The South Hero town office. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

In the southernmost town on the Lake Champlain Islands, some residents’ yearslong frustrations with changes in local zoning bylaws have spurred a successful campaign to put any future bylaw changes to a townwide vote.

Two ballot articles, approved on Town Meeting Day, require that South Hero adopt and amend town plans by Australian ballot, and to adopt, amend and repeal bylaws. In recent years, those decisions have been made by the town Selectboard.

The articles passed 339-262 and 335-264, respectively, and were put on the ballot through a petition signed by 150 South Hero residents, about 10% of the town’s registered voters.

The petition effort was organized by South Hero Voters, which is an “informal group” of residents who are concerned about land use in town and are not affiliated with the local government, according to the group’s website. 

Several people involved in organizing the petition said they wanted all town residents — not just members of the Selectboard, the Planning Commission and Development Review Board — to have a say over land use in the Grand Isle County community.

The petition stemmed from opposition to two higher-density zones the town created in 2020 and a later revision allowing industrial uses in those districts.

“As things currently stand, only a handful of South Hero voters have effective, direct control over what development happens in South Hero,” the South Hero Voters website stated ahead of Town Meeting Day. “Just three people (a majority of the Selectboard) can exercise control over our Town Plan and the Town’s land use decisions.”

The articles drew criticism from some local officials leading up to the Town Meeting on March 1, who argued it was misleading to state that only a few people have control over land use, when any resident could volunteer to join a town body or, at least, attend a meeting of one of those bodies to share their thoughts on a given project.

Nate Hayward, a local developer who is also on the town’s Development Review Board, urged residents to vote against the articles in a Feb. 15 post on Front Porch Forum, saying it would be difficult to get any policy changes to pass via a vote.

“The Town Plan and Development Regulations collectively run into the hundreds of pages,” Hayward wrote. “Despite their best intentions, voters are not likely to read them and, if asked to vote on them, will be subject to influence campaigns and potentially misrepresentations by special interests.”

South Hero Selectboard Chair David Carter said he thought the town’s existing process for adopting and amending town plans and bylaws has worked, and the Selectboard believes the Planning Commission and Development Review Board do a good job.

He said the town will now need to put off bylaw changes until Town Meeting Day or Election Day — or call a special election, which could slow down proposed projects.

“If everybody wants to become informed and knowledgeable and vote on it, that’s the way democracy works,” Carter said.

Bridget Kerr, one resident who helped organize the petition, said the ballot articles are not — as some officials have said — an effort to prevent new development in town. She said members of South Hero Voters have been labeled as “NIMBYs,” for “not in my backyard,” a term that refers to people who do not support a given project in their local area but would support the same project if it were located somewhere else.

Rather, Kerr said, the articles will ensure that town officials give residents the information they need to be aware of new projects and their potential merits. Many people do not want to serve in local government, she said, and others do not have the time — whether due to work, families or other reasons — to attend public meetings, even on Zoom.

“Some people say, ‘Everybody will just vote no,’” Kerr said of future ballot questions related to land use. “Well, if (town officials) do some outreach and are more open to people’s ideas, then maybe we can all work together and get things done.”

Karen Horn, public policy and advocacy director for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said it’s not uncommon for Vermonters to have a vote on local bylaw changes, though she noted the organization does not consistently track where voters do and do not have that power.

Vermont law defines bylaws as “municipal regulations applicable to land development.”

“It does suggest that there’s going to be a lot more involvement and discussion around what is actually in the bylaws,” Horn said of the South Hero ballot article.

New zoning districts

Momentum for the group’s petition stemmed from changes in the past several years to South Hero’s development regulations, which spell out the town’s zoning policies.

South Hero also must update its town plan in 2023, and the process for developing the document is underway. Town plans serve as long-term guides for future decisions towns need to make around land use, infrastructure and other issues, according to the Northwest Regional Planning Commission, a St. Albans-based organization.

In 2020, the South Hero Selectboard approved new development regulations that created two “village zoning districts”: one surrounding the South Hero Village at the intersection of Route 2 and South Street and the other surrounding the Keeler Bay Village, which is less than 2 miles north at the intersection of Routes 2 and 314.

