Brattleboro eyes land-use changes to help housing crisis

Residents will get one more chance to weigh in on proposed bylaw changes

BRATTLEBORO — How the town can help reduce housing barriers and create more options to help the housing crisis is on the docket for July 25, when the Selectboard will host a second of two public hearings about proposed land use amendments.

The board adopted "advancing housing initiatives" as one of five overall primary goals for fiscal 2024 at its first-ever June retreat to identify top priorities in town.

Selectboard members hosted the first hearing on July 11.

"This is innovative and very thorough," said board member Elizabeth McLoughlin, a land-use planner, of the Planning Commission's work to date and its proposal.

"It's inclusionary and it reduces the barriers to housing and I think that, if this came to pass, it would allow Brattleboro to be a leader in the state in innovative and inclusionary housing," she said.

The next and last hearing regarding proposed land use amendments will be July 25.

Changes to stimulate housing creation

Planning Director Sue Fillion presented the amendments, noting study money came through a state Department of Housing and Community Development grant to study reducing housing barriers, which allowed the town to contract with a planning and land-use consulting firm, PlaceSense, based in Windsor.

The goal, the planners said, is to make the regulations more contemporary by reducing barriers to housing creation and to lower development costs.

Proposed is to:

• Eliminate the owner-occupancy requirement for accessory-dwelling units (ADUs) so both units could be rentals.

• Remove restrictions on the number of bedrooms in an ADU.

• Revise the definition of "story" so buildings with floors partially below grade or under the roof gable would not count toward building height.

• Limit the area downtown where ground-floor residential use is prohibited to Main Street and Elliot Street between Main and Church street, and within storefront buildings.

• Revise planned unit development provisions to align with other changes in zoning regulations.

• Allow for rooming and boarding houses in all districts where other types of housing are allowed

In developed districts - those serviced by town water and sewer - the proposal includes adjusting the rules for building in the Village Center, Service Center, Neighborhood Center, and Mixed Use neighborhood districts.

These changes would allow more compact development and new residential construction (apartment spaces within houses) with smaller lots, narrower lots, and narrower setbacks; increasing the allowed height and size of buildings; and revising standards for attached housing, multi-unit housing, single-room occupancy, and rooming/boarding house.

The proposal also includes:

• Rezoning the current Rural Business District in West Brattleboro to a Neighborhood Center to support a higher density of housing and neighborhood-serving businesses

• Rezoning the lower portion of the Winston Prouty campus from Institutional to Mixed Use Neighborhood to facilitate residential infill

• Minor expansion of the Village Center District in West Brattleboro to support redevelopment of the Melrose and Chalet properties

In addition, the plan proposes creating a "missing middle housing" district - a district to overlay the developed districts - to help create a range of residential building types between detached, single-unit home and large apartment buildings to include duplexes, triplexes, and quadraplexes, townhouses with 5 to 9 attached units, cottage court developments with 3 to 9 homes, and small apartment buildings with 5 to 9 units.

Under these new standards, permit requests would need less review, and it would "help reduce NIMBY complaints, actually," Fillion said, noting there's always the appeal process.

Fric Spruyt, a local landlord, commended the proposal as "reasonable and allows for more flexibility and more creativity, and I think that's fantastic."

He also asked for consideration of solar access in the mix.

Community member landscape architect Adam Hubbard also gave the amendments a thumbs-up.

"Nice job - I'm happy to see a lot of these changes," he said. "We've been talking about these changes for a long time and it's nice to see zoning evolving […]," he said.

Hubbard did suggest changing Canal Street from mixed use/residential to a strip of mixed use from the downtown to the hospital and onto the next district, noting "small section of residential on Horton Place that fronts Canal Street […] that should have the flexibility to be mixed use."

"The beauty of a mixed use district is it gives you more ability to build more densely," he said, adding to the accolades for the town planners.

He also said he believes the town could foster more housing units in other ways.

"Keep police on the street, keep the sidewalks fixed, make places more livable, and it will draw more investment," Hubbard said. "But private investment follows public investment, in my opinion."

He urged the Selectboard to "keep doing what you're doing" and to let the town planners "do what they're doing […] after they make that change to the zoning."


The town's Housing Action Plan, endorsed by the Selectboard in March 2022, "conservatively estimated a need for 518 units," Fillion said in an update of planners' work before the hearing.

From June 2022 to June 2023, she said, the Planning Department issued permits "for what should be 51 housing units" in various stages of construction.

The TD Bank building is being redeveloped for 11 units and the DeWitt Building on Flat Street is being developed for 15 units.

"It can take some time," she said, with a wry smile.

In the meantime, to meet the town's need for housing stock, "We have about 467 units to go […] and that's still a conservative estimate," she said.

Fillion reported town planners have been looking into state tax credits and new funding, adding that the difficulties are not unique to Brattleboro and that the state is offering some initiatives to stimulate housing creation.

The group is also trying to educate residents by organizing walks through neighborhoods to note and possibly encourage potential new housing - as in, what might look like a single-family house may hold the potential to offer multiple units, even in their present state.

"We need all types of housing," Fillion said, noting she and town planners are working on the supply and quality of diverse housing and how to pay for it with all available resources.

"Why is it so expensive to build housing?" asked Selectboard Vice-Chair Franz Reichsman. "Wherever I turn, costs are phenomenal and I'm not sure what anybody can do about that."

Reichsman said that the town's economy "just won't let people afford what it takes to build a house these days."

"I keep hearing $300 a square foot, and maybe that's on the low end," he said, a cost that makes him wonder "what kind of an impact we can have."

"There are a lot of factors that are out of our control," Fillion answered, noting material costs, workforce issues, and state permitting costs, among others.

"We're not going to solve everything," she said. "I think what we can do as a town is make sure our regulations are in a good place."

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