Alex Weinhagen (President, Vermont Planners Association) spoke to the House Environment & Energy Committee on Wednesday about housing and permit reform legislation. He gave an overview with his opinion on the housing crisis and explained that State and local government can and should take action in the areas over which they have control. The Vermont Planners Association (VPA) strongly supports modernizing municipal land use regulations, state permitting reform (e.g., wastewater, stormwater, building codes, and Act 250), as well as changes to expedite development review appeals processes. This final point is one of the main focuses of S.100.
He explained that while both S.100 and H.68 (a related bill the Committee is also taking testimony on) are well-intentioned, however lack "substantive state permit reform elements." The VPA recommend some of the revisions below to improve these bills, and to "set the stage for even more impactful permit reform" in the 2024 legislative session:
- Add language to convene a commission or stakeholder group (including housing advocates, municipal planners, developers, regional planning commissions, etc.) to evaluate and provide additional recommendations for action in the 2024 legislative session. Legislative studies on Act 250 and state planning designation reforms due out this year will help inform this effort, Weinhagen believes. Similar stakeholder engagement efforts in other states helped yield results at the state and local level. Approaches like New Hampshire’s Housing Appeals Board, Maine’s study of land use regulations and short-term rentals, and targeted “fair share” provisions in Massachusetts and Rhode Island should be considered.
- To achieve the most impactful reforms to municipal land use regulation, the VPA recommend including the municipal planning practitioners who, "work with zoning regulations" every day. The VPA would be "very willing" to participate through member outreach or even designating a representative formally serve on a stakeholder group.
- In both bills, they agreed that right-sizing residential parking requirements to actual need makes sense, especially for one-bedroom units, multi-unit buildings, and senior housing. VPA agrees that excessive parking requirements in municipal zoning regulations can impact the viability of new housing projects, particularly in-fill housing and redevelopment. However, context, housing type, and availability of transportation are all important factors to consider. They believe the bill should be revised to recognize these factors, so as not to constrain all municipalities to a 1 or 1.5 spaces per dwelling unit formula for every housing project.
- VPA also recommended adding language to clarify that municipalities can require parking maximums as well as minimums – this is currently practiced but has been challenged based on stricter interpretations of current statute.
- Residential density, building height, and density bonuses. VPA has long advocated for higher density development in areas planned for infrastructure-supported growth. However, these pre-emptions of municipal land use regulations could be problematic and may result in unintended consequences for some communities. They should be discussed and refined by a stakeholder group for consideration in the 2024 session, perhaps working towards a statewide plan for housing growth that complements, rather than overrides, existing regional and municipal land use planning. Some of the issues include:
- Smart growth areas are not always synonymous with municipal water and sewer service areas. A one-size fits all approach for all areas served by municipal water and sewer doesn’t recognize the complexity, history, and planning of these service areas.
Other problems with using water/sewer service areas as a surrogate for designated growth areas include:
- Shoreline areas where water/sewer service exists to address water quality issues.
- Legacy service areas that are adjacent but outside areas planned for growth.
- Service areas that were extended outside of growth areas to address public health issues (mobile home parks, PFAS contamination, etc.).
- Floodplains, river corridors, and other unbuildable areas within a service area. S.100 does include language to address some of these.
- Not all municipal water and wastewater systems have large amounts of uncommitted reserve capacity. Some communities with limited capacity have adopted local land use policies to direct this limited capacity toward redevelopment of their village and downtown cores, including housing that meets the needs of low- and moderate-income Vermonters.
- Some municipal systems are subject to Act 250 permit conditions that have required adoption of land use regulations and/or limits on connections in order to prevent sprawl. It is unclear whether the state pre-emption of local zoning will also overturn these Act 250 permit conditions.
- They believe "meaningful tools" are also needed to address housing production targets in affluent ex-urban communities that use "exclusionary policies" simply by choosing to not invest in municipal water and sewer infrastructure. This could include a combination of incentives for communities that make progress, as well as consequences for those that do nothing or actively avoid it.
- The VPA is also concerned that the proposed height waivers for mixed-use developments likely will "not work as intended." They believe that until underlying issues around water/sewer service are resolved, removing height restrictions in zoning will simply stall such projects in the permitting process. Density “bonuses,” they argued, can also be addressed in other ways (reduced lot sizes and setbacks, increased lot coverage, etc.)
- They agreed that that two-unit dwellings should be treated like single-unit dwellings in terms of density, minimum lot size, and other dimensional standards. However, Weinhagen recommend eliminating the term duplex and “family” dwelling throughout existing statues to help provide consistency, clarity, and to avoid "outdated references." Instead, he recommended using the terms single-unit dwelling, two-unit dwelling, multi-unit dwelling, and accessory dwelling unit.
- Another issue he highlighted is that currently there is no review process to ensure that municipal bylaws are not exclusionary prior to adoption, the only enforcement is after-the-fact legal enforcement. He recommended legislators consider empowering or requiring Regional Planning Commissions to review proposed municipal bylaws for conformance with fair housing practices as they currently do for municipal comprehensive plans.
Weinhagen also proposed a number of other small language revisions to the two bills.
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