Fairlee zoning rules would encourage clustering residents, keeping spaces undeveloped

  • Mount Moosilauke catches the last of the daylight as dusk falls on Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. The Town of Fairlee is considering how it can use zoning to protect the environment. The Selectboard and zoning administrator are working together to change zoning regulations to allow for smaller homes on smaller lots, more “cluster development,” and keep contiguous tracts of land open. The town is also considering more restrictive zoning on lakeshore property. If approved, the new regulations would require a permit to mow a lawn near lakes Morey and Fairlee. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/12/2022 6:25:02 AM
Modified: 1/12/2022 6:24:11 AM

FAIRLEE — Proposed zoning amendments aim to get Fairlee residents living closer together to preserve natural spaces with strategies from tweaking subdivision rules to allowing three-story housing projects downtown.

“I think that the options that were provided are very vision-oriented and positive for the town,” said Peter Berger, who chairs the Selectboard. He affirmed that the board plans to put the new zoning regulations in place at its meeting on Jan. 24.

Voters will decide whether to make the amendments permanent, and Berger hopes the vote will take place this year. Voters already ratified the town plan in 2020, which the Planning Commission used to develop the interim bylaw amendments.

“An honest reading of (the town plan) puts a lot of emphasis on ‘keeping Fairlee Fairlee,’ ” said Rob Chapin who chairs the Planning Commission. “That means allowing for sustainable population growth, but not beyond that, and promoting a socially and economically thriving village center.”

Proponents of the interim bylaws say they should promote cluster development, a robust village center and incentivize landowners to keep large, contiguous tracts of land undeveloped.

New subdivision regulations and a “rural resource area” would give owners of Fairlee’s large forest blocks a way to “monetize land without having to carve it up,” Brimmer said. The rural resource area includes most of the land outside the new “residential district,” which includes the more developed land around lakes Morey and Fairlee and the village.

Fairlee’s current development bylaw allows 1-acre lots anywhere in town, which Brimmer said is unusual in rural Vermont. But that would change with the interim bylaw amendment. Landowners in the rural resource area, which would cover most of the town’s land, could subdivide their land into a minimum of 10-acre lots. But they would also be able to sell their subdivision rights to landowners in the residential district, where minimum lot sizes would be 2 acres. For example, the owner of 100 acres in the rural resource area could sell their subdivision rights to a developer in the residential area who owns 20 acres, enabling the developer to subdivide their land into 20 rather than only 10 lots.

“What we’re trying to do is try to give the landowners flexibility and ways to double-dip,” Brimmer said. After selling their subdivision rights, landowners in the rural resource area would still be able to sell their development rights to a land trust or take advantage of current use tax breaks, he explained.

Contiguous forestland makes up much of the rural resource area, and the new regulations may help keep it whole. Vermont Fish and Wildlife has identified wildlife corridors where bear and deer cut through Fairlee’s forests.

As Brimmer sees it, the proposed bylaws are also a way to incentivize landowners to keep their forests standing until the state finds a way to monetize carbon and compensate them for maintaining carbon sinks.

“When we were looking at the forest blocks, we’ve got a lot of separate constituencies we were dealing with,” Brimmer added.

But local environmentalists learned that they had common ground with the owners of large forest blocks in town, he said.

“Even though some are looking at large blocks as insurance and retirement plans, no one is hot to cut this into small bits,” Brimmer. And in recent years, several landowners said that logging has been a “money-losing operation.”

The new amendments also promote cluster development, a goal emphasized in the town plan. For example, in the rural resource area, 100 acres would allow for 10 10-acre plots, but the new bylaws would allow the development to be clustered in one corner of the parcel so that more contiguous land would remain undeveloped.

The bylaw amendments also encourage denser development in the village. Fairlee’s population has been growing steadily at 1% to 1.5% a year, with most new residents under 35, Brimmer said. But the vacancy rate hovers around 0% and housing hard to find. The new bylaws allow for 40-foot, three-story apartment buildings, whereas the current 35-foot maximum keeps new buildings at two stories.

“When you look at housing and how projects pencil out, the difference between a two-story apartment house and a three-story apartment house — it’s shocking how much more economically viable the three-story one is,” he said. All new buildings will have to meet preexisting aesthetic requirements that promote the shape and roof lines of a classic northern New England town.

The interim bylaw amendments also increase regulation on the densely developed lakes Morey and Fairlee. The town already put a moratorium on new construction on Lake Morey because of increasing rates of cyanobacteria, a toxic blue-green prokaryote that flourishes in water with a high nutrient load. Landowners would need a permit for ground disturbance and clearing of vegetation, categories that include everything from mowing an overgrown lawn to planting a new garden bed to building a retaining wall.

“Every time you cut the soil that close to the lake, you’re putting phosphorus into the lake,” Brimmer said.

The interim bylaw amendments will expire in two years unless the voters adopt them. In the meantime, the Planning Commission will be fine-tuning them with the public’s input.

“What the process allows is tinkering. It lets us get in and live with the new bylaw,” Brimmer said.

The Planning Commission will be holding in-person and virtual public meetings on the third Thursday of each month.

“We want to hear from people,” Chapin emphasized.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.

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