With all the recent public discussion about preserving open space, a group of concerned citizens came together to consider the other issue about how land is used: housing. After all, it is well known that Chittenden County. and the nation, are in the midst of a housing crisis, especially for housing that is affordable for workers of mixed income levels. This need has been more pronounced in light of worsening income inequality brought about by the COVID-19 epidemic, but the problem has been with us for many years.
The group of seven researchers was not appointed by the City Council and claims no special representation other than a shared concern. The members were: Tom Bailey, Leslie Black-Plumeau, Vince Bolduc, Peter Kahn, Fred Kosnitsky, Mike Simoneau and Tami Zylka,
Three of these seven members are also on the City’s Affordable Housing Committee and two were on the Open Space Committee.
The group started by reading the Interim Zoning Open Space Report of 189 open parcels of 4 or more acres. This was a well done study that has received a good bit of discussion over the past year. It was the ninth such study of land preservation done in South Burlington in the past two decades, but relatively few have been done on the need and location for housing. The group followed a parallel methodology to that of the Open Space Committee, except that their focus was on where housing could be located.
They used three metrics:
1) the proximity of available land to existing infrastructure such as water, sewer, natural gas, and the recreational path
2) size of the parcel to allow economies of scale; and
3) conformity with the Comprehensive Plan.
The final report is simply titled “The Case for Housing” and is available on the City’s website in the City Council agenda for Aug. 18.
The report notes that the most active voices for the preservation of open land have been well organized and effective in bringing about Interim Zoning and the City acquisition of protected land, while the case for housing in the City has been more muted even though, they report, it is equally important for the continuing health of our community. The group believes that a balance of open space and housing are both vital characteristics needed for a vibrant community. It is also highlighted as a high priority in the City Comprehensive Plan.
Since South Burlington is at the epicenter of growth in the state and home to the state’s two largest employers, it has a special responsibility to provide housing. Land that is permanently removed from the market for the sake of open space inevitably drives the cost of housing up and even while not intended, can push South Burlington to become dangerously exclusionary.
Before reporting on their surprising findings, the authors make the point that environmentally, housing built closer to the urban core is more compatible with sustainable environmental protection than forcing housing to leapfrog over South Burlington into peripheral communities where redundant infrastructure would be needed and transportation-related greenhouse damage worsened.
After studying each of the 189 largest open parcels in the city, the study group agreed with the Open Space Committee that many prime tracts of land indeed warranted full protection. In some cases however, they concluded that while portions of a parcel should probably be left undisturbed, another portion of that same parcel may be suitable for limited housing and could be developed with appropriate planning and protection. This is not controversial; the Open Space Report had made the same point.
Overall, the group was surprised by the lack of open space available for any type of housing. They wrote: “City zoning maps make clear that the majority of remaining open space in South Burlington is already protected from further development” by zoning restrictions, 19 existing city-owned parks, city-acquired conservation parcels, natural hazards and various other forms of protection.
The most surprising finding, the study reports, is that of the remaining large 189 parcels in the city, just 55 remained viable for housing by virtue of their size, proximity to existing infrastructure, and conformity with the Comprehensive Plan.
Of these 55, only 30 were adjacent to infrastructure and contained more than five buildable acres. Of these 30, current conservation, environmental hazards, habitat blocks, encumbrances and zoning regulations leave just 15 parcels viable for significant housing. These 15 parcels contain approximately 509 acres, of which only 256 are in fact “buildable.”
The Case for Housing report concludes that “South Burlington can continue to prudently protect open space while better balancing environmental preservation with a need for new housing for all income levels.”
Vince Bolduc, of South Burlington, was a sociology professor at Saint Michael’s College from 1974 to 2019. He has conducted more than 50 surveys, both local and statewide.