Originally published in the Manchester Journal Dec. 15, 2017. 

MANCHESTER — How do you hope Manchester will look and operate in the future?

For the first time since zoning was adopted in 1970, Manchester’s Planning Commission hopes to institute a new zoning ordinance that will result in changes to every district.

Their goal: to increase density in downtown Manchester while preserving the rural character of outlying lands.

A draft of the ordinance was presented to the community in May, formulated in conjunction with consultant Brandy Saxon of PlaceSence. Since May, the Planning Commission has held public meetings twice a month to finalize the ordinance and hear feedback from citizens.

Now, the commission is nearing the end of that “painstaking” process according to Planning Director Janet Hurley. A public hearing will be held in January, she said, to incorporate community feedback before presenting the ordinance to Manchester’s Selectboard, which will then have between 15 and 120 days to adopt or reject the proposed ordinance.

Before that happens, Hurley says, the commission hopes to hear as much public input as possible.

“If people have feelings about what Manchester should look like, or what’s important for the economic well being of Manchester, this is pretty critical stuff,” she said. “Manchester adopted zoning in 1970, and it hasn’t changed much since then. In the interim, we’ve seen a lot of subdivision in the outer areas. If that’s allowed to continue I think we would lose the character of Manchester that draws people here.”

For decades, she says, a lack of workforce housing has been a problem for Manchester. That problem was re-identified by the Northshire Economic Development Study (NEDS), which informed the Town Plan adopted by Manchester in May. The zoning ordinance will work hand-in-hand with the Town Plan, says Hurley, to shape Manchester’s future.

While there Manchester has “a pretty good amount of affordable housing” subsidized by the federal government, she said, that housing is reserved for those who make significantly less than the median income ($49,573 for Bennington county). For those with incomes close to the median, it becomes more difficult to find housing that is affordable.

“It’s too expensive to develop housing that is affordable to working people unless you have higher densities,” Hurley said, citing factors like high costs of land, construction costs, and Vermont’s energy efficiency standards. “Additionally, Manchester needs to do something to attract a younger demographic. We have a population that is aging, and we find that people who grew up here don’t usually stay here.”

According to Hurley, the creation of multiple “mixed use” districts in the downtown area are anticipated to attract “a fuller spectrum of ages and types of people” by facilitating a variety of activities during the day, nights, and weekends.

Overall, the new ordinance is intended to simplify Manchester’s zoning map as well as guide the town’s future character. While increased density will be encouraged in downtown Manchester, the inverse is true for outlying rural areas.

“The zoning map will be much more straightforward than it is now, with more basic zoning districts and less overlay districts,” Hurley said. “In addition, the ordinance will be more effective at guiding development to meet desired forms. There will be ways to get density bonuses in the rural areas provided rural character is protected.”

Beyond bonuses for preserving “rural character,” primarily open space or agricultural land, density bonuses will also be considered for those who develop Net Zero structures that meet outlined energy efficiency standards. Undevelopable lands, like wetlands and steep slopes, will also now be counted towards final residential density.

“If your buildings were all built to net zero standards you could get an additional bonus, there would actually be no maximum residential density,” Hurley said. “You could get as many dwelling units in there as you could fit, given the other dimensional requirements of the district.”

Additionally, the new ordinance will increase the amount of industrially zoned land available in Manchester; another identified problem according to Hurley.

Before the ordinance is finalized, however, Hurley says that it will be essential to gather community feedback. Once the new ordinance is proposed to the Selectboard, likely in February, state statute requires every permit application submitted to the town to adhere to both the current and proposed ordinance to gain approval.

“That could be somewhat of an untenable situation,” she said. “The Selectboard is going to want to know that the public is behind this. If they can’t see that it will prolong this effort, which would be pretty burdensome to both the town and potential applicants.”

Reach Cherise Madigan at cmadigan@manchesterjournal.com, or by phone at 802-490-6471.

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