In November 2018, South Burlington adopted interim zoning with the following goal: “The prioritization for conservation of existing open spaces, forest blocks, and working landscapes in South Burlington in the sustenance of our natural ecosystem, scenic viewsheds, and river corridors.”
Subsequently, an interim zoning open space committee was formed to identify and prioritize the protection and conservation of important tracts of land.
These 25 properties total about 1,300 acres. The results of the open space report have since been forwarded to the planning commission to discuss and perhaps develop policy recommendations based on the data in the report.
To many, it seems to lack a broader vision, that these undeveloped land resources would only be studied with the intent to prioritize them for conservation. Many of the same parcels are located in the midst of or near already developed areas where utility infrastructure and municipal investment is already present or nearby.
A group of South Burlington residents decided to look at these same parcels through a different lens, that being the potential suitability of these same parcels for housing development. They formed a committee/study group of their own.
The results of their efforts have recently been released in a report titled “The Case for Housing; Report of the Housing Space Working Group.”
This column isn’t intended to make the data-driven case for housing that the report does. The intent is to point out that you simply cannot talk about open space without simultaneously discussing the availability and access to housing and overall affordability in our community and county.
Using the same data as the open space committee, the housing space work group determined:
• There are 30 parcels of land greater than 4 acres adjacent to utility infrastructure that contain more than 5 acres of “buildable” land. These 30 parcels add to 1,081 acres.
• Of these 30 parcels, only 15 are presently zoned for residential development. These 15 parcels add to 509 acres, but the committee estimated that only 256 acres or approximately one half of the collective acreage of these properties are in fact “buildable.”
The information is quite surprising.
Consider this; in the entire city of South Burlington we may have as few as 15 parcels containing a total of 256 acres available to satisfy our future housing needs! The report doesn’t assert that these are the only properties where you might eventually see some housing development. There are smaller parcels in the “urban core” where more dense multi-family housing development can occur. But the point being made in this report is that the resources available for housing in South Burlington are not only finite; they are in fact quite scarce.
South Burlington is already an expensive place to live.
The Chittenden County housing marketplace is particularly and inarguably undersupplied with single family housing and is consequently experiencing rapid inflation. Especially problematic is a lack of affordable workforce housing, which is a detriment to a vibrant economy.
It creates hiring difficulties for local businesses and reduces spending which stifles retail and service sectors from being sustainable. Without a more balanced supply of new housing our economic development and employment opportunities become much more challenging as do our tax rates and grand list values which over time impacts our ability as a city to invest in quality public education, public works and public safety, and yes, our ability to strategically conserve tracts of land that are meaningful and serve a purpose to the community.
The South Burlington Business Association recognizes the importance of housing affordability and supply throughout all price ranges and housing types. The SBBA strongly feels, that the planning commission and city council should attach the same level of importance to the housing agenda as the open space agenda.
Adequate and affordable housing supply is critical to the long-term future of the South Burlington community. Important policy decisions affecting housing and affordability should be driven by deliberate and rational thought and not emotion or ideology. We need to view our challenges holistically and apply solutions that don’t solve for one perceived problem while exacerbating another.
This is an occasional column from the South Burlington Business Association. Tim McKenzie is the board chair.