Milton’s Selectboard took comments for nearly two hours Monday night on a proposal that would temporarily halt certain types of development in downtown districts.
The board hosted a public hearing on the Planning Commission’s push for interim zoning, which would pause development of multifamily housing in the town core and of storage units townwide for up to two years.
Commissioners said the measure would allow Milton to retool its zoning to meet development goals, namely increasing commercial development to keep pace with housing growth in the town core.
At the hearing, Burlington-based commercial real estate broker Esther Lotz said Milton is lucky to have officials who care about rerouting the town’s direction for the better.
Lotz said mixed-use projects – with apartments above commercial storefronts – typically don’t work and suggested Milton is at a “critical juncture” to establish zoning specifically for businesses. Currently, Milton has no designated, solely commercial zones.
Bob Brisson, owner of Vermont Custom Concrete, said he’s the poster child for Milton’s poor zoning. He said numerous multifamily units popped up years after he bought the parcel and conflict with his business, which uses heavy trucks.
“This is a great opportunity to put the brakes on,” Brisson said. “You can’t keep ranting and raving about the illness of Milton and never do anything about it.”
Superintendent John Barone, a member of the town’s Technical Advisory Committee that reviews projects for undue effects on services, said time is needed to analyze the bigger picture.
Unlike many districts, Milton’s school population is growing: “I can never put up a no vacancy sign,” he said, noting just last week, in two days, MTSD enrolled six new students.
Developer Bob Provost said interim zoning is good tool for Milton to achieve its vision but wondered if builders would sue for devaluing their property if they can’t build as planned.
Board member Ken Nolan wondered about legal challenges based on barring some but not all uses. He asked how the town would justify the ban based on future, permanent zoning that won’t even be in place during the ban.
Town attorney Amanda Lafferty isn’t concerned about lawsuits and said interim bylaws affect property values no more than permanent zoning.
Per state statute, Milton’s proposal still technically allows residential: Developers can submit applications for non-conforming projects to the development review board as usual but also to the selectboard, which can ask the PC’s guidance on whether the permit conflicts with future bylaws, Lafferty said.
Evan Barquist asked what projects would be grandfathered and if many would be allowed to build anyway. Town Planner Jake Hemmerick said only those with DRB approval are exempt.
PC Chairwoman Lori Donna added that at one time, there were up to 500 residential units proposed, even in the earliest sketch plan stage, in the affected areas.
Barquist also wondered what type of commercial development the town seeks. Donna said professional offices and high-tech jobs, possibly in a business park, have been discussed, as have a real “tablecloth restaurant,” hotel and movie theater.
Ed DeVarney wondered if other towns achieved their goals without interim zoning. Donna said most towns have better defined zoning, which leads to more investment since developers know what to expect.
DeVarney wondered if a full-blown moratorium would make sense, but Donna said the selectboard likely wouldn’t vote for it. Overall, board members gave few clues how they’d vote.
Chairman Adams did note the storage unit preclusion, saying he’d hate to see them halted townwide if there’s a true need. Town Planner Hemmerick said he’s issued more permits for those than any other use in the last year.
As PC member Tony Micklus put it, “We just don’t want Milton to become the storage capital of the world.”
Several audience members encouraged the board to approve the measure. Jessica Groeling said a pause is needed to allow the school, town and community to work together to reverse the trend. Tamara Martel applauded the board for taking on this tough topic.
“I don’t think it’s a weakness to admit there’s a problem,” she said. “For 17 years I’ve seen a struggle with an identity issue. I know we can get to the other side.”
Adams indicated the board will take its decision seriously.
“It’s a big deal,” he said.
The Milton Selectboard next meets Monday, April 6 at 6 p.m. in the municipal office community room.