The dispute over South Hero village zoning districts

A dispute has arisen in South Hero over a change in acreage of two “village zoning districts” which were expanded in 2020. Some town residents claim a majority of voters objected to this expansion, and have presented the issue by petition for voter consideration on Town Meeting Day. The head of the Planning Commission has condemned these petitions as “discriminatory and elitist.”

The offending articles seek to revert the 2020 mapping of 634 acres as “village zoning district” back to the land area of approximately 66 acres that existed before the 2020 changes. The petitions were separated between the two affected districts: South Hero Village Zoning District, which would be reduced from 354 acres to the 54-acre “South Hero Village Center”; Keeler Bay Village Zoning District, proposed to be reduced from 280 acres to its previous 14-acre “Keeler Bay Village Center” area.

New rules in the geographically-enlarged village districts will permit less costly low-income housing construction, and would include changes in setback and minimum lot sizes over the larger areas created in 2020. Historic minimum lot sizes that have long bound South Hero landowners would be relaxed for a huge swath of the town. Many residents are concerned this could negatively alter the character of the community.

The town’s attorney has advised that the articles must pass through the Planning Commission and cannot be implemented directly by Town Meeting vote. Yet Vermont statute (24 V.S.A. §1441(b) and (g)) provides that if a petition for zoning law change is signed by more than 5% of voters and presented to the Planning Commission, it must promptly present it to the Selectboard “with changes only to correct technical deficiencies.”

Despite more than 5% of voters having signed the subject petitions, South Hero Planning Commission Chair Sandy Gregg, in a January 23, 2023 letter to the Town Selectboard addressing the petitions, claimed “on behalf of the entire Planning Commission” that: The requested boundaries being adjusted to correlate to the Village Center Designation boundaries is ill conceived for the following reasons:

  1. The Planning Commission finds these two articles to be discriminatory and elitist.
  2. The articles ask to greatly reduce the area in which opportunities now exist for moderate to low income individuals & families to purchase a small lot, build an affordable home, and work in their community.
  3. Housing discrimination is a pattern that affects people’s ability to buy or rent a home.
  4. Housing discrimination breeds residential segregation in a community.
  5. The Planning Commission is working toward South Hero being an inclusive community. We believe an inclusive community is in the best interests of a vibrant and welcoming community. These two articles fly in the face of being inclusive.
  6. The Planning Commission is working under the vision the community gave us in the Town Plan Survey and that is to create opportunities for current residents to thrive and new residents to realize basic human rights such as housing needs.
  7. Finally, the Planning Commission finds these two articles to be exclusionary and not at all in keeping with the TOWN OF SOUTH HERO DECLARATION OF INCLUSION

This is certainly not a typical declaration by so-called public representatives — who do they represent? The low-income, future residents they are hoping will come to South Hero? More than 100 South Hero residents signed two petitions that relate directly to their property values and the future character of their hometown, and for which they have clear rights under Vermont statute. The South Hero Planning Commission insulted a substantial number of citizens while flouting Vermont statutes and First Amendment liberties — petitions against government are highly protected speech.

The 2015 Town Plan cited a 2013 survey (Appendix 3, Shizac Survey, p. 67) that asked respondents: Do you think there should be designated areas for commercial development? If YES, then where do you think these areas should be?

Respondents voted 209 to 16 that development should be “concentrated along Route 2 in the Village Centers” versus 130 voted “No” to “Anywhere along Route 2” and 69 “Yes.” Opinions were similarly negative toward expanded commercial zoning on Route 314: 142 voters said “No” to permitting greater development “anywhere along Route 314” (to only 36 “Yes”); limiting development on Route 314 “from Eagle Camp to Route 2” was favored 106 to 80.

The most recent Town Plan Survey of South Hero residents shows they take great pride and enjoyment in their rural, friendly town. They are split over whether or not to regulate short-term rentals; how best to improve cycling safety; but they largely love the place where they live: When asked what they liked most about South Hero, common themes were the natural beauty of South Hero (59%), the small & rural nature of South Hero (45%) and the community of South Hero (42%).

On its website the Planning Commission proclaims “South Hero is working on an update of its Town Plan and your participation is important!” The petitions to change the size of the South Hero Village Zoning Districts are participatory. If residents are concerned to preserve “the natural beauty … the small & rural nature … and the community of South Hero,” they might reasonably and legally seek to confine development to certain areas, at least initially. This can also be a very important consideration for public safety, for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

These discussions should be permissible, in the usual structures of democratically-elected representation. The question of what effect these changes might have on property values is a valid one, important to many people whose entire wealth is connected to their primary (South Hero) residence. (Apparently none of the members of the Planning Commission live within the geographical boundaries of the proposed “Village Zoning Districts.”)

The Northwest Regional Planning Commission summarizes the 2023-2031 South Hero Town Plan:

Develop & communicate a unified vision for the future of South Hero.
Input from town residents will inform the vision & goals of the plan.
Town plans reflect the vision of the community for the future. ….
The Town has received a grant from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to complete this town plan update.

Vermont taxpayers are footing the tab for a handful of social justice ideologues to impose their political ideology on town residents who have reasonable questions about the potential impact of their Town Plan on their property values, and the future character of their community. They call it “a unified vision.”

John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield. © Copyright True North Reports 2023. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/RoyalBroil

One thought on “The dispute over South Hero village zoning districts

  1. Thank you John for this accurate and truthful report!

    In my opinion, this story highlights the overwhelming objective of the State is to generate more tax revenue by dramatically increasing the number of residents. In addition, incentivizing the building of high-density housing is music to the ears of developers and the rest of the growth machine, which in turn provide major campaign contributions to politicians here. The State’s workhorse for accomplishing these objectives are these quasi-state bodies – the regional planning commissions.

    I’m not entirely sure that the Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC) is a nest of wokeist ideologues (although I have my suspicions). But I do think what NRPC is doing is cleverly couching its plans for high-density development as a means by which Town can pursue the currently-popular social justice call that “housing is a human right.” It doesn’t matter to the State or to some South Hero residents that new developments in South Hero are NOT going provide much, if any, “affordable housing.” This is a resort town, and the price of land is too high to justify building large numbers of housing units for low-income occupants. New residences will be occupied by higher wage earners who want a summer escape camp or who are escaping the cities.

    The State doesn’t care if current residents love their peaceful, country-village neighborhood, and don’t want it destroyed and replaced with “vibrant” high-density developments. The Town Planning Commission is supposed to protect the interests of current town residents; but as you point out, it hasn’t been doing that.

Comments are closed.