvements,” per the final report.
The traffic overlay district received an update last fiscal year to better align with current zoning and land development regulations that use form-based code, a type of planning that evaluates the form of buildings and how they fit in relation to each other, on streets and in various parts of the city more than based on land use. The regional planning commission also updated the impact fee ordinance with new transportation infrastructure.
In light of much needed safety and functionality improvements at the Swift and Spear streets intersection, the commission spearheaded a feasibility study, landing on a roundabout as the best traffic pattern alternative. With support from the South Burlington bicycle and pedestrian committee and planning commission, the proposed roundabout would be compatible with future land use development, traffic volume and planned bicycle and pedestrian options. The total consultant budget amounted to $20,000.
Assisting city staff
The regional planning commission assisted city staff over the last fiscal year, preparing the South Burlington annual local emergency management plan and assisting with the city’s water quality needs, specifically developing plans and cost estimates to bring two stormwater outlets on Keari Lane and Quail Run into compliance.
They also continue to assist with the city’s climate action plan, a hot agenda item that has taken up innumerable city council meeting hours throughout the year. The plan includes objectives, key sectors and individual goals, with an outline for what actions the city, its businesses and the community need to take to meet their goals. A $30,000 budget with a local match of $6,000 is set for the ongoing work.
If you’ve ever wondered how many guardrails are within South Burlington, the commission also inventoried that magical number.
Housing, energy top priorities
Looking ahead to the new year, city councilors called for more attention to energy policy and affordable housing, locally and beyond.
While the commission undertook efforts to build housing, including wrapping up a 5-year campaign called Building Homes Together during which more than 3,600 houses were built, Baker said they barely made a dent.
“It really was nowhere near enough to positively impact our largely broken housing market,” Baker said. “We still have a very low vacancy rate. We did not build enough affordable units.” Any ideas for how to improve the local and state housing market are welcome, he said.
“From my view, there is more definitely more that can be done on the permitting system to encourage” affordable housing, South Burlington city manager Jessie Baker added, garnering echoes of support from city councilors.
For councilors Tim Barritt and Meaghan Emery, energy efficiency and policy are top priorities. Barritt bemoaned the patchwork quilt of energy efficiency standards across the state and lack of oversight.
“I mean it’s a statewide effort to try and decrease our carbon emissions, right?” Barritt said. “It’s time for the builders to hear the tune and to dance to it, as much as they can.”
Baker noted the regional planning commission added a new staffer this year, Ann Janda, who oversees energy project management and supports local energy committees and municipal staff, but he agreed that enforcement is an issue.
“Things don’t really seem to be quite equitable in how that’s applied. Maybe the Legislature will take that up again, and have some more conversation about how to make it a little bit more functional,” Charlie Baker said. He suggested adding energy policy to the agenda for the commission’s legislative forum in December, and asked councilors to consider other topics they’re interested in broaching.
Looking forward, Baker added that the regional planning commission will host a racial equity summit on Nov. 6 aimed at drawing Black, Indigenous and residents of color into planning conversations. The commission’s racial equity work is “mostly inwardly focused” at the moment, he said, but the team hopes to share the results from the summit with municipalities in January.