Thursday, December 19, 2013

PC to SB Presentation Dissection

The 2014 proposed zoning amendments -- ballot article 10 -- would make the Underhill planning and zoning mess even messier. Vote NO on article 10.

It would take a lot of time to detail the snowball of problems with the planning and zoning of the past few years, but we don't need to reach that far, and we don't need to uncover every problem in order to see that these zoning amendments should not be approved.

Let's just dissect the best record we have of the Planning Commission's proposal, Cliff Peterson's presentation to the Selectboard, 19 December 2013:

Underhill Selectboard Mtg. 12-19-13 from Mt. Mansfield Community TV on Vimeo.
(MMCTV's video recording, Cliff's presentation starts at 30:59 and lasts 16 minutes.)

The updated slide deck is available at:

Some key moments from the presentation:

At 00:31:42. Cliff starts by mentioning that "Pat Lamphere attended not as a member of the Planning Commission but as a member the public." I point this out to remind you that the move-along-nothing-to-see-here-just-fixin-an-error spin on these amendments is not quite right. There is more here, and there are more interested parties here, than a first glance would indicate. Although commissioners would quickly dismiss a concern that their opinions are  influenced by Pat, it's important to realize that Pat is the beneficiary of the announced and intended change in zoning. At 00:36:43, I'll explain how it won't quite work out the way that they expect.

At 00:33:09 Cliff makes the claim that there is no 'Town of Underhill Zoning Map.' This not accurate. The 2003 Zoning Regulations (at p.23), in effect until 2010, explicitly cite the May 1984 zoning map (not a June 1985 map). A reference print of the GIS map layer is included in the 2010 zoning regulations.   The Town has a letter from Paul Gillies, Assistant Secretary of State, which explains that the de facto map -- used for years -- controls. A mountain is being made out of a molehill.

At 00:36:43 Cliff makes the claim that the Selectboard moved the boundary of the zones in question to match the Range boundary. But a closer inspection of the text shows that Selectboard adopted the map, and provided the text description only for reference. Here is the text, with no change in punctuation, but indented to emphasize the correct interpretation:

"III. The proposed Land Use Map of Appendiz[sic] C is modified by transfer of the more or less triangular area (shown on the map with red circles) from the Soil and Water Conservation Area to the Water Conservation Area.

This area is roughly bounded by
  Clay Brook to the north,
  the Underhill Range to the south and
  a portion of the Soil and Water Conservation Area boundary to the west. "

The second sentence merely provides a general location for the "triangular area" shown on the map. The adverb 'roughly' applies to the verb 'bounded.' All of the bounding description is approximate. The actual boundary is defined by the map, and a strict reading of this section only reaffirms that.

00:37:20 Cliff presents the '72 Land Use Map with "red circles." This is where the argument falls apart. The red circles don't actually meet the boundary as Cliff describes. It is wishful thinking.

00:38:04 Cliff makes the claim that the Selectboard adopted this zoning revision in Sept and Oct 1972 and that it should apply ever after. Not so fast.  It's important to mention that since 1972 the Selectboard has approved entire zoning ordinances with maps -- several times, including the 2010 Unified Land Use Regulations.

00:46:08 Dave Rogers says,"It's kind of scary that we don't have a map." But we do have a map, Pat just wants to have a different zoning boundary drawn around parcel BE108. RaMona chimes in with a comment about how much Planning Commission work underlies Cliff's presentation. Powerpoint slides are not rigorous documentation. Cliff didn't bother to write a legal opinion letter, nor request one from the town attorney. The town has mapped itself for many years. A lot of maps were glossed over by Cliff's presentation. We do have a current map and it is valid, the proponents of the proposal are ignoring that fact to create a false sense of crisis.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Underhill Rejects Upzoning

Underhill voters rejected all three upzoning articles on the town meeting ballot.

What's next?

Underhill's zoning used to be simple and effective. Now it is a sprawling mess. A complete rewrite of the regulatory code, consistent with previous town plans, to eliminate the huge amount of redundancy and awkward, unnecessary text would be best.

