Board denies Sawyer project, upholds zoning

Developer Billy Sawyer is pictured at Monday's Selectboard meeting. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Developer Billy Sawyer is pictured at a November Milton Selectboard meeting. (File photo by Courtney Lamdin)

The Milton Selectboard denied a local developer’s mixed-use project application this month, after finding it inconsistent with town planning goals.

The selectboard had jurisdiction over developer Billy Sawyer’s five-building planned unit development since it was sited for an area impacted by interim zoning, which temporarily halts multifamily housing downtown for up to two years.

Sawyer sought to redevelop the parcel at 444-452 Route 7 with two commercial and three residential structures, the latter with 22 dwelling units. The idea didn’t excite the Milton Planning Commission, which introduced interim zoning, since it says residential uses are outpacing commercial ones.

Though it included commercial, Sawyer’s project didn’t address these goals since the plan was conceptual, and residential was the first and only definite phase, the Jan. 21 decision reads.

Sawyer wasn’t surprised by the outcome since granting a conditional use approval would require the selectboard breaking its own rules.

He thinks, however, interim zoning is based on poor data, particularly on school enrollment and residential development’s impact on the tax base. Sawyer’s numbers show the schools aren’t as full as perceived, and that condos “pay for themselves” in the long run.

In its memo to the selectboard, advising members to deny the project, the PC cited a 2002 Vermont League of Cities and Towns study that concludes residents in towns that lose commercial property value are more likely to see larger tax bills.

“This is why balanced growth is so important,” the PC memo says.

The decision cites planning data showing Milton has at least 457 unbuilt residential units in the core, about 10 percent of the town’s entire housing stock.

“The adverse effects would be exacerbated by approval of an additional major housing complex” before the zoning study period ends, the decision reads.

Planning Director Jake Hemmerick said since site plans don’t expire in Milton, the majority of these units could be built anytime, interim zoning notwithstanding.

Sawyer said Milton has a tough business climate, which is ironic for a town wanting development. Regardless, he’s not going to appeal to the Vermont Superior Court – Environmental Division.

“I don’t think there’s anything fightable there,” he said, adding, “The town would have to spend $30,000-40,000 to fight me, so who wins?”

Sawyer already has an upcoming trial for a project along the same stretch of Route 7, in his Southerberry development.

There, he wishes to have more than 50 housing units without a second connection to a public right-of-way, a bylaw the Development Review Board has not waived, Hemmerick said.

Sawyer has filed more than 10 amendments for DRB approval to no avail, Hemmerick said. Sawyer says the project would add to the tax base.

A trial is scheduled for this spring, unless the court grants a summary judgment in the town’s favor, Hemmerick said.

Overall, Sawyer wishes the board approved this latest project since it would have employed people and redeveloped an unsightly lot, he said.

“[The town is] fighting the wrong people. I’ve developed so much in Milton, and a lot of people think I’ve done a lot,” Sawyer said.

“We’ll see in two years when nothing’s changed,” he added.

In the meantime, the selectboard may expect another interim zoning conditional use application from local developer David Goodrich, who submitted an as-yet incomplete mixed use PUD application, Hemmerick said.

The PC also continues to discuss permanent zoning downtown. It plans to host a series of workshops on draft bylaws, the first taking place in March, Hemmerick said.

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