Planners discuss zoning, renewable energy

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The Colchester and Milton planning commissions held a joint meeting last week with the aim of discussing zoning issues affecting both towns.

The main focus at the Nov. 29 meeting was discussing the planning, zoning and development of the northeast corner of Colchester – an area in the vicinity of East and Middle roads along the Colchester-Milton border.

Sarah Hadd, Colchester’s director of planning and zoning, began the meeting by informing the Milton board about rezoning requests filed for the northeast quadrant in the past couple years, as well as one specific request filed back in June.

The request sought approval to convert land plots in Colchester’s AG, or agricultural, district with a 25-acre minimum lot size to R5 land plots, with a 5-acre minimum, Hadd said. These areas abut Milton’s Agricultural-Rural District, which has a minimum lot size larger than Colchester’s R5. Residential uses there only allow one unit per nearly 10 acres.

Along those same lines, Hadd also mentioned what she called the “transition of uses scenario,” or the complications in selling property there.

“As people are selling and looking to downsize, horse farms seem to be falling a little bit by the wayside, too,” Hadd said.

According to Hadd, some small developments were made in Colchester’s East Road area, but the Colchester commission wanted to discuss moving forward on a bigger, unified scale.

“Is this just a little bit of incremental development within the northeast quadrant, or are there some overall pressures within the area?” Hadd wondered.

The Colchester commission could move forward but not without potentially creating a less-smooth transition in density from Colchester to Milton. Hadd wondered if increasing R5 zoning northward around Colchester Pond and surrounding Milton would cause concern.

Milton Planning Commission chairwoman Lori Donna said although many of Milton’s goals for its southeast quadrant align with what Colchester already has in place, its commission has not recognized that quadrant as a high priority.

Donna and Milton planning director Jake Hemmerick said the Milton commission is focusing on its town core and would rather be more likely to reconsider zoning at its northern portion of East Road, versus the area that crosses into Colchester.

The last time Milton considered this area was in 2010, when a prior selectboard shot down the planning commission’s efforts to increase density in its R5 district.

“Eventually we’ll get there,” then-selectboard chairman Lou Mossey said, “but I don’t think right now is the time … for expanding density on the outskirts.”

At the time, residents shared similar complaints as Hadd mentioned are now being voiced in Colchester: That people aren’t buying farms anymore, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sell off large swaths of land.

Donna said Milton could consider making a transition zone between Colchester’s higher density and Milton’s lower density, but that wouldn’t be a priority until after the town reviews its comprehensive plan, due in 2018.

Hadd also touched on renewable energy use in Colchester’s northeast quadrant.

“This is one of the few areas in Colchester where you see alternative renewable energy, and some larger solar installations,” Hadd said. “These tend to be large lots that are pretty open and conducive to that.”

Karen Purinton, Colchester planner, noted Act 174, which gives communities a larger voice in siting renewables, could have an influence on any plans the two towns may put together.

Specifically, she mentioned substantial deference, which requires towns have a plan to meet rigorous environmental standards, including the state’s goal to source 90 percent of its energy from renewables by 2050.

The next step, Purinton said, is evaluating where Milton stands on meeting these stringent requirements before the two municipalities could go forward.

Hemmerick said so far, Milton’s Planning Commission has met jointly with the town’s conservation commission to identify feasible places to build solar and other renewables.

Hemmerick said commissioners will look closely at the issue in its upcoming comprehensive plan review. Colchester’s comprehensive plan is due to be updated in February 2019.

“Particularly in the case of energy, we’re looking to use regional components as to how we’re looking at the site and the allocation of those renewable energy needs,” added Pam Loranger, chairwoman of the Colchester Planning Commission. “To collaborate with you might be helpful for both parties.”

Although both commissions agreed a joint effort may create more unified plans, they also agreed some changes would have to be made to facilitate that cooperation.

Milton planning commissioner Henry Bonges stressed the need for maps that pinpoint plausible areas for renewable energy sites.

“We need the detailed [maps] with just the type of stuff [Colchester] is bringing up. It looks like there is a huge span for renewable energy here, but no, there are areas it should not go,” Bonges said.

Toward the end of the 30-minute meeting, a couple members from both commissions noted they would be attending an upcoming Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission training December 8 and agreed to rekindle the energy discussion moving forward.