BRATTLEBORO -- The Planning Commission has released a draft version of new proposed subdivision regulations that would change the approval process for development projects in the town's rural and neighborhood districts.
The Planning Commission is gathering public input on the proposed regulations and will probably not pass the new rules on to the Selectboard for final approval until the fall.
Most of the proposed changes address development issues in the rural parts of town, following Town Plan discussions last year that highlighted the desire to preserve the town's remaining open landscapes.
"What we heard when we were doing the Town Plan is that people want to protect our rural character," Town Planner Sue Fillion said at a public presentation on the proposed subdivision regulations Wednesday night. "We want to protect agriculture, natural resources and our forests, and we want to protect our ability to log. What we heard over and over again in the outreach that we did, is that the natural environment and the associated recreational opportunities are an asset for the town that we want to build on."
Currently the Planning Department approves development plans in the rural districts based on minimum lot sizes, and so a developer can carve up a larger parcel regardless of topography, the natural landscape and historic and cultural features.
Fillion said the Planning Department wants to move away from that mindset.
The Planning Commission is suggesting a new approval process that considers the complete parcel before it is subdivided.
Steep slopes, wetlands and waterways and agricultural land would be eliminated from the areas that could be developed.
Subdivisions would then be encouraged in clusters.
The current standards of allowing 1.5 acre parcels in the rural residential zone and 3 acre parcels in the rural zone, encourage development regardless of what natural features exist in the area.
Under the proposed rules subdivisions could be as small as 20,000 square feet, which is less than a half acre.
"The purpose of having separate standards is to protect the countryside and rural character, but to still allow for well-thought out development," Fillion said. "We want to encourage appropriate density and try to get subdivisions to be designed in response to the landscape features."
Under the proposed rules developers would have to first meet with the planning department to look at the maps and go over the topography, and natural and cultural features on the land.
"The point is to get the applicant engaged with their properties to plan for a nice sensitive development that benefits the community and benefits the applicant as well," Fillion said. "Right now, if most of the property is not being touched, we don't require a survey. So if there is a large lot, we would want to know what is there."
There would then be a four-step design process which includes identifying the land that would be closed to development due to the steep slopes, wetlands and waterways.
Even before Tropical Storm Irene, Fillion said planners were focussing on protecting steep slopes and waterways.
The storm that pounded Vermont in August 2011 highlighted the need to control development in those areas.
"Before Tropical Storm Irene, and definitely after it, the Planning Commission talked a lot about what are different ways to protect the community from the risk of flooding," Fillion said. "There is land disturbance and erosion that comes from development, especially in steep slope areas. In our rural areas there is a lot of steep land, so often there's a lot of land disturbance that needs to go on. We want to minimize the land disturbance."
Natural, historic and cultural resources will then be identified as part of the second step to protect those from development.
In the third step the developable land would be identified, and finally the Planning Department would lay out the lot lines.
After the buildable land is identified, developers with land in the rural residential zone would be able to build on one lot per two acres of buildable land.
If the parcel is in the rural zone, a development parcel would be allowed for each four acres of buildable land.
And if a parcel is only accessible by an unmaintained, class 4 road, then there would have to be at least 12 acres of buildable land to allow one lot to be developed.
The Planning Commission is also recommending that the town include incentives in the new subdivision regulations. Land owners who develop public trails, keep agricultural land open, create 100-foot vegetative buffers on waterways, or conserve part of their land would be allowed to develop additional parcels under the proposed incentive program.
"We want to treat the natural and cultural resources as amenities," said Fillion. "We want to permit the grouping of houses to maintain rural character."
The Planning Commission is also recommending changes to the subdivision regulations in the neighborhood district.
The Planning Commission wants new neighborhood developments to be denser and more uniform, and the new regulations will require any new neighborhood development to include sidewalks to encourage walking.
There are also new standards being proposed to ensure that new connections to municipal utilities are appropriately undertaken.
Fillion said it has been about 30 years since the town made significant changes to the subdivision regulations.
The Planning Commission will continue collecting input on the new regulations and then schedule public hearings later in the summer.
The Selectboard will also warn public hearings before voting on the new regulations.
"It was time to update some of the standards. Our regulations date back to the 1980s and in some cases standards are obsolete and in other cases best management practices have changed," Fillion said. "We have found that our existing regulations tend to promote a very suburban form of development and they don't really respond to the rural parts of town very well. We want to discourage rural sprawl and the fragmentation of our natural assets."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.