Since 2014, those intersections have been designated as “village centers” by the state, a label that comes with financial incentives, training and technical assistance for towns.

But while the village centers largely stick close to Route 2 — a state highway linking South Hero with the four other Champlain Islands towns and Chittenden County — the village zoning districts encompass significantly more land.

The South Hero Village Center is about 30 acres, while the corresponding zoning district is about 350 acres, according to calculations by South Hero Voters. The Keeler Bay Village Center is about 15 acres, they determined, while the zoning district is about 285 acres.

The village zoning districts do not have a minimum lot size requirement, unlike most of the town where it’s 1 acre. Their required setback from a property line is 10 feet, compared with 25 feet in other zoning districts, according to the regulations.

Most of South Hero is zoned as “rural residential,” which per the regulations, includes home and business uses that are “at lower densities than the village centers to preserve the traditional working landscape and to maintain South Hero’s rural character.”

Kerr, whose South Street home is less than half a mile south of Route 2 and falls within the village zoning district, said neighbors were surprised to learn their homes were in the new district. She has struggled to understand why the district is the size it is.

The South Hero Voters group has also pointed to a 2013 survey of town residents that found about 70% supported commercial development “concentrated along Route 2 in village centers.”

In response to a question, Carter has pointed to new development in the South Hero Village, as well as existing businesses along South Street, as reasons why the village zoning district there was made larger than the designated village center.

Two Heroes Brewery is currently building a new restaurant in the village along Route 2, and nearby, work got underway last fall on the South Burlington-based housing developer Cathedral Square’s new 30-unit senior housing complex, Bayview Crossing.

Carter also pointed to a property across the street off Lavin Lane, which he sees as “ripe and primed for growth” since it has access to a septic system. 

South Hero also is in the early stages of studying the feasibility of building a community wastewater system in the two village zoning districts. 

“You have some areas with businesses that have been around for a long time, but you’ve also got areas in between that are opportunities for business growth,” Carter said earlier this year. “So it made sense to expand the villages.”

Industrial use?

In September 2021, the South Hero Selectboard voted to amend the 2020 regulations to permit industrial use, with conditions and a site plan review, in both the South Hero and Keeler Bay village zoning districts. 

When it greenlit the changes earlier that year, the Planning Commission said its purpose was to rectify a “contradiction” in the regulations. The document made clear “small, low-impact industry is anticipated and encouraged within the village districts,” the commission said, but it later listed “industrial” use as not permitted there.

In August 2021, residents submitted a petition signed by about 130 residents — separate from the petition that got the articles on this year’s ballot — asking the town to put the industrial use amendment on the 2022 Town Meeting Day ballot, rather than have a decision made by the Selectboard.

One concern presented in the August petition was that the terms “light industry,” “low-impact industry” and “small industry” had been “used interchangeably” in planning documents, and Kerr and other residents thought there was no clear definition of what such uses actually mean.

Carter has acknowledged that the term “low-impact industry” is broad and could entail a number of different types of uses, though he said the role of town’s development review board is to determine what’s appropriate, or not, in specific situations. 

“The (board members) can impose the conditions they think would be necessary to retain the character of the community and promote public safety and promote a business that is compatible in the villages,” Carter said earlier this year.

Debate over the definition of “industrial” use came up in the neighboring town of Grand Isle last summer when some residents raised concerns with a proposal by Lake Champlain Transportation Co., the company that operates ferries between Vermont and New York State, to build a new maintenance, storage and repair facility there. 

In testimony last year stating her opposition to the 2020 development regulations, Kerr told the town’s planning commission — of which she is a former member — that “growth is not inevitable” in South Hero, and that in her eyes, low-impact industry should not be developed in the town’s villages.

“Let’s focus on enhancing South Hero’s residential and agricultural character, rather than bringing in industrial businesses,” she said.

Another South Street resident who helped organize this year’s petition, Sue Straight, echoed Kerr’s comments about preserving the character of South Hero.

“We don’t want to become Milton,” Straight said, citing denser development in some areas of that Chittenden County town.

The view looking south along South Street in South Hero. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

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