A zoning overhaul two years in the making won selectboard approval last month, albeit with some modifications planning commissioners would have preferred not to see.
The unified development regulations, a product of the town’s interim zoning period, were approved 4-0 at the Sept. 18 selectboard meeting. Member John Cushing was not in attendance.
The planning commission drafted the new rules with three goals in mind: to rebalance the pattern of residential outpacing commercial growth, specifically in the M4 or Checkerberry District; to improve the quality of development and thereby increase tax revenue; and to create a sense of community and a downtown.
The PC drafted the regulations over the course of 70 public meetings with the help of a consultant.
Though planning commissioners count some victories among the changes, the selectboard nixed others they say detract from their vision.
“We felt we were responsibly planning on behalf of the community. All of us felt that we had taken into consideration the selectboard’s input,” PC chairwoman Lori Donna said. “We were quite surprised with the severity of some of the edits that were made.”
Commissioner Henry Bonges resigned his post the day after the selectboard approved the amended regulations, saying he was proud of the PC’s work, and “it is crushing to see the SLB decapitate it.
“The SLB does not respect the effort, expertise and study that went into the UDR,” he wrote. “They did not deal honorably with the PC. They did not respect the wishes of the community.”
At issue were sections meant to institute design standards, building height and footprint requirements and to sunset development approvals for builders who hadn’t pulled a zoning permit within three years.
The latter is a provision Bonges said is unique to Milton – and not in a good way.
“It’s just a major oversight because there are things in here that are well over 10 years old … and they’re on the books. They need to expire,” he said, noting developers could have reapplied if the sunset provision was left in.
Other changes diluted the PC’s efforts to create a downtown, a vision Donna said is cited in many studies and the town plan but was never supported with zoning.
The PC proposed a 12,000-square foot maximum building footprint and two-story minimum for buildings in the DB1 district, or Milton’s existing downtown generally spanning Route 7 from Bombardier Road to Barnum Street, but the selectboard struck these provisions.
Bonges fears this will draw single-story box stores that conflict with the town’s stated goal to best use its Route 7 corridor, serviced with town sewer. A two-story structure would create a bigger bang for the developer’s buck, he said.
Minimum height requirements were also eliminated in six other zoning districts townwide.
Selectboard chairman Darren Adams suggested the requirements weren’t realistic.
“Not everybody who wants to build a restaurant or open up a store or service on this town wants to have a second floor apartment complex above them,” he said. “It really restricted what could go into the downtown.”
The selectboard also struck a section on design standards for projects in several downtown districts. These required building pedestrian walkways from sidewalks, avoiding box-like buildings, incorporating architectural elements and ensuring blank walls “provide visual interest” with recesses, bays, murals, perimeter landscaping or other features.
Board members took issue with a section here mandating “high quality building materials” in a “complimentary [sic] palette.”
Adams said the unified regs meant to create consistency, but this section was too vague.
“Everybody in this town wants better quality building material to be used. Everybody wants that structure to be able to last a lifetime, but how do you enforce that with what [the PC] presented?” he posited. “We can’t do that, so why would we adopt what we can’t enforce?”
Bonges agreed with Adams’ assessment but differed in how to handle it. He’d suggested the selectboard approve the wording as-is and entrust the PC to fine-tune it later, but Adams vehemently disagreed.
“You implement this with the ‘let’s give it a whirl’ type attitude,” he said. “That is anti-planning.”
In retrospect, Donna said the PC would have branded the language as “construction standards,” recognizing that “design standards” conjures implications of design review, a concept that drew ire from many Miltonians in planning efforts past, but believes in the overall goal.
“Milton deserves an upgrade,” she said, echoing the PC consultant’s mantra. “We’re a great spot in Chittenden County, so when we have everything everywhere, you do not have predictable outcomes. You do not have a settlement pattern that promotes community feel.”
Some of these standards, however, were kept for NC-1 and NC-2, two neighborhood centers created in the unified regulations. Bonges considered this a win among losses.
Adams recognized the commissioners’ passion for the topic but said their devotion made some take the selectboard’s edits personally.
“I don’t think that’s how we build a good unified development regulation or any other product in this town,” he said.
For his part, Bonges plans to continue on the development review board, which will implement the regulations the selectboard passed. He’s afraid, though, that Milton will continue to get the type of development community members don’t want to see.
“Milton wants better than what they have,” he said. “It’s just strip development there from the diner to the dam. And it’s not all that impressive.”
Newly hired town planner Victor Sinadinoski said the new regs are now in effect, though residents have 21 days from their approval to petition either the entire document or individual sections. Both must contain signatures from 5 percent of registered voters to spur action.
Green Mountain Fireworks owner Matt Lavigne filed a petition at the selectboard’s Sept. 11 public hearing, taking issue with language that severely restricts his ability to vend in Milton.
Of the petition’s 585 signatures, however, only 253 were registered voters; 415 is needed, Sinadinoski said.
Even though the process is officially complete, Sinadinoski said the conversation can feasibly continue.
“This is a living document, and we still have plenty of opportunities to re-examine these sections,” he said. “We’re not going to take it to the selectboard with a major overhaul, but as we notice mistakes or people see something that might not see fair … we can come back.”