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Vermont towns are considering changes in their zoning regulations to spur more housing

A group of people stand in a road and look at a house as a town official discusses zoning regulations
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
The Brattleboro Planning Commission is considering changes to its zoning codes to encourage more housing, and a group of residents took a walk through town recently to learn about the changes.

Most of the zoning regulations in Vermont go back at least 50 years.

And they were written for a time when the state's housing needs were very different than they are today.

Now Brattleboro and other towns and cities are trying to change some of those regulations, to make it easier to build more homes and ease the housing crisis.

More from Brave Little State: How can Vermont solve its housing crisis?

On a recent late summer evening, a few dozen Brattleboro residents met to take a walk through town to see different examples of housing.

Brattleboro Planning Director Sue Fillion said the walk through town was organized to look at places where new apartments have been creatively added, point out large older homes that can maybe become multi-unit dwellings, and most importantly: highlight places in town where the existing zoning regulations are preventing more housing from being built.

“What we’re trying to do is show the community that density doesn’t have to be scary,” Fillion said. “Having lots of units in a place can still preserve the character of the neighborhood, and there’s lots of different ways to do it.”

The number of new homes built in Vermont has been steadily dropping over the past 40 years.

And a state report estimates that without help, new home construction could drop to a less-than-1% growth rate in the next few years.

Here in Brattleboro, only 1% of the city's housing was built after 2010.

Brattleboro issued only 12 new housing permits last year, while a recent housing study put the town's housing need at 500 units.

“Wages are low in this area, and costs are very high. And we always talk about Vermont losing the younger generations, and we should try to do everything we can to help them.”
Mary White, Brattleboro

Mary White lives in this neighborhood, and she came out for the walk because she’s worried about what the housing crunch means for the future.

“Wages are low in this area, and costs are very high,” said White. “And we always talk about Vermont losing the younger generations, and we should try to do everything we can to help them.”

In Brattleboro, more than half of the renters are paying more for housing than what they can afford. And when the town did a survey, 80% of those who said they want to buy a single-family home can’t afford what’s on the market.

There are a lot of reasons why new housing is not being built, including the cost of land and materials, as well workforce issues.

But outdated zoning codes that put limits on the size and height of buildings, restrict multi-family housing, and require parking spots with units, can limit development.

The state is giving out grants to encourage more towns to look at their zoning codes. Towns across the state, from Fairfax to Lincoln to Randolph, are holding meetings like the one happening tonight here in Brattleboro.

Tweaking a town’s zoning code to try to encourage more housing won’t entirely take care of the housing shortage, but it is a step towns and cities can take to at least begin to address the issue.

More from Vermont Public: How one Vermont town is building new housing

“I think we are in a moment that we can use this crisis as a way to do things better. And we have to, really, because of the need for housing for our workforce,” said Meghan Cope, an urban geography professor at University of Vermont.

Cope says a lot of Vermont’s zoning regulations were written at a time when land was cheaper, families were larger, and no one was talking about climate change.

And so she thinks the land use laws that encourage large homes, on single lots with setbacks and parking, need to be updated.

“We have this demographic transition where we’re having much smaller households, the average number of people per household is much lower," Cope said. "So the building of larger homes, kind of, doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore."

“We have this demographic transition where we’re having much smaller households, the average number of people per household is much lower. So the building of larger homes, kind of, doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore."
Meghan Cope, UVM professor of urban geography

For Sarah Lang, who’s a member of the Brattleboro Planning Commission, the town’s zoning code that requires a parking spot for each housing unit is another relic from another time that has to go.

“I think that in this day and age, especially around, you know, people being more forward-thinking with their transportation, we don’t need as many spots as we once used to,” Lang said. “And I think, maybe growing up here, or living here for a while, you sort of get used to the drive up to your front door, but not everyone wants that. And I think having parking minimums can hinder some development that’s actually really needed.”

More from Brave Little State: How Can Vermonters Drive Less?

At the height of the pandemic, when housing prices were skyrocketing, Brattleboro made emergency changes to its housing bylaw to make it easier to add apartments.

Within a year, 22 new units came online, and the town has now made those changes permanent. Now it wants to make more zoning changes to create more housing.

The select board would have to approve any further changes. The biggest challenge to making these changes in Brattleboro, as well as in other towns, will likely be selling the idea to the public.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public's reporter for Southern Vermont & the Connecticut River Valley. He worked at the Brattleboro Reformer for 11 years, reporting on most towns in the region and specializing on statewide issues including education, agriculture, energy and mental health. Howard received a BA in Journalism from University of Massachusetts. He filed his first story with Vermont Public in September 2015.
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