The selectboard has yet to issue a decision for a local developer’s project that conflicts with temporary zoning rules.
Billy Sawyer’s five-building proposal, which includes three residential structures, triggered an extra review at the selectboard this month since the town’s interim zoning bans multifamily housing downtown for up to two years.
The Planning Commission advocated for the study period back in March, citing concerns that commercial growth is overshadowed by residential in the downtown core, including the M4 Checkerberry district where Sawyer’s 22 dwelling units are proposed.
The board held a 90-plus minute hearing December 7 after members visited the site at 444-452 Route 7 South on December 5. The board is now in a 45-day deliberation period for the conditional use, which, if granted, would fly in the face of interim zoning’s goals, commissioners said.
“Approval of [the project] today is approving a problem for tomorrow,” commissioner Henry Bonges read from a prepared statement. “The current M4 district zoning is resulting in disjointed, conflictual and incompatible development undermining town goals.”
Sawyer and his development adviser, David White, have argued otherwise, saying the town can’t create a demand for commercial. Sawyer noted there are several empty storefronts along Route 7.
Selectboard Chairman Darren Adams agreed: “The ‘build it and they will come’ approach doesn’t necessarily work for commercial growth as it does for a ballfield in Iowa,” he said, referencing the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.”
The discussion soon turned philosophical about Milton’s lacking identity and how development can aid in creating one.
Adams said Miltonians pay a “hidden tax” by having to drive out of town to buy basics like new socks and shoes. He wants to change the perception that Milton won’t get these purveyors since it’s located between regional shopping areas St. Albans and Burlington.
Planning director Jake Hemmerick said Milton needs a sense of place and character that convinces passers-through to stop driving and shop.
But Sawyer questioned whether aesthetic improvements would really prevent businesses from closing or attract new ones. He said Milton needs a higher population to support existing businesses.
PC Chairwoman Lori Donna countered developers want “predictable outcomes,” or a clear goal and vision for the downtown. One issue with Milton’s core, the PC has said, is there is no dedicated, commercial-only zone, so builders don’t know what their neighbors could become.
“We’re not saying that we don’t want any more residential in that area for sure – we’re considering that,” Donna said. “We’re also looking at what does that residential look like, because I think all of you have probably heard from community members that they don’t like what they’re getting in this town.”
White said interim zoning conflicts with the town’s tax increment financing district, formed to incite growth.
“There’s an inherent contradiction,” he said. “Which way do you want to go? Are you trying to stop development, or are you trying to encourage development?”
Board member Ken Nolan said applicants shouldn’t assume the board will approve non-conforming projects out of fear developers won’t build once interim zoning ends. He reminded members they unanimously voted for interim zoning months ago.
“If we believe in this, then we need to stick with it,” he said. “If we don’t believe in it, we should say so and just open the floodgates.”
This is the second interim zoning conditional use application the board has heard. It previously approved a small addition to an existing public warehouse, a use interim zoning bans townwide.
Donna saw the board’s choice as simple: “If Milton wants to get what it’s already been getting, go ahead and approve it,” she said. “If Milton wants to get something that’s much more desirable, please uphold interim zoning.”
The board must issue a decision by Thursday, Jan. 21.