VERGENNES — At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 8, Vergennes officials and residents will take what could be one of the final steps on what has been close to a five-year journey.
Then, in the city fire station’s basement meeting room, aldermen will convene a public hearing on new zoning regulations proposed by the Vergennes Planning Commission. A copy of the laws is posted at vergennes.org.
Planners have been working on those zoning laws since Vergennes adopted its award-winning city plan in October 2009.
When and if adopted by aldermen, the laws will create two new zoning districts, tweak regulations in other districts, and incorporate the city’s subdivision regulations and significantly update them for the first time in 40 years.
The plan itself was the product of more than two years of work by the city’s planners, who before writing the document conducted surveys, held well-attended forums and even interviewed residents waiting in line at the recycling center.
The Vergennes City Plan, said current planning commission chairman Shannon Haggett, provides both the vision for the city’s future and the underpinnings for the new zoning laws, which planners approved after their own public process and gave to aldermen last month.
“The goal of the process ... is to really to take the tenets set forth in the plan and reconcile our current zoning and subdivision regulations with them,” Haggett said, “so that our regulations are matching the intent of the plan, which was informed by the people coming together and saying these are the things that we want to see in the city of Vergennes.”
Aldermen must hold at least Tuesday’s public hearing; they may choose to hold more. If they accept planners’ work as is or with only minor technical changes, they may then adopt the laws.
If aldermen want to make major changes based on what they see or what they hear from the public, the proposal must go back to the planners to be reworked, and the hearing process must from scratch back before planners.
Haggett hopes and expects that won’t be necessary, given that both the plan and the zoning laws have been based on extensive public input over the past five years — for example, just recently, based on testimony at their final public hearing, planners added density bonuses for planned unit developments in the city’s agricultural zone.
“We’re trying to set things up for a long-term vision of the city based on what the citizens have asked for,” he said.
One of the strongest messages delivered by residents during the plan process was that they wanted the appearance of the city’s downtown preserved.
The regulations will thus, for example, insist that rebuilt buildings mirror the size, lot placement and general style of existing structures. Haggett and other planners call the guidelines for the structures “massing, scale and rhythm.”
“They’re all fronting the sidewalk and they’re all two-, three-story buildings. In the event of catastrophic loss, we’re saying building height of the structure must be maintained at a minimum,” he said. “We’re trying to maintain the look and feel of that neighborhood, as mandated by the municipal plan, and as extremely strongly backed by the citizenry of Vergennes.”
Building details will not be micro-managed, he said.
“We’re completely informed by the plan in what we do, and there is no mandate to regulate paint color, or to regulate materials, things like that,” Haggett said.
The Northern Gateway (NGD) and Historic Neighborhood (HND) districts are new.
The NGD district will run along a stretch of North Main Street; planners have said the district recognizes the increasingly commercial nature of the area by allowing more uses.
Haggett said there will be a trade-off, in a sense: More uses will be permitted, but some of the same sort of compatibility restrictions will be in place for new and rebuilt structures.
“You can have businesses there, commercial there, retail there, but also some residential under certain circumstances,” he said. “But we want the buildings to look a certain way because it’s going to be inviting and really draw people in.”
Planners carved the HND district out of the Medium Density Residential (MDR) district; it consists of the older neighborhoods near downtown.
For years, zoning officials have had to say no, to the frustration of homeowners, to many proposals for additions, garages, decks and sheds because of MDR setback requirements that all agreed were a poor fit for an older area with smaller lots.
The HND district, Haggett said, recognizes that historic settlement patterns often meant development closer to property lines, and will be more permissive, with side- and rear-yard setbacks of five feet.
“This gives them much better greater use to be able to do what they want with their property,” “For instance ... if you’re building a garage or a detached garage, this will give you greater flexibility.”
Again, however, there will be some limits on new or replacement construction.
“If someone tore down a house from the 1780s, you’d want it to be a brand new house there,” Haggett said. “But you’d want it to look and feel like it could be a historic house as opposed to a metal Quonset hut.”
SUBDIVISIONS AND MORE
Haggett said no major changes were made to the substance of the subdivision regulations, although the distinction between minor and major subdivisions was tossed out. But as well as updating and making legal the language, planners added a form that will allow applicants to find quickly what they need to apply and what standards they must meet.
“We made the process flow, made it a little easier to understand,” Haggett said.
Many changes were made with the help of consulting firm Landworks. For example, where the previous laws referred to “undue” noise, light or pollution, Haggett said Landworks researched reasonable and measurable standards to allow city zoning officials to make objective decisions.
Planners spent a collective 300 hours at 18 meetings in 2011 alone, not counting the time they spent on what Haggett called “homework,” researching and writing on specific portions of the new regulations.
Then, they met another eight times in the first four months of 2012.
“It has been a ton of work,” Haggett said. “There’s an extremely dedicated group of individuals who really took all of this very seriously, and who I think have done a fantastic job for the city.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.