‘We are at a crucial point’

Interim zoning would 'pause' residential development downtown

Milton's Planning Commission will introduce a plan next week to pause the construction of multifamily housing units like these pictured above. If approved by the selectboard, this development would be on hold in certain town core districts for at least two years. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Milton’s Planning Commission will introduce a plan next week to pause the construction of multifamily housing units like these pictured above. If approved by the selectboard, this development would be on hold in certain town core districts for at least two years. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

The colloquial definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

That’s how Planning Commission Chairwoman Lori Donna describes Milton’s approach to zoning in the town core: Residents want commercial, but bylaws allow for residential development in every district, and so far, new housing units are outpacing businesses.

The commission aims to change that. At a March 16 public hearing with the selectboard, the PC will present an interim zoning proposal to pause development of multifamily dwellings in five downtown districts and storage facilities townwide.

The Checkerberry district, or M4 – generally spanning Route 7 from West Milton Road to Bombardier Road – has further residential restrictions.

“We are at a crucial point where we have the opportunity to create a much better Milton,” Donna said. “Opportunities will be lost if we continue with the current development patterns in the area, no matter who the developer is.”

Interim zoning allows municipalities to institute temporary rules to protect health, safety and welfare and promote physical and economic growth. If approved, the zoning only lasts two years unless extended by a selectboard vote, as per Vermont statute.

Donna said the idea is driven by economics, aesthetics and the town and school’s capacity to serve and accommodate multifamily housing, which the commission believes takes up valuable space for businesses and aren’t adequately addressed by impact fees.

Milton planning commissioners Julie Rutz and Lori Donna are pictured at the group's Wednesday, March 4 meeting, during which members discussed their interim zoning proposal, meant to restore balance to the mix of housing and businesses in several town core districts. A public hearing is scheduled for March 16. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Milton planning commissioners Julie Rutz and Lori Donna are pictured at the group’s Wednesday, March 4 meeting, during which members discussed their interim zoning proposal, meant to restore balance to the mix of housing and businesses in several town core districts. A public hearing is scheduled for March 16. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Commissioners say the same of storage units, which don’t require town water or sewer and yet have taken up residence along utility lines.

“To allow it in districts where the town has made that investment, I’d call that into question,” Town Planner Jake Hemmerick said.

Planning Commissioner Tony Micklus summarized, “We only have so much room.”

The town’s comprehensive plan, an overall guide on development and other goals, encourages multifamily housing in these areas, but commissioners say the growth is unbalanced.

Between 2012 and 2014, the town issued 10 commercial and 37 multifamily residential permits townwide, but the businesses contributed six times more to the grand list, town data shows.

Residential units generally demand more services and generate less tax revenue than commercial uses, particularly education, Hemmerick said. When commercial growth is dwarfed by residential growth, residential taxes tend go up and can actually discourage businesses from moving to a town, he said.

In Milton, the education impact alone worries Donna, also a newly elected school trustee, when she considered that next year’s universal early education law, an unfunded mandate, could cost Milton School District more than $480,000 annually, district numbers show.

When development patterns affect schools and possibly drive away business, zoning warrants a review even if it puts property rights on hold, Donna said. She’s personally spoken to numerous commercial developers who shy away from Milton.

“People are choosing not invest,” Donna said, noting the Hannaford project, often cited as a good example of planning, was only achieved because developer Ernie Pomerleau went beyond the regulations.

The targeted districts “[have] been developed by people doing the minimum,” Donna said.

By the end of the process, the commission hopes to:

•identify areas for commercial development and public warehousing,
•address traffic issues,
•remove restrictions on adjacent sewer service and more, resulting in permanent zoning changes, not just another study that gets shelved.

These ideas aren’t new. The goal of commercial growth along Route 7 was articulated in 1999’s Milton in the New Millennium report. While that study resulted in creating the town core, the true goals haven’t been realized, commissioner John Lindsay said.

“We are at a crucial point where we have the opportunity to create a much better Milton.”
Lori Donna, Milton Planning Commission

He noted zoning changes alone won’t incite commercial development, especially since that use has always been allowed downtown. Instead, Lindsay said, commissioners and staff need to actively promote Milton. Creating clear guidelines in zoning will only help, he said.

But the commission still expects a long hearing. Micklus anticipates criticism from developers who have invested “tens of thousands of dollars” in site plans that, if the selectboard approves the measure, can’t be built for at least another two years.

Hemmerick said the proposal only grandfathers projects with Development Review Board approval; even planned unit developments with preliminary approval would be halted during the review, he said.

Commissioner Julie Rutz said zoning changes will always impact some plans on the books.

“If you never do this, you’re never going to change,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be a better time than now.”

Join the Milton Selectboard and Planning Commission for the interim zoning public hearing on Monday, March 16 at 6 p.m. at the Milton municipal office. If you can’t attend, email jhemmerick@town.milton.vt.us with your thoughts.

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