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In the Zone 

Burlington maps a new blueprint for the next decade and beyond

Published January 11, 2006 at 2:19 p.m.

A week before Christmas, a smattering of people are milling around the Champlain School library and perusing a display of color-coded maps and aerial photos of Burlington. The building is quiet except for the gurgling of fish tanks and the steady hum of a janitor waxing the floor in a nearby classroom, now vacant for the holidays.

David White, a comprehensive planner with the Burlington Department of Planning and Zoning, begins his two-hour presentation -- an overview of the most extensive rewrite of the city's zoning ordinance in 30 years. He seems unfazed by the meager turnout. Attendance at two previous public forums wasn't much better. This time of year, even the most civic-minded residents are preoccupied with more seasonal pursuits. It's hard to generate much excitement for a meeting about overlay districts, architectural design standards and mixed-use development when there are skis to be waxed and Xboxes to be gift-wrapped.

The attendance is considerably better a few weeks later at a somewhat different long-term planning session -- the Burlington Business Association's fourth annual Business Summit, held in Champlain College's new IDX Student Life Center. The theme of the event, "Burlington 2031: City or Suburb?" has drawn a healthy contingent of Vermont movers and shakers, including Mayor Peter Clavelle and Governor Jim Douglas, who's scheduled to deliver his State of the State in a few hours.

For much of the morning, representatives from some of Vermont's most influential businesses, educational institutions and government agencies listen to lofty predictions about what the Queen City will look like in 25 years. There's talk of hydrofoils operating on Lake Champlain and people-movers shuttling commuters into downtown, daily Amtrak service between Burlington and New York City, and a skyway linking the waterfront to the University of Vermont. Amid all the optimistic forecasts about a citywide fiber-optics network, a new sports arena and a recession-proof economy, however, Burlington's Zoning Rewrite Project goes all but unmentioned.

The zoning rewrite is a major undertaking that's been in the works since September 2001. It could do more to reshape the face of Burlington than any pie-in-the-sky prognostications over coffee and doughnuts. Yet few people in the room -- or elsewhere in Burlington -- seem to realize the city's zoning ordinance is being overhauled, let alone know what it entails.

That's likely to change soon. Within four to six weeks, Planning and Zoning is expected to unveil a draft of the new zoning ordinance for the City Council's review and approval. From there begins a long and possibly heated public discussion about how Burlington should grow in the next decade and beyond.

Thus far, few people outside of City Hall have taken much interest in the project, which isn't surprising -- zoning isn't a sexy topic. Unless you're a policy wonk, a developer building high-rise condos in downtown, a historic preservationist working to save 19th-century houses from the wrecking ball, or a homeowner preparing to install a new swimming pool, chances are you've never given zoning much thought at all. And until recently, most of the work on the rewrite has gone on behind closed doors.

So what is zoning? Simply put, it's the primary tool a city uses to shape development and determine how land is used. The zoning ordinance spells out what can go where, how big it can be, what it can be used for and what it should look like. It's the law that prevents a gravel pit from being dug next to a senior center, or a fast-food outlet from going up in the Intervale. It determines how many parking spaces a new housing development must provide, and where cell towers can be erected.

The city has other planning tools as well to accomplish those aims. Burlington's master plan spells out the city's long-term goals and priorities -- how much green space we want, what kinds of housing options we'd like to encourage, what types of businesses we want to attract and which historic structures and neighborhoods we wish to preserve. If the master plan is a broad-stroke portrait of the city we want, the zoning ordinance is the roadmap that shows how to get there.

Once Burlington adopts its new zoning ordinance later this year, the city will begin revising its existing master plan. Admittedly, this is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. In a perfect world, the city would draft a new master plan and then adopt a new zoning ordinance to implement that vision. Unfortunately, Vermont law requires any municipality that has a master plan to revise it every five years; Burlington's last master plan was adopted in 2001.

What will the new zoning rewrite do? As White in the Planning and Zoning office explains, it's important that people understand what it won't do. Most importantly, the zoning rewrite includes no major policy changes in land-use patterns from earlier planning documents. The rewrite revises, clarifies and modernizes the language in the current ordinance, it streamlines the application and review processes, and it updates regulations to comply with recent state laws. The rewrite also renames all the zoning districts in the city and clarifies the intent of each district and what kinds of development should occur there.

Why is the city rewriting its zoning ordinance? Because the existing one is out of date and hard to navigate, says White. Many of its terms and standards are unclear, inconsistent and even contradictory. More importantly, he adds, it's not promoting the types of development that Burlington residents have said they want to encourage. Nor is it adequately protecting those aspects of Burlington -- open spaces, historic structures, the size and look of neighborhoods -- that are vital to preserving the city's unique character.

In some respects, the zoning ordinance deals in specifics. For example, it dictates how tall a new building can be and how far it must be set back from the street. The new ordinance won't change those height or setback requirements, only how heights and setbacks are measured.

For historic buildings, the new ordinance gives property owners more specific guidelines for keeping an old building consistent with the character of the neighborhood. The new ordinance won't make it easier or harder to tear down an old building, White emphasizes. But it will clarify the circumstances under which an old building can be demolished, and spell out what type of building can replace it.

Say you own a 40-foot-tall apartment building from the 19th century that sits in a district zoned to allow buildings of 100 feet. If your building burns down, you can't then turn around and build a modern, 100-foot high rise. The new ordinance preserves the existing historic development pattern in neighborhoods while also making the rules clearer for developers, planners, review boards and the courts.

The new zoning ordinance doesn't dictate details down to the color of mailboxes and types of doorbells. It only determines the "envelope" in which a structure can be built. "When you see a building that people are not happy with, zoning doesn't quite get into that level of detail," White says. "Even though we have a design-review process with specific issues and characteristics, it can still end up being a big, ugly box."

What kinds of changes will the average citizen notice over time? For one, the new ordinance expands the "transition zone" around downtown to allow for more low-intensity, mixed-use development between residential neighborhoods and the city's core. This means the ground floors of some buildings a few blocks from downtown could be used for corner grocery stores, bakeries, bookstores or other small businesses. In effect, this creates a "gateway" into downtown that lets visitors know they are entering the city's core.

The rewrite also addresses parking throughout Burlington. Although the new ordinance won't change the specific parking conditions at a street-by-street level -- metered parking spaces won't suddenly be converted into two-hour parking, for instance -- the new ordinance divides the city into three parking districts. It recognizes that the parking needs in a residential neighborhood differ from those downtown, as White explains. These parking districts won't affect existing development, only how the parking requirements for new construction are determined. It also spells out when those parking requirements can be waived, such as if a business offers its employees shuttle or bus vouchers.

The new ordinance will likely include requirements for bicycle parking as well. Since the city wants to encourage non-motorized traffic, especially by commuters, the rewrite may include mandates for longer-term bike-parking facilities that are more secure and weatherproof. However, these changes have yet to be finalized.

Another major goal of the zoning rewrite is to streamline the application and review process and make it easier to navigate. This is of particular interest to developers and anti-sprawl advocates. Deservedly or not, Burlington has earned a reputation as a burdensome place to build. Many developers complain that because the process is so time-consuming and expensive, it's easier to build outside of town on undeveloped land, a trend that encourages suburban sprawl. White says the city's goal is to give developers a clearer picture of what they can and cannot do. As he puts it, "Developers want green lights or red lights. What they don't want are yellow lights."

If the zoning rewrite doesn't include any significant policy changes but is more administrative housecleaning, why should the average Burlington resident get involved or even care?

For one, zoning discussions don't occur in a vacuum. As the city redraws its zoning boundaries, philosophical questions arise that will need to be addressed when the city revisits its master plan. As White notes, in the process of rewriting this 30-year-old ordinance, "We've probably identified and raised more policy issues than we've answered."

For example, the zoning rewrite doesn't rezone the Burlington rail yard, even though this section of the city will undoubtedly be redeveloped sometime in the next 10 to 20 years. Before that area can be rezoned, White says, the city needs to have a public discussion about what it should look like and what kinds of infrastructure, street patterns and open spaces it should feature. Will it be more waterfront commercial property, similar to what lies to its north? More industrial, as it is to the south? Or more residential and mixed use, as it is to the east?

In addition, one proposal that was put forward several months ago would have allowed a limited amount of "live/work and work/live" development in certain areas of the city, such as along the Pine Street corridor. This concept, which is popular in larger cities on the West Coast, recognizes the appeal of building residential spaces that incorporate commercial workspace, such as art studios. Although Burlington's Planning Commission didn't include that proposal in the current rewrite, White expects the idea to resurface when the master plan comes up for discussion later this year.

Finally, White warns that the new zoning ordinance won't make everyone happy. "This ordinance is going to be a whole lot better than what we have, but it's not going to be perfect," he says. "It can't address everything. It's a compromise."

White also notes that whatever changes are incorporated into the new zoning ordinance won't be carved in stone. "People need to understand that this isn't a one-shot deal," he says. "It won't be another 30 or 50 years before they get another crack at it."

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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