The hard deadline to pass new land regulations in South Burlington is months away, but at least three city councilors seem ready to approve the rules as soon as February, leaving clean-up amendments for later.
But councilors in the minority want to wash the dishes before they eat. With a much longer list of potential amendments — Matt Cota is proposing 22 changes and Thomas Chittenden proposes two and remains firm in his legal concerns — neither seem as eager to rush the process as their colleagues.
Another public hearing lies ahead — and perhaps another — but if the majority holds, the planning commission’s three years of work overhauling local land development regulations could win approval as soon as Feb. 7.
Between 2016 and 2021, the planning commission has held 70 meetings discussing changes to the city’s land development regulations, and discussions have reached city council 20 times in the last five years — that includes a global pandemic and three years of interim zoning. In the end stretch, councilors wrangled Monday night over whether to drag the proposal across the finish line or tinker with it, maintaining limbo for a few more months.
Under state statute, should no action be taken by April the old regulations will revert and developers will be able to have applications re-reviewed under the old standards.
Councilors Meaghan Emery, Tim Barritt and chair Helen Riehle argued the time to act is now.
Good legislation doesn’t happen when everyone agrees and if no one likes the final product, “you’ve probably reached the sweet spot,” Riehle said. She is more inclined to move the planning commission’s proposal forward and make amendments later, arguing that the city will never come to a “perfect set of rules.”
Emery has “full confidence” and is willing to approve the planning commission’s proposal, although she would have approached some aspects of the draft differently, she said.
“What strikes me is the fact that it appears that nobody’s happy. When I hear that nobody is happy after the planning commission voted 7-0 to put these land development regulation changes in front of us, that tells me that there is a high degree of compromise in these land development regulations already,” Barritt added.
The proposal strikes a balance between what can be developed and “what probably should never be developed,” while satisfying why the council undertook interim zoning in the first place, he said.
“I think that the planning commission put the stake in the ground, and we have to move forward from that stake to put another stake in the ground and say, this is the reality — boom. They’re law now.”
But not everyone agrees the compromise is well-balanced.
Councilor Thomas Chittenden, who also serves as a state senator, is calling for just two amendments before moving forward: first, to allow property-owners to assess areas that contain habitat blocks at the time of their application, be it tomorrow or 10 years from now, making the habitat delineation somewhat adaptive.
Second, Chittenden argued that landowners in the southeast quadrant should have a choice when they want to develop between two types of planned unit developments.
As it stands in the proposal, landowners in that area must use a conservation planned unit development, which requires a base number of natural resources be protected on site. Chittenden hopes to offer an alternative for folks interested in a traditional neighborhood planned unit development, which centers a compact neighborhood, including a variety of housing types, mixed uses and public spaces, with a focus on residential.
“There is a reason to believe that that would just be more fair, more equitable,” and encourage affordable housing, Chittenden said. “That doesn’t mean I’m saying get rid of anything else. So, for anybody that thinks I’m just an anti-environmentalist, really, that’s not what I’m advocating for here. I’m advocating for two small changes.”
He also reiterated his concerns about the stream of notices the city has received from lawyers of anxious landowners, such as the University of Vermont, a path the city could avoid if they clarify some points in the regulations, he said.
More meetings don’t trouble him if it means reaching a compromise. “Can we fix these technical issues before we pass these so that there’s less limbo and less chaos and less indefensible regulation?”
Freshman councilor Matt Cota has a much longer list of amendments he’d like to add, 22 in fact, with changes spanning from technical details to ground shakers. One change calls habitat blocks legally indefensible. He hopes instead to field-map individual habitats rather than survey by parcel.
Another point concerning him is the commission’s unfinished work naming types of planned unit developments, a hold-up that, combined with the unique overlap of two sets of land regulations, has left many developers in a “regulatory vortex.”
“There are areas where we just simply didn’t get to, and I understand we’re on a time crunch. We had a global pandemic, but we need to fix it,” Cota said.
The planning commission is working on infill development of mixed-use areas, in places like Kennedy Drive and Shelburne Road, which includes work on tools like planned unit developments, according to planning and zoning director Paul Conner.
After Cota’s motion to send his list of amendments to the planning commission failed 3-2, councilors abruptly ended their discussion. The next public hearing on the regulations following the city’s legal review, which turned up numerous but minute changes, takes place Feb. 7. That might be the golden day, should the slim council majority vote to approve the regulations as is.
They also have the option to make changes if they’re warned 15 days before the hearing, or they may wait and warn another public hearing, as long as it hits before the April deadline.
For Barritt, three years of interim zoning plus the last few months is enough waiting.
“Either we move forward and approve these land development regulations the way they are today and smooth out wrinkles afterwards, or we’re just going to be spinning our wheels for years.”