Think outside the zoning design plan box was the message of a presentation by Hinesburg Planning Commissioner Rolf Kielman on Wednesday, Aug. 28.
Kielman, who is an architect, came to the meeting with drawings, photos and surveys from three Vermont towns, as well as some other U.S. municipalities. His goal: to demonstrate different zoning design plans and ways to encourage more intensive development in the village area of Hinesburg.
Kielman shared photos and facts about village centers in Bristol, Vergennes and Burlington. These towns have downtown corridors of concentrated commercial and retail businesses that are between 1,000-1,500 feet long, while the more dispersed downtown area of Hinesburg is about 4,300 feet long.
He showed some slides for developments with dense housing units demonstrating some non-traditional – some might say radical – design possibilities from around the country, notably New Orleans. Kielman admitted that he was being “a little provocative.”
Kielman said he didn’t show the photos because he thought the design of these buildings were necessarily appropriate for Hinesburg.
“It’s the scale of the buildings that I think we should be heeding,” he said.
Most of his presentation was about the area on Highway 116 between Commerce Street and Mechanicsville Road. Kielman characterized his presentation as “just a little exploration about one part of town.”
An exploration of one part of Hinesburg
“I’d like to encourage taking the ideas that Rolf talked about and bringing them around on Commerce Street as well,” said Commissioner John Kiedaisch.
An advantage of the Commerce Street area is that it doesn’t have the heavy traffic of Highway 116, he said.
Planning commission chair Maggie Gordon and commissioner Marie Gardner questioned whether they want one standard for the whole village or discreet zoning areas.
Gardner cited the existing village design standard, which requires that buildings built before 1940 retain their “historical character” and said they might loosen these restrictions.
“I’ve heard people complain about that,” she said. “Maybe we don’t want historic-looking buildings. Just saying. Being the devil’s advocate.”
“It’s interesting what you propose,” Gardner then said to Kielman. “I don’t know whether I like it or not, to be honest. We have to talk about it a lot more.”
Kielman said he thought that the section of town south on Highway 116 from Mechanicsville Road to Silver Street is sort of the historic district of the village and the town should be “tender” in design changes there, “yet I don’t think it should be immune to some infill and that infill could be something that doesn’t necessarily mimic something that was built in 1800,” he said.
Commissioner Joseph Iadanza said, after seeing Kielman’s presentation, that he thought they should consider what sort of development was best further north in the town and specifically the northwest side of the village.
Opposition to development restrictions
Steve Giroux of Giroux Body Shop, who was in the audience, argued against zoning restrictions because someone may have a plan for developing a property that everyone likes but is blocked because it’s against the rules. Giroux Body Shop is on the east side of Highway 116 in the area where Kielman’s presentation was focused.
“We end up with what we’ve got with Lot 15 where there’s so many restrictions with the official map and stuff it almost makes the land unusable, unsellable unless it’s exactly fitting what your plan is,” said Steve Giroux. “So, it limits it and anything that limits it is going to restrict what can happen there, whether it’s us developing it or somebody else in the future.”
Lot 15 is the property where Hannaford has proposed building a grocery store, a project that’s being contested in the courts.
Matt Giroux, who was also in the audience, asked why they were looking at the area between Commerce Street and Mechanicsville Road.
“There’s nothing there that would want you to be there,” Matt Giroux said. “There’s not a historic opera house, there’s not an old restaurant that’s been there for 50 years, and if you’re going to do that why not from Commerce Street up to CVU Road where there’s a blank canvas, nothing there, where you’re not taking out existing buildings, existing businesses and changing it all around.”
He also objected to the planning discussion because it focused on an area with a lot of traffic.
Steve Giroux said, “We talked about the Vermont villages. You figure those villages have evolved over the past 250 years without you people, without planning commissions, without zoning. Until the last 30 or 40 years, we didn’t have any of that. It’s a nice village; everyone likes it.”
Flexible town design guidance
Kielman agreed that restrictions should be more flexible, but said he thinks it is good to “lightly guide and shape the making of a good town.” He said the planning commission’s research into zoning design standards around the state found some towns where restrictions are “pretty spare” but most Vermont towns’ zoning design standards are “pretty extensive.”
Hinesburg Director of Planning and Zoning Alex Weinhagen said he’s heard comments from people who want the development and review process to ensure a town that Hinesburg residents will be proud of, that won’t be too “vanilla” and that has standards that are understandable with a development process “that’s less painful and easier to negotiate.”
“That’s a double-edged sword to have to try to walk that balance between having regulations that have a shape and predictability but also don’t create a straitjacket that has no design flexibility,” Weinhagen said. “Historically, Vermont courts have struck down restriction that aren’t clear enough because it gives development and review boards “unbridled discretion.”
Iadanza said that zoning restrictions have been changed in Hinesburg, for example the Village Northeast Area was zoned agricultural, but it was changed when it became clear it was a good area for industrial development. That’s where NRG Systems is now. He said this change in zoning didn’t happen in days, that it was more like months.
Gardner said that in comparison to many other Vermont towns, zoning changes in Hinesburg happen slowly.
Kiedaisch said, if they were to adopt plans similar to what Kielman had presented, it wouldn’t happen quickly or all at once.
“The market and the landowners will make the decision about when things move, when things happen,” he said.
“I’ll be very honest with you,” Weinhagen said. “I really hope that east side of 116 turns into something else someday. Right now, with an abandoned building and the like, it seems like you guys could extract a lot more value out of that and at the same time the community and the community could benefit from that.”
Giroux Body Shop has been in its location since 1922 and nothing much has changed there and it’s not the best location for development as a downtown commercial area “based on the traffic flow and congestion,” said John Little, who was in the audience.
“A lot of us who know about the origins of the town and Giroux symbolizes where the town got its start as a manufacturing center,” Gordon said. “I really like the fact that the shop is right there coming into town.”