Thursday July 12, 2018
When Tracy Perrapato of Four Sisters Road learned that there was a request for a naturally-protected, adjacent lot to be rezoned as an area fit for residential development, she—and many other homeowners on Four Sisters Road and Dorey Road—made certain their opposition to the agenda item was heard at a mid-June planning commission meeting.
“We moved up here 11 years ago,” Perrapato told commissioners. “We looked on Pinnacle and on Vale. We asked, ‘What’s going to go on the field over there?’ I was told it would be a development, and that the houses would be equivalent to what’s on Pinnacle and Vale. So, we then found a house on Four Sisters Road and thought that [land] wasn’t going to be developed.”
Learning that a factor which played a role in her purchasing plan could possibly be changed through the acceptance of a zoning amendment initiated concern.
“It seems like it would really put a damper on South Burlington in terms of a place to live,” she said.
Ultimately, the planning commission decided not to consider the request in its overall work plan, but the scenario brings to light broader questions: how often are changes to the Land Development Regulations made and who is making these requests?
What are Land Development Regulations and Associated Amendments?
The Land Development Regulations (LDRs) are the city’s zoning and subdivision regulations. The South Burlington Planning Commission is charged with updating these regulations as they relate to the city’s Comprehensive Plan—a document which maps South Burlington’s goals and objectives to evolve in the coming 20 years.
The enforcement side of the issue is appointed to the South Burlington Development Review Board, which mandates the regulations while reviewing development applications.
On occasion, as land patterns continue to evolve, these regulations are amended. The planning commission periodically hears requests for amendments to the LDRs throughout the year on an individual basis. Typically, these requests come from developers and landowners, explained Paul Conner, the city’s director of planning and zoning.
The planning commission must then assess whether requests are in the best interest of the city based on their relationship to the Comprehensive Plan, relationship to the adopted planning commission work plan, and possible relation to an ongoing LDR review or amendment. These criteria should reduce the possibility of unintended consequences, such as spot zoning.
However, not every amendment request is welcomed with open arms. Those in opposition could range from residents who wish to preserve the status quo in their neighborhoods or, in some instances, stakeholders who see the amendment as a hinderance to creativity in development. For instance, the interests of one person looking to help increase the city’s housing stock could vary greatly from another whose interests are deeply rooted in conserving the city’s existing open space.
It is not uncommon for homeowners, such as Perrapato, to learn through this procedure that ordinances do not necessarily hold permanence, and persistent civic participation is factored into commission analysis of amendment requests.
What exactly goes into making these changes?
It is no simple feat. Many hours are expended when considering a request for an amendment and — if considered—weighing all factors that go into crafting language that will brave the test of time.
In fact, it is estimated that the process of hearing and evaluating zoning amendments takes anywhere between 12 to 24 planning commission hours and between five to 50 hours of planning and zoning staff hours, according to a draft FY19 planning commission work plan compiled by planning and zoning staff.
The process involves research and evaluation by staff and the planning commission. Staff and the commission chair perform an initial screening of every request to help develop a recommendation for the commission’s consideration.
Once the full commission hears the request, one of the following actions must be taken:
• Review the proposed amendment for possible inclusion of it in the warning for the next public hearing on LDR amendments
• Table the request until related issues are assessed via studies or other amendments – or consider adding it to the fiscal work plan
• Or not pursue the requested amendment.
If the commission decides to pursue the request, it is grouped with other considered requests, and a planning commission public hearing is warned. Another public hearing is then warned at the city council level which makes the final decision on adoption.
Historically, rounds of amendments are approved two to three times a year.
A Future LDR Amendment Process
The planning commission has several tasks on its plate beyond zoning amendments. Currently, commissioners have identified 20 projects as a priority for its FY19 work plan thus far, and there are over 70 total projects identified. Initial requests for zoning amendments are only one of them.
In the quest for efficiency, Conner recommended that the commission consider reviewing amendments on a bi-annual basis. A screening process and checklist could be in place for such requests. Once considered, staff, the commission chair, and one or two other commissioners could review the initial request and ask for additional necessary information weeks prior to a hearing.
Having two meetings a year solely for review of LDR requests could result in more focused meetings as well as more thorough research prior to a regularly-warned meeting.
The benefits could also serve the city’s most relevant audience: its residents.
“Neighborhoods would know about it ahead of time,” Perrapato said in response to the recommendation. “Something like that would be helpful for you in terms of time…but it would be helpful for the public, too.”
Commissioners unanimously agreed on this method and planned to update its policy on public requests for amendments to the LDRs.
The planning commission meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays at 7 p.m. of each month in the City Hall Conference Room, 575 Dorset Street. South Burlington’s planning projects and documents can also be found at www.southurlingtonvt.gov/departments/planning_and_zoning. The city’s planning and zoning department can be reached at 802-846-4106.
SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent