Zoning proposal vexes

This topographical map shows the M2 district, which Milton's Planning Commission wants to rezone with more density and include conditional uses for a motel and restaurants. The plan has earned criticism from neighbors in the nearby R1 district. Meanwhile, one of two M2 property owners has taken the town to court because current zoning doesn't allow him to build his vision. (Map courtesy Town of Milton; labels by Courtney Lamdin)

This topographical map shows the M2 district, which Milton’s Planning Commission wants to rezone with more density and include conditional uses for a motel and restaurants. The plan has earned criticism from neighbors in the nearby R1 district. Meanwhile, one of two M2 property owners has taken the town to court because current zoning doesn’t allow him to build his vision. (Map courtesy Town of Milton; labels by Courtney Lamdin)

Milton is looking at another round of zoning changes, the first edit since 2011, and one proposal out of many has caused unease.

The Planning Commission has suggested increasing density in the Milton Crossroads Marketplace West district, also known as M2. The small area is generally demarcated by the rectangle formed by Haydenberry Drive, Lamoille Terrace and Route 7, surrounding Milton High School and land owned by developer Jim Carroll.

The commission’s latest proposal, not yet approved by its members, is to rezone the district with 7,500-square-foot minimum lots instead of the current 20,000, going from a half-acre to about one-sixth.

Upon hearing the proposal, neighbors to Carroll’s vacant land issued a petition to zone it Olde Town Residential, or R1, the same as the quaint neighborhoods that line Strawberry Lane, Raspberry Court and Stacy, Ellison, Germain and Edward streets. There, the minimum lot is 10,000 square feet.

Residents also want only three maximum stories instead of the allowed four and worry about traffic in their residential zone.

“A lot of people that live in that area take pride in their community,” Stacy Street resident Don Stearns told the commission at a public hearing last Tuesday. “We chose to be there because of the way it was set, and we thought we understood what was going to be in the area, and now we’re changing it.”

At the hearing, a handful of neighbors expressed dismay that a motel is listed as a use in the district. It was previously permitted, and the neighbors bargained it down to conditional, but they just want it to go away completely, said Peter Hayes, an Ellison Street resident who’s led the charge.

Besides it being allowed right outside Hayes’ front door, he can’t imagine parents would be thrilled to have a motel near the school, he said.

“It sounds like a setting to a movie that ends badly,” Hayes said, noting motels can become transitional housing for ex-inmates or scenes for drug deals. “I don’t think anybody would want it to be their legacy that they permitted that use.”

Though Carroll spoke about motels’ benefits at the hearing, saying they’d be useful when new hires move to town, there aren’t plans for one on the horizon. Instead, he had another vision.

In 2007, Milton’s Development Review Board approved Carroll’s planned unit development, called Blackberry Commons, consisting of 28 single-family homes, a 40-unit elderly housing complex, senior center and a daycare, subject to 14 conditions before a zoning permit could be issued. No construction has occurred to date.

So when Carroll sought a zoning permit in 2012, town staff told the developer his plans are void, and the DRB agreed in a June 13, 2013 decision: Town subdivision regulations say plan approvals expire after two years without “substantial development.” They don’t, however, define that term, and neither does state law, Zoning Administrator Taylor Newton said.

In the five years since Carroll’s approval, Milton changed how it calculates density for both PUDs and elderly housing. Considered under current zoning, Carroll’s project wouldn’t be permitted and would allow far fewer units, Newton said.

So Carroll appealed the case to Environmental Court. A hearing is set for March 27.

In court documents, Carroll’s attorney alleges his client “had invested significant time and money in planning, engineering and conducting preliminary work in preparation for construction,” enough to constitute substantial development.

“At no point in time have my clients wavered in their commitment to the completion of the project,” attorney Joseph Bauer wrote.

Minutes indicate Carroll told the DRB his project was approved just before the economy collapsed, “and because of outside forces … they were unable to move forward until recently.”

In the meantime, however, Carroll lost the property to tax sale, but town records show he reclaimed it in July. He was unreachable on vacation in Colorado at press time.

Even though Carroll asked the commission to rezone the district, presumably so he could build his original plan, the town says the effort isn’t to incite him to drop the lawsuit, even though he’s the only one of two landowners with a vested interest, Planning Director Katherine Sonnick said.

Carroll’s request only helped point out that M2 isn’t consistent with the adjacent Downtown Business District, the densest area along Route 7. As-is, the downtown is four times denser than M2 – “that doesn’t make a ton of sense,” Newton said.

Milton's Planning Commission is considering rezoning a downtown district with more density and include conditional uses for a motel and restaurants. Peter Hayes, who lives in the nearby R1 district, explains how he feels the proposal would alter his neighborhood's character. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Milton’s Planning Commission is considering rezoning a downtown district with more density and include conditional uses for a motel and restaurants. Peter Hayes, who lives in the nearby R1 district, explains how he feels the proposal would alter his neighborhood’s character. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Hayes said the districts might be geographic neighbors, but nearby topography, including a sizeable ravine, makes M2 distinct from the downtown and shouldn’t emulate it.

Hearing this, the planning commission agreed to remove industrial uses from M2 and made fast food restaurants and indoor recreation uses conditional instead of permitted. That way, the DRB has more discretion to determine if proposals fit with the area’s character, Sonnick said.

The M2 district is an “island of inconsistent zoning,” Sonnick said, and she thinks the commission and neighbors came to a good compromise.

Planning Commission Chairwoman Lori Donna agreed: “It isn’t that I haven’t heard you and that I don’t care,” she told Hayes and the neighbors at the hearing. “This was not a decision that was taken lightly.”

In an interview, Hayes repeated he’s grateful for the common ground found and said he’s not opposed to Carroll’s lot developing – just not with the plans he’s seen so far.

Hayes calls the original homes proposed “Katrina houses,” after the government trailers given to the 2005 hurricane victims, but neither he nor his neighbors appealed plans in 2007, though they expressed opposition.

Today, Hayes would welcome something there since the open sandpit invites parties and loud music; he just wants any development to match his neighborhood’s character.

Hayes and his group will have several more chances to make their points heard: The Planning Commission will host another public hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m. at the fire station before sending a final draft for Selectboard approval. That board’s public hearing has not been set.

Editor’s note: This story examines only the most-talked-about proposed zoning change; stay tuned for another article analyzing the other components.

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