This is long so I will say this first. If you share my values and concerns, the South Burlington Planning Commission needs to hear from you. Most of the folks contacting them are happy with the lacking-in-balance result of the planning commission’s work on the proposed planned unit development land regulations. Please send your email to Jessica Louisos, planning commission chair, at firstname.lastname@example.org, no later than Tuesday, Oct. 26, the date of the public hearing on these rules.
We are immensely blessed to live in a community having so much to proud of. I think immediately of our new city hall, senior center, city clerk’s office and library — the fulfillment of a vision first articulated many decades ago. Plus, we have an abundance of residents who volunteer their time as members of city boards, committees or commissions.
My focus here is the planning commission’s work during the almost three years of work on interim zoning. I thank and applaud our seven commissioners, as well as planning staff and consultants for their dedication, toil and perseverance in carrying out this extensive and demanding body of work.
The commission’s new environmental protection standards, contained in Article 12, are far reaching. Should they be adopted, the proportion of the city’s land area that will become protected increases by more than one-fifth to 50 percent due, in large part, to newly created habitat blocks, regulation of Class III wetlands, and doubling the size of stream buffers (from 50 to 100 feet). We should all be proud.
Still, some parts of the package of proposed changes to our land development regulations concern me. Let me set the context. One characteristic of South Burlington that stands out is the large gap in socio-economic status between residents of the southeast quadrant and all other city neighborhoods. Median southeast quadrant household income is twice that of our other neighborhoods and data demonstrate that this gap is evident in numerous other measures of socio-economic status; for example, percentage of homeownership, value of homes, education, etc.
Research that compares the life outcomes of people based on census tract measures shows a high correlation between positive life prospects for children growing up in tracts with high household incomes as opposed to children growing up in tracts with significantly lower household incomes. As a community that cares greatly about the well-being and future lives of our children, this income inequality within our city should be a source of concern.
The smaller the gap among household incomes from one neighborhood to the next the more opportunity, equity, diversity and inclusion will occur across our neighborhoods. We need to make changes intended to reduce the income inequality that exists in South Burlington today.
Some of the planning commission’s proposals with respect to land in the southeast quadrant would very likely perpetuate and even exacerbate this pattern of income inequity. While adoption of the new environmental protection standards would put two of every three acres in the quadrant off limits to development, the commission did not stop there. Going beyond the findings and recommendations of the Arrowwood study and report, the proposed rules would require all developments in most of the quadrant of four or more acres be in accordance with the new conservation planned unit development regulations.
These regulations mandate that 70 percent of the parcel proposed for development be permanently conserved, thus adding to the overall two-thirds of quadrant land already protected or about to be protected. Making even less land available for development places upward pressure on the cost of housing development, which is likely to increase the existing household income disparities. This proposed requirement does not take into consideration that much of the southeast quadrant has municipal water and sewer, and a private source of heating fuel in place now.
The conservation planned unit development rules give the appearance, on paper, of counterbalancing for the property owner the reduction in developable land available by allowing the density for the 30 percent allowed for development to be calculated using the base density multiplied by the total parcel area less hazards. However, recent development history demonstrates that the well-financed opposition of neighbors makes the assurance of a proposed offset by higher density a pipe dream.
Recognizing the impact of southeast quadrant residents’ resistance to virtually all new development, planning commissioners included a minimum density requirement of four housing units per acre for the 30 percent of a conservation planned unit development in which development is permitted. However, at its Oct. 12 meeting, some commissioners advocated elimination of this constructive requirement before they send the proposed land development regulations to the city council.
The proposed rules also include converting a significant amount of southeast quadrant land now zoned to allow development to the southeast quadrant natural resource protection zone, which does not allow development. While past city action to give land natural resource protections has been based on scientific research, this is not the case with this land. This is yet another proposal that would add to the two of three southeast quadrant acres that would be preserved as a result of the environmental protection standards. It would also increase the number of transferable development rights when few are currently being purchased.
Before closing, let’s consider how closing off more and more land in South Burlington to residential development will function to increase development regionally in outlying towns and, thus, increase the carbon dioxide footprint of households in these towns. For example, the average annual greenhouse gas generated per South Burlington household is 8.77 tons while the average annual greenhouse gas generated per Hinesburg household is 10.22 tons or 17 percent, which is one-sixth higher. (Housing and transportation fact sheets, Center for Neighborhood Technology).
In addition, with the exception of Burlington and Winooski, South Burlington’s average automobiles per household (1.75) is lower than our neighboring towns. According to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, cars and trucks account for the majority of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. To protect our environment, we need to support increased residential development, prudently of course, in all parts of our city.
I am concerned that the planning commission, for the most part, carried out its work on the recently proposed planned unit development land development regulations through one lens — that of natural resource protection — without taking a wider view of how this disproportionate focus on a single goal is likely to undermine other values that so many of this city’s residents hold dear — opportunity, equity, diversity and inclusion.
Sandy Dooley lives in South Burlington.