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Planning Commission launches public outreach phase of zoning revisions

BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro’s zoning regulations are undergoing their first overhaul in 30 years.

The Town Planning Commission kicked off the public outreach and comment phase for the draft revisions of Brattleboro’s zoning regulations with an open house and presentation at the Marlboro College Graduate Center on Jan. 22.

“Cumbersome,” is how the Town Plan described Brattleboro’s current zoning regulations, Planning Consultant Brandy Saxton, AICP, said,

Saxton, owner of Port Henry, N.Y.-based planning and design firm PlaceSense, told the small audience that the Commission and Planning Department spent last year researching, revising, and preparing the draft zoning regulations.

Some areas of town will see few zoning changes; others will see more, she said.

In the draft zoning regulations, the Commission streamlined the 19 adopted zoning districts to 12. Many of the proposed districts encourage mixed use for residences and businesses.

The Commission has proposed two new zoning districts. The water and recreation district seeks to utilize the town’s bodies of water for recreation and locating development away from the edge of rivers and lakes. The institutional district encompasses developments like the Brattleboro Retreat, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, and Brattleboro Union High School. This district has few zoning standards but will require institutions develop a master plan.

New emphasis on better stormwater, flood, and erosion management also guides the draft zoning regulations. For example, areas now zoned as service centers can have 90 percent of the land paved. The proposed zoning drops the impermeable surface allowance to 60 percent.

“There’s a real reason for all these water-related issues,” Saxton said, adding that many of the local bodies of water took a hit during Tropical Storm Irene.

The commission has recommended axing a regulation aimed at big-box stores. The regulation required an economic development study for commercial buildings over 65,000 square feet.

Saxton explained that the Commission felt the time has passed for this regulation. Demand for big-box stores has dropped and the proposed zoning has created new regulations for such large buildings.

The Commission is looking specifically for feedback on creating a historical district zoning overlay to preserve the characteristics of some of Brattleboro’s historic buildings, Saxton explained.

Development on land suitable for industrial use has become more restrictive in the draft zoning, Saxton said. Brattleboro has little space that’s suitable for industrial projects. The town needs to be careful about filling industrial land with development that could go elsewhere, she said.

Light industry has changed from the days of sprawling factories, she said. Most of the proposed zoning districts allow light industrial activity.

The scope of each district has expanded to allow for a greater variety of uses, Saxton said. She suggested this should help reduce the need, or create a new process for Planned Unit Development (PUD) amendments historically used by property owners to build new development within existing districts.

The Brattleboro Housing Partnership’s (formally the Brattleboro Housing Authority) Red Clover Commons project represents one of many properties that needed a PUD to develop housing on Fairground Road.

According to Saxton, the PUD process is laborious and administratively intensive.

Brattleboro’s Town Plan, adopted in 2013, has served as a guiding document for the draft zoning regulations, Saxton said.

The Town Plan called for a complete overhaul of the zoning and subdivisions regulations within the town, she said.

Saxton said that since the 1980s, when the zoning rules received their last rewrite, much has changed in the planning landscape.

Over the years, the town made small zoning updates to keep pace with changes in the town’s planning goals, new planning practices, state law, and case law.

These piecemeal revisions left Brattleboro’s zoning codes looking “more like a crazy quilt” than a seamless document, Saxton said.

Many of the existing zoning districts are defined by setbacks rather than by natural boundaries such as roads and rivers. As a result, some districts bisect buildings, Saxton said.

The draft zoning document responded to recommendations contained in the Town Plan:

• Reduce the number of zoning districts along Putney Road — The draft reduced the districts from nine to three.

• Provide design guidance for commercial development — Specific design guidance for the commercial properties vary in each district but most emphasize moving parking to the side and back of buildings, decreasing setbacks, and increasing safety for pedestrians.

• Adopt regulations to protect natural resources including steep slopes, riparian buffers, conservation subdivisions, and cluster development — Saxton said that the proposed zoning codes include ways to vet a project using “form-based [zoning] code” that considers different natural features rather than hard and fast man-made lines such as setbacks.

• Support residential infill development — residential housing would be permitted in all proposed zoning districts except industrial.

The Planning Commission will take public feedback on the draft zoning code through early February. The Commission will revise the document based on public feedback with an eye on completing the second draft by the end of March.

Two warned public meetings will be held before the Commission’s final draft goes to the Selectboard. The board will hold at least one public hearing before voting on the new zoning rules.

To learn more about the proposed zoning rules, contact the organizers, or see a schedule of public events, visit www.placesense.com/brattleboro.

Members of the public can also contact the Brattleboro Planning Services Department at 230 Main St., Suite 202, at 802-251-8112.

The next public meetings are Feb. 5: At 11:30 a.m. there will be a drop-in café at the Hampton Inn. From 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., an open house will be held at the River Garden. A downtown neighborhood meeting follows at 7 at Marlboro College Graduate Center, 28 Vernon St., Room 2E.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #291 (Wednesday, February 4, 2015). This story appeared on page A2.

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