A scramble for some Vermont communities as duplexes get fast-tracked

Published: Jun. 26, 2023 at 6:55 PM EDT
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ST. ALBANS, Vt. (WCAX) - Sweeping housing changes are coming to Vermont faster than some anticipated.

A compromise bill passed by lawmakers during last week’s veto session looks to help some 1,200 people living in hotels find permanent shelter. But it did more than that. As of July 1, a separate bill also allows people to build duplexes wherever they can build a single-family home. That change is coming a year ahead of schedule in hopes of putting a dent in Vermont’s housing shortage.

The change took some cities by surprise. City leaders in St. Albans are working on building about 200 new units, including 100 on a former brownfield lot on Lower Newton Road.

Zoning reforms that took place this session were a big shift for many -- and they are working on plans to see what those changes should look like.

Changes to local planning are coming a lot sooner than expected. The HOMES Act allows for duplexing by right and allows for quadruplexes in areas served by water and sewer.

During the hotel-motel negotiations last week, duplexing by right was moved up by a whole year. Towns and select boards need to start planning sooner.

“The city of St. Albans has a zoning policy that does a good job maintaining the form of our neighborhoods,” said Chip Sawyer, the director of planning and development in St. Albans.

In St. Albans, the City Council recently approved an updated zoning bylaw allowing the city to permit three- to four-unit buildings at the same per-unit density as a single-family home.

“The interim zoning provided guidance on what density those units should be permitted at,” Sawyer said.

That means you have to have four times the lot size for a four-unit apartment than you would a single-family home.

But at least one lawmaker says the new policy is out of step with legislative intent.

“It’s a way to get the kind of housing available that creates our first homeowners and starts to develop our housing market quickly,” said Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden County.

Ram Hinsdale, the lead sponsor of the HOMES Act, says the bill’s intent is to build more houses on smaller lots including infill, and more units per acre to give more people a path toward renting or owning a home.

“Saying that you have to have a huge lot to have multifamily housing either pushes that housing out or makes it a luxury complex again,” Ram Hinsdale said.

“Ultimately, we will be changing our zoning to be in compliance with state law that was revised by S.100. It might take a couple of years to do that. If we need to pass a few interim bylaws in the meantime, that’s why state law allows us to do that,” Sawyer said.

Leaders say the HOMES Act is the most significant change to local zoning policies in years and it will take time for communities to adjust.

The hotel-motel bill has not yet been signed by the governor.

The Agency of Commerce and Community is gearing up and looking to help communities adjust to the new laws.

“We’ll work with anyone on trying to try to understand those nuances and try to provide some basic guidance,” said Josh Hanford, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development.

Local zoning and permitting are only half of the picture. The HOMES Act also sets up another study for Act 250 to see if more changes should be made to the now 53-year-old land-use law.

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