Since the last public hearing in July, the rezoning plan for Taft Corners in Williston has become a controversial topic of discussion. Residents are expressing concerns about a proposed increase in building heights and a lack of affordable housing.
The rezoning project of Taft Corners plans to redesign the busy shopping center into a “vibrant, mixed use downtown area with a strong pedestrian orientation,” according to a 2021 vision plan.
The current maximum building height for Taft Corners is 52 feet, according to Matt Boulanger, the town’s planning director and zoning administrator. Officials are seeking to increase the absolute limit for all Taft Corners building units to 87 feet, he said.
The Selectboard may vote on the proposed building heights at