Voters are looking to maintain the existing zoning districts and the long-standing natural resource conservation basis for zoning. As impenetrably massive as the current cut-and-paste zoning regulations are, there is a lot that could be done to follow the will of the voters:

* Make a real commitment to stop messing around with density. Every time there is a change in permitted density, some people win and some people lose. It sets up a rent-seeking race that consumes political attention and never ends well.
* Clearly define the size of a development unit.
* Enable transfer of development rights, and establish a market-maker to bank development rights, facilitate transfers, and a regulatory structure that ensures transfers are in the public interest. There should be no sending/receiving zones, only a public interest performance test.
* Get serious about an energy efficiency code with verification and building commissioning.
* Allow density bonuses only for genuinely innovative projects that advance the state of landscape design, site layout and building design and engineering.

There is a lot of work needed to respond to the climate crisis, and anticipate extreme weather, but the above actions would be a good start.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Parcel BE108

The parcel at 108 Beartown Road has been an item of interest through the two Planning Commission and one Selectboard hearing. A few months into the redistricting project, Pat Lamphere, a Planning Commission member, requested zoning district boundary adjustment (1 August 2012). The request became a proposal to move perhaps 200 acres (the data that I have been given does not balance) from Soil and Water Conservation into the Rural Residential district, an upzoning that would perhaps increase buildout under zoning by 53 lots.

For reference, take a look at Google Maps, which shows the old roads and roads through the Range:,-72.884459&spn=0.007959,0.015557&t=h&z=16

Beartown Road residents objected to the proposed changes in the zoning district boundary near the Range and the apparent conflict of interest that these changes represented.

At the 17 January 2013 Selectboard hearing on the zoning proposal, the Selectboard voted to remove the zoning districe boundary "snap" (my term) to the Range boundary.

At the 31 January 2013 joint meeting, Brad Holden, the Selectboard Chair explained that he had special knowledge of surveying issues in the area that caused him concern about the actual location of the Range boundary, and suggested that the Planning Commission might not really know where the existing zoning district boundary is.

Brad also talked about confusing horizontal datum. This appears to be a distraction to defuse the Planning Commissioners's confrontation and plumb the shallow depths of their research. The use of NAD27 vs NAD83 seems irrelevant. The Vermont State Plane is used for surveying and mapping. The kind of error that Brad has described does not seem possible as it involves geodetic coordinates.

This is a picture of part of Sheet 14 of the zoning map as of 1987, drawn on 1979 orthophotos, which are large scale, high resolution aerial photos projected onto the Vermont State Plane

Where the district boundary departs from the big curve on Beartown Road and continues in a straight line to the East, it clearly follows the road and driveway, not the range boundary, and not the stream.

It has been scoffingly mentioned by Planning Commissioners and the Zoning Administrator that "the original maps were hand drawn." Well, of course they were. Many great things were drawn by hand: the Washington Monument, Apollo spacecraft, Mount Rushmore. This is a fine map, drawn at a large scale of 1:5000. The printed GIS map of existing zoning is no better, and if you could see the aliasing of the straight lines in this map, you might say that it is worse than the "hand drawn" map. Much has been made about parcel boundaries. GIS mapping makes parcel boundaries appear more accurate than they actually are. In Vermont, surveying is by metes-and-bounds. Boundaries are by agreement. Parcel boundaries can move.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Scary Underhill

I write this as we complete a car journey from Underhill to Rockledge, Florida.

With the expansion and contraction of I-95's girth and the numbing repetition of Waffle House, Starbucks, animated electronic signs, and the big three burger five fast "food" chains, I am reminded of the scariest thing about living in Underhill: how close it is to the rest of the United States.

Among the rationalizations for the upzoning is to match Jericho in its bid to get bigger. I am happy to leave Dollar General, the Yipes Auto billboard, the Showtime tin can, Clark's dangerously distracting animated electronic sign, the Black Walnut Lane duplexes, and all of the rest of it in Jericho for another year. If the upzoning is a good idea (it's not) then it will be a good idea next year. We can vote NO, sit tight, and wait for the Planning Commission to come up with a thorough report.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Buildout Under Zoning

Have you ever seen a significant real estate subdivision where the parcels are substantially bigger than the minimum allowed by zoning -- where the developer has not tried to maximize profits by selling as many lots and buildings as possible? If you find one, let me know and I will show you ten or a hundred other subdivisions that have maxed out their potential under zoning.

Computing the buildout is an essential first task when considering a zoning change. There are different kinds of buildout analysis, ranging from simple and effective, to complex and detailed.

CommunityViz, is a policy simulator that uses an agent-based model to illustrate the results of land-use policies over time. It is a complex adaptive system that provides a future history of development resulting from deliberate policy choices, such as zoning changes. It will do a sophisticated projection of buildout, for the purpose of comparing the relative effects of different policy choices. Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) has CommunityViz, data for the entire county, and a staff member (Melanie Needle) dedicated to maintaining data and running simulations.

A direct method of determining buildout under zoning is: Add up the acreage in each zone, then divide by the minimum lot size to get the ultimate number of lots. Then figure out the maximum building intensity on those lots. It can be done on the back of an envelope if you have a good idea of the land areas of each zone type. Note the differences between 'lots', 'buildings', and 'dwelling units' (frequently abbreviated as 'units'). They each have their role in the density calculations.

When computing allowed density, the only deduction from gross land area is for public roads.(ULUDR 2012, Article IX, Section 9.6 A, see below). When buildings from a large project are clustered together, the portion of the gross land area used for roads decreases in significance. For example: (assume all roads are 3-rods [49.5 feet] wide) Take a 32+/--acre subdivision in the Rural Residential district. For 10 3-acre lots @ 250ft of road frontage per lot, 2500ft of road frontage will be needed. With lots on both sides of the road or 1250ft of road right of way. 1250ft*49.5ft/43560square-ft-per-acre=1.42acres for the road -- 4.4% of the total area. But with PRD clustering of the buildings, the lots might shrink to 1/4-acre with about 75ft of road frontage (The standards for the UFVCD). The road necessary road length is only 1/3rd the original, and takes just 0.47acres, or 1.5% of the total area.

Since the Planning Commission's proposal is for straight ahead upzoning, and developers always max out the development potential of a project, buildout under zoning is the obvious choice. But the Planning Commission didn't do any buildout analysis. They didn't even know the size of the new districts that they were creating until long after their second hearing, 11 December 2012. They did not ask CCRPC to simulate the effects of the proposed zoning amendments in CommunityViz.

17 January 2013, Kari Papelbon, Underhill's Zoning Administrator sent me a summary page for the new district areas.

On the summary page, the Range area doesn't quite balance, but because the Selectboard modified the proposal package by removing the Range proposal, I didn't use it when arriving at the estimate of 1000 new residential buildings. It looks like the Range proposal would increase buildout by about (596.2acres-395.6acres)*1lot/3acres=330.6 additional lots in RR, less current 5-acre zoning (60.1acres-78.7acres)*1lot/5acres=-3.7units in WC and 15-acre zoning (3710.66acres-3969.8acres)*1lot/15acres=-17.28units in S&W for a net increase of about 310 lots, or 620 units of permissible (no DRB review for buildings) 2-unit housing. With density bonuses of 100%, the buildout could be 620 buildings.

The buildout under zoning computation goes like this:

The proposed new UFVCD and UCVD districts allow 1/4-acre and 1/2 acre lots respectively. In the Flats: 77.8acres*4lots/1acre=311lots. We need to deduct for the current 1-acre zoning: 77.8acres*1lot/1acre=78lots. In the Center: 88.3acres*2lots/1acre=177lots. We need to deduct for the current 5-acre zoning: 88.3acres*1lot/5acres=18lots. But lots are not units and different maximum densities are allowed in each district: 8units/acre in the UFVCD and 4units/acre in the UCVD. These densities are easily achieved using 2-unit buildings, which are permissible uses (no DRB review necessary). 77.8acres*8units/acre=622 units in the Flats, and 88.3acres*4units/acre=353 units in the Center.

The Flats also contains a new UFVRD district, which has 1-acre zoning, 228.9acres*1lot/1acre=229lots, less the portion of the UVRD district that is currently UFVCD as 1-acre zoning, (228.9acres-77.8acres)*1lot/1acre=151lots, and less the portion of UVRD that is currently 3-acre zoning, 77.8acres*1lot/3acres=26lots. There's a little less precision here because the current UFVCD isn't entirely bounded by the proposed UVRD. These zoning district initialisms are hell, aren't they?

The "Outliers" part of the proposal would convert 156.2 acres of S&W (sorry, it was clipped from the graphic) to RR: 156.2acres*1lot/3acres=52lots, less 156.2acres*1lot/15acres=10lots. 2-unit buildings are permissible, so the buildout would be 42 lots. Again, 2-units are now equivalent to single family homes, so the permissible buildout is 42lots*2units/1lot=84units.

Totaling for net new lots:
 311 lots   Flats  Village Center
- 78 lots
+177 lots   Center
- 18 lots
+229 lots   Flats Village Residential
-151 lots
- 26 lots
+ 52 lots   Otliers
- 10 lots
 486 new lots

2-unit building buildings are permissible everywhere now:

 486lots*2units/1lot=972 new units

If bonus densities are applied at 100%, these could be 972 new separate 1-unit or 2-unit buildings. (ULUDR 2012, Article IX, Section 9.6 A, see below)


Amended March 6, 2012

Article IX Section 9.6 Density Calculations
Calculations of the allowed overall density of development shall be based on total parcel acreage, excluding existing and proposed road‐rights‐of‐way, and lot size and density requirements for the zoning district(s) in which the PRD or PUD is located. This calculation of the site’s overall “yield” shall be used to determine the number of building units or lots that may be clustered or grouped at higher densities on those portions of the parcel that are suitable for development. (p.169)

Article IX Section 9.6 Density Bonuses
The DRB may, at the request of the applicant, grant one or more density bonuses according to the following schedule for clustered development that meets stated objectives under Section 9.1 and below, if the applicant clearly demonstrates that the developable portion of the parcel(s) and supporting roads, infrastructure, facilities and services can accommodate higher densities of development. Density bonuses, as applied in combination, shall not increase the overall density of development by more than 100%, based on the number of dwelling units for residential development ("yield" density calculated under section 9.5.C), or the maximum building coverage for nonresidential development. (p.170)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


The zoning amendment situation is getting stranger and stranger. ZA's misunderstanding about how to interpret zoning for parcels that span zoning districts at the second PC hearing was glaringly incorrect, and while we were talking about the zoning districts at the Energy Committee tonight it was repeated:

      "The most restrictive district applies to the whole parcel."

Upzoning of Phil Jacobs' parcel at 16 Harvest Run was described as the only thing that might be controversial and said the other zoning amendments as noncontroversial. ZA's misunderstanding of district boundary interpretation makes her statement about the CCRPC housing target being 2000 units seem like a minor error. Consultant's claim that the high density is needed to support the bus and, as ZA often emphasizes, for compatibility with Jericho, frosts the tail-wagging-the-dog cake of strangeness.

There seems to be a search on for justifications for the zoning amendments.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


The PC is using the terms like "traditional settlement" or "historic settlement" to suggest that it is natural for Underhill to have an urbanized village, as if upzoning would be a return to Underhill's past. In Underhill, the historical settlement is just the opposite: scattered settlement in service of unsustainable resource exploitation followed by abandonment. With the extraction of trees, then pasturing livestock, Underhill's buildings have been generally scattered throughout the town along the edges of main roads.

Beers Atlas, 1869
The Beers Atlas is on display in the town office. A quick glance at the roads and buildings will confirm a lack of driveways and access roads.  This atlas reflects Underhill's 19th century peak, at a population of about half of our current population.  With 14 school districts, Underhill was extremely decentralized -- no street network or grid, just mobility roads running through the middle of farmyards.

Through the late 1800s, population declined to about 20% of our current population by the 1950s before it began to increase.

We do not have grand, old homes -- not even old mills. For the past four decades, large lots have protected the hills and mountain, while keeping our water clean. Land has remained open, accessible, walkable. We do have three country stores and two post offices. Try finding another town that can boast that.