Panel discusses “Home Grown” Zoning at Selectboard meeting
by Kate Lalley
Many people have asked me, a Shelburne planning commissioner, what the town can do about the deteriorating and vacant properties on Route 7 North that mar the experience of arriving in Shelburne.
Under our current system of zoning, it is difficult to re-use many of our buildings. Our zoning primarily addresses how a building may be used and offers few specifics about what it should look like or how it should relate to its neighbors or the larger environment. By focusing on use, the regulations give property owners less leeway to re-use buildings if the primary tenant vacates. Most buildings on commercial Route 7 were built to suit a specific business or business type. Problems with this model emerge when businesses leave. In Shelburne, buildings have remained vacant because other similar businesses have not emerged to take their place. Inadvertently this generated the “build and discard” development pattern we see today on Route 7.
I believe that a different type of zoning on commercial portions of Route 7 could yield a better development result, allow us to capitalize on our location on Lake Champlain and as the venue for Vermont’s top three tourism venues, and add value to our largest commercial real estate area. What do I mean by a “different type of zoning”? Simply put, I mean one that emphasizes building design and form more than the type of use a building may contain.
Form-based Code (FBC) is a type of zoning that can achieve these results because it addresses the heart of the matter – how the overall built environment looks and functions. Under FBC, what a building looks like and how it relates to its context are the primary focuses. What a building is ultimately used for is a secondary concern. Greater flexibility over how a property may be used allows property owners to adapt their buildings and sites to changing needs and changing markets.
I’m not alone in seeing the advantage of this approach. A team of visiting professionals organized by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) found that “The Shelburne Road Corridor and Shelburne Village are appropriate areas for using Form Based Codes.”
Route 7 is the town’s largest commercial tax base. To keep businesses in Shelburne and attract new enterprise, Route 7 north of the LaPlatte bridge must be attractive and function efficiently. To discourage vacancies, property owners must be allowed greater discretion about how their buildings are used. The AIA team studied the corridor during three days of public workshops last October and quantified the value of the 2.5-mile corridor to the town. In their report, they noted that “from a commercial property perspective, the north end of the corridor (north of the bridge) provides almost seven times the property taxes as the Village core. (To read their report go to www.shelburnevt.org/html/finalreport.pdf ).
The AIA report also pointed to huge untapped potential in the Route 7 corridor. I believe that adopting FBC will give us access to this potential. A FBC will specify a more attractive and efficient pattern of development. Greater predictability about the kind and pattern of development, and the procedure for building and site development will make land in the corridor as a whole more valuable, raising the per acre value of land in this area.
What might we expect from a FBC? Zoning that is determined by Shelburne residents, for Shelburne residents. During a community visioning process, residents will identify resources and priorities that will be the bases of new regulations that are tailored to Shelburne. Instead of seemingly arbitrary rules about use, there will be an overall plan that will strategically locate types of development where the community decides they should be. The 2.5-mile corridor will be redefined as a series of nodes in order to correlate development with investment opportunities, and at the same time provide adjoining neighborhoods with the businesses and services they want.
A plan of this type will result in more compact, walkable and attractive development in certain areas, a development process that is simpler, predictable and fair, and a way finding signage program for the many tourists who visit our town. An important outcome of a richer mix of development types will be affordable housing with access to public transportation on Route 7. A fringe benefit could be more of our young people living in Shelburne and perhaps even finding jobs here.
At the request of the Selectboard, volunteers in the town have worked very hard for over two years to make Route 7 a more effective and attractive place for business. The “Vision for 7 Committee” made up of these volunteers strongly believes FBC holds great promise for capitalizing on the corridor’s untapped potential and boosting its commercial value. Town staff is applying for grants to cover the majority of the costs associated with hiring a consultant team to develop new Form-based regulation.
The ‘Vision For Change’ Committee is planning an information session for residents and others who want to learn more about the benefits and costs of FBC. The session will take place at the Selectboard meeting on Sept. 11 at 7 pm. As part of the session, individuals from Vermont communities with FBC experience will be on hand to speak about Form-based requirements and how they compare to conventional zoning.