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South Burlington, Vermont

The City of South Burlington, population 42,417 (2010), lies three miles southeast of Burlington in northwestern Vermont. The 3,500-acre Southeast Quadrant, which constitutes about 37 percent of South Burlington’s total land area, still contains farmland, wildlife habitat, scenic areas and other open space resources including the Great Swamp, Cheesefactory Swamp and Van Sicklen Woods. But in the early 2000s, about 1,000 housing units existed in the Southeast Quadrant with roughly another 700 units approved or pending. Most recent developments have been conservation subdivisions with the development pad built to four units per acre and overall density at 1.2 units per acre which leaves much of the total project site as an open space amenity. However, the area is gradually seeing changes in its rural character as shown by the fact that the last dairy farm in the Southeastern Quadrant closed in 2004.

To preserve these resources, the City adopted the Southeast Quadrant District in 1992 which included a TDR program that remained in effect until 2006. Most land in the Southeast Quadrant is zoned 1.2 units per acre but the original TDR program allowed developers to exceed that 1.2 unit per acre baseline and achieve a density of 4 units per acre in developable areas by transferring development potential from land designated as “restricted” areas. The sending and receiving areas could be non-contiguous but had to be under common ownership with the transfer of development rights occurring via a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application for two non-contiguous properties.

In the early 2000s, South Burlington developed a new vision for the Southeastern Quadrant designed to consolidate and link open space and concentrate development in villages and connected neighborhoods. In 2006, the City implemented this refined plan with the help of a revised TDR program as described below.

Process

In 2005, the Southeastern Quadrant was rezoned, with the original 1.2 unit per acre density retained in a revised TDR program. In the new program, the 1,668-acre sending area is zoned NRP (Natural Resource Preservation). Here, lots in existence on or before June 22, 1992 have development limits that vary depending on the parcel size, as follows.

  • No more than one dwelling unit can be built on a lot smaller than 15 acres in size and only if construction can avoid primary natural communities or their buffers.
  • Up to three lots can be created on parcels between 15 and 100 acres in size. New lots must be clustered and must avoid the most sensitive portions of the property.
  • Parcels larger than 100 acres can be subdivided at an average density of one lot per 10 acres subject to clustering and other limitations designed to minimize harm to important natural resources.

Like South Burlington’s original TDR program, the new TDR mechanism allows sending area landowners to encumber the development potential of their NRP land in a manner acceptable to the City Attorney, thereby creating transferable development rights at the ratio of 1.2 TDRs per acre. Sending area landowners can choose to sever and transfer some or all of their development rights. If they elect to transfer all of their development rights, they permanently preclude all on-site development. However, they can alternatively transfer all but the number of TDRs needed to achieve the maximum density allowed to be built on the sending site. For example, the owner of a 60-acre parcel would have 72 development rights at the baseline density of 1.2 units per acre (60 X 1.2 = 72.) That property owner could sell 69 TDRs and reserve the remaining three development rights to achieve the three unit maximum density allowed on site to NRP parcels between 15 and 100 acres in size.

Receiving sites are lots zoned Neighborhood Residential (NR), Village Residential (VR) and Village Commercial (VC). Baseline here is also 1.2 units per acre. But through transfers, developments can reach 4 units per acre in the NR and 8 units per acre in the VR and VC districts. Additionally, through the Master Plan process, maximum density can be increased to 12 units per acre by Development Review Board approval for projects that offer desirable site and design features including features consistent with comprehensive plan goals for the Southeast Quadrant.

Program Status

Both the original TDR program and the 2006 TDR program have features often found in successful programs. For example, sending area landowners can sell development potential at the ratio of 1.2 TDRs per acre regardless of the actual development capability of the land. This should motivate these sending area landowners to participate and should also result in affordable TDRs since, in some cases, the owners may not truly be forgoing useable development potential. The 2006 rezonings also limited on-site development on the sending area so that significant resource protection occurs regardless of whether or not sending area landowners choose to use the TDR option.

In 1998, Joe Weith, Former Director of Planning & Zoning, reported that the original program had generated one transfer of approximately 50 units from a 45 acre site so that it could continue to be used as a hayfield. The 50 units transferred from that site were used to increase the base density on a 221-unit development. He also stated that two additional subdivisions had been approved in the Southeast Quadrant between 1992 and 1998 but that the developers were satisfied with building at the baseline density and did not use the TDR option.

On October 25, 2011, the current Director of Planning & Zoning, Paul Conner, AICP, explained that the City documents transfers when developers actually surrender them in order to exceed baseline in a receiving site development. For example, three projects have been approved that will eventually require roughly 100 TDRs once they apply for the building permits that would be needed for these projects to exceed baseline density. But to date, these three projects have not yet reached baseline density. Nevertheless, two receiving site projects have exceeded baseline and the developers have retired the necessary TDRs and documented the preservation of roughly 100 acres of sending area land. There is reason to believe that additional preservation has occurred in anticipation of future receiving area development proposals that have not yet been submitted to the City. As with most US jurisdictions during, the recession has significantly slowed all development activity in South Burlington since 2008.