Zoning changes debated

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MANCHESTER — The Select Board opened its hearing on a proposed overhaul of the town zoning ordinances and map during its meeting Tuesday, and left it open for further discussion after a lengthy debate on its workplace housing provisions.

The hearing will continue until at least the board's next meeting, April 3 at 7 p.m., and there's no guarantee the Select Board will vote on the proposal at that point, either. Chairman Ivan C. Beattie made it clear that he wants a full vetting of the plan — and ample opportunity for public comment — before putting it to a vote.

That vote, when it does happen, will be among four members. Board member Greg Cutler recused himself from the decision just before the hearing opened because of a potential conflict of interest, as he is a Realtor affiliated with TPW Real Estate.

The zoning hearing ran 2 hours before being recessed, and afterward the board tackled the question of whether to increase the threshold for Act 250 review to projects totaling 10 acres or more, from its present 1-acre statute.

But that decision will also wait, as the board decided to wait until it deals with changes to the zoning ordinance before deciding on the Act 250 question. Resident and business owner Bill Drunsic voiced concern about whether that decision will leave the Design Review Board without a "second set of eyes" to review projects, and resident Sylvia Jolivette said she felt the matter needed more public discussion before the board votes.

A full gallery greeted the Select Board in the Kilburn Meeting Room —far more than the usual attendance for the board's regular meetings — as the hearing opened. Town planing and zoning director Janet Hurley, Planning Commission chairman Greg Boshart and commission member Todd Nebraska took the Select Board and the audience through the reasons for the ordinance rewrite, the process, and the details of the proposal and accompanying map. They explained that the revision was intended to simplify the current map and reflect the goals of the town plan — encouraging development of higher density housing for working professionals in and around the downtown, promoting conservation and agricultural uses in current open spaces on the outskirts of town, offering more opportunity for office and light industrial land uses, and protecting the town's drinking water supply and forested ridgelines.

The workforce housing question took up much of the discussion, as Planning Commission members, Hurley, Beattie and town manager John O'Keefe took turns explaining that the lack of suitable workplace housing has hindered economic development and prevented professionals, including teachers and police officers, from living in town. By allowing higher density development, they said, the town can offer the opportunity to developers to create housing that workers and families can afford. Nebraska pointed to a finding of the 2016 Northshire Economic Development Survey (NEDS) that 74 percent of employees who work in Manchester live beyond the town line.

Board member Steven Nichols wasn't convinced that the target income level defined for workplace housing in the ordinance was going to offer enough opportunity for employees in town. For workers making $13 an hour, an apartment costing between $800 and $1,200 a month is "not going to happen," he said.

Beattie and others noted that the town already has a good deal of affordable housing for lower-income workers, and that the workforce housing definition in the plan is aimed at middle-income workers.

"I know $120,000 [the top end of the income range used in the definition of workplace housing] seems high, but if you take $120,000 and look at what you can buy, that $120,000 doesn't afford the average house in Manchester," O'Keefe said.

Nichols also questioned the requirement in downtown areas that new development be at least two stories, saying that would discourage the would-be business that can afford to start with one floor. Boshart explained that the commission wanted to promote second-floor uses that multiply more money into the economy and more closely match the character of the downtown district.

Boshart also expressed the Planning Commission's willingness to keep working at the plan if it's shown that aspects aren't working as intended. "We're still motivated after two and a half years to get it just right," he said.

The plan would allow an extra five feet of height to buildings downtown, to 40 feet, and attorney Bradley Myerson called on the board to amend that provision. "There is no compelling reason" to allow the extra height, he said. "I think it will destroy the character of downtown."

Jennifer Amatruto of Manchester, who co-owns the Brittany Motel with her husband, spoke in favor of provisions in the plan for adaptive re-use of existing buildings. "It gives people like us some flexibility, so we won't flounder and die and leave you more abandoned buildings," she said.

Deb Daniels Mithoefer also spoke in favor of the proposal, but asked if its allowances for development in return for conservation in the rural agricultural and rural residential areas might cause trouble for owners who have agreed to conservation restrictions through the Vermont Land Trust. Beattie said that was worth looking into.

There is also the question of how a few late amendments to the plan, approved by the Planning Commission at its most recent meeting, should be incorporated into the plan. Those additions have some significance; they include changing a section of Richville Road from an R-10 designation to a Mixed Use 1 designation; stipulate a 35-foot building height allowance of 50 percent for buildings outside the Town Center and Downtown districts which provide workplace housing; and change a pair of parking regulations.

While it appeared the Select Board might be able to add those changes to the ordinance rather than send the entire proposal back to the Planning Commission and start the process over, a legal opinion was being sought by the town at press time.

Hard copies of the 162-page proposal and map are available online, on display in Hurley's office and the town clerk's office, and available for purchase for $10 (to cover copying costs). The proposal can be found here.

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