BERLIN — The timing isn’t optimal, but Berlin voters who aren’t away on vacation will be asked Tuesday to ease a new flood-related restriction included in the town’s zoning ordinance and consider a funding request that should have been on the Town Meeting Day ballot in March.
Polls will be open at the municipal office building on Shed Road from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday when both questions will be decided.
One of those questions — Central Vermont Adult Basic Education’s annual request for $1,200 in funding for its literacy efforts — was inadvertently left off the March ballot. In an effort to correct what they described as an unfortunate “oversight,” town officials decided to add the item to the ballot for Tuesday’s special election.
The primary purpose of that election is to make a targeted change to flood hazard bylaws that were proposed by the Planning Commission, endorsed by the Select Board and ultimately adopted by voters on Town Meeting Day in 2012.
One feature of the stricter regulations — a prohibition on “new development” in the town’s highway commercial district — prompted belated objections from some who own property along the Barre-Montpelier Road. The prohibition, they argued, exceeded federal and state standards, was adopted without their input and threatened to stifle recently rekindled redevelopment along the commercial strip that runs between Barre and Montpelier.
Responding to those concerns, the Select Board asked the Planning Commission to re-visit the ordinance with an eye toward tweaking language that almost scuttled plans to construct Panera Bread at the Central Vermont Shopping Center and briefly threatened a proposal to build the CVS Pharmacy now under construction just up the road.
Though both projects were permitted under the existing language, both were close calls that could easily have been challenged. The permit for one — Panera Bread — was actually appealed, but the appeal was dropped when the Select Board agreed to consider modifying the ordinance.
Upon further review, planning commissioners agreed to propose lifting the restriction on new development in the highway commercial district, which runs along the Barre-Montpelier Road and includes a short section of Route 2 located between Montpelier and East Montpelier. The prohibition remains in place along the predominantly residential Route 12 corridor, as well as the Montpelier Junction area.
The proposed change would make new development within the highway commercial district a conditional use that would be subject to review and approval by the town’s development review board. Flood-related conditions could be imposed by the board during the course of its review and all new development would still be required to meet minimum state and federal standards for building in special flood hazard areas.
Those built-in safeguards were raised by those who lobbied for the change and ultimately embraced by the commission that has now proposed them.
The Select Board did not unanimously support the proposed changes. Selectman Jeremy Hansen questioned the wisdom of allowing new development in any flood-prone areas.
“To me it seemed a bad idea to encourage development in an area where you expect flooding,” Hansen said during a public hearing last week.
Hansen was told the Planning Commission struggled with that question, but ultimately concluded that in a predominantly commercial area property owners could decide whether it was wise to build and what steps they should take to protect their investment.
Resident Ron Lyon agreed, suggesting existing federal regulations would require flood-proofing buildings. That happened with Panera Bread, a project Lyon worked on, and routinely occurs with projects built in flood-prone areas of other communities, including Barre, Montpelier and Waterbury.
Lyon and others said the language proposed by the Planning Commission would strike the appropriate balance between protecting public safety and fostering economic development in an area of town that is on the rebound.
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