Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
A car passes Sabin's Pasture on Barre Street in Montpelier on Tuesday. The city is rewriting its zoning ordinance, including the rules for potential development of Sabin's Pasture.
MONTPELIER — It’s like déjà vu all over again.
After decades of discussion, an Act 250 development permit, a voter-approved bond for $188,000 to provide seed money toward its purchase, and a meeting about proposed development in 2005 that drew more than 400 people, plans to rezone the 90-plus acres of Sabin’s Pasture brought dozens of residents to the city’s Planning Commission meeting Tuesday night.
“I feel like I’m in ‘Groundhog Day,’” said College Street resident Diane Derby, referencing the Bill Murray movie in which the protagonist is forced to repeat the same day over and over.
With the city in the midst of rewriting its zoning ordinance, the future disposition of Sabin’s Pasture has arisen once again. The property, which abuts Barre Street at its bottom and rises toward Towne Hill Road, is topographically challenging with tracts of steep cliff, an old slate quarry and some choice level ground. It is also seen by some as the jewel in the crown of developable Montpelier property.
“Right now we have a mosaic of zoning for the pasture,” said the head of the Planning Commission, Jesse Moorman, who has served on the commission since 2010. “What we’re looking at currently is to create a very low base density for most of Sabin’s but then a density bonus for clustering development and creating affordable housing.”
Under the proposed new regulations, most of the pasture land, with the exception of a strip at the bottom, would be rezoned as a rural area with development limited to lots of 10 acres with no more than two units per lot. The proposed changes would allow developers a density bonus for building clustered housing and an additional bonus if the development includes 20 percent affordable housing.
A 90-acre property could support as few as nine single-family homes or as many as 180 units if both bonuses were enacted. This is far less than the 600 units that residents feared would be built by a Burlington developer in the mid-2000s, and 35 units more than the 145 originally approved in an early Act 250 permit. The rezoning would not substantially change the amount of development that currently could occur on the property, but some wonder why the city has to rezone at all.
“I find myself asking, ‘Do we really need to update this?’” said commission member Eileen Simpson. “Why can’t we leave it as it is?”
The answer, according to the city’s website, is that the new master plan “calls for a new approach to zoning, one that represents a significant departure from the conventional zoning we currently use. The existing zoning ordinance is based on 20th century assumptions and constraints, having grown organically over the years into a complex, highly prescriptive set of rules and regulations that often work against the goals the city has established.”
Resident Michael Hoffman, director of the architecture program at Norwich University, called the plans for 50-foot-wide roads through the property “ridiculous” and urged the commissioners to try to envision the development as a whole connected to the city, and not an isolated parcel.
The Planning Commission has seen changes in membership through the decades, and the newer commissioners were listening with fresh ears to views that many of those in attendance had evolved over years of community involvement. There were no voices at the meeting arguing either to prohibit development or to pave the pasture into a parking lot. Instead, it was a meeting of neighbors, sometime adversaries, who displayed respect for the divergent opinions they represented.
Several suggested that it would be prudent to look at the 2008 plan that the Trust for Public Land had developed, in conjunction with the city, that would have allowed 225 units on the property as well as an 80 acre public park.
“There is so much information that is already there,” said Carol Doerflein, a longtime city resident and secretary for the Friends of Sabin’s Pasture, said after the meeting. “This is just my opinion, but there is a lot of work that has already been done and the commission should take a look at that.”
The city’s director of planning and community development, Gwendolyn Hallsmith, was unable to attend the meeting because of a fractured wrist, but Kevin Casey, the city’s community development specialist, attended.
Casey on Tuesday acknowledged the depth and breadth of comments offered at the meeting but said there was no easy way to avoid the time-consuming process of coming up with satisfactory regulations. “Zoning,” he said, “is like trying to paint a masterpiece with a paint roller.”MORE IN Central Vermont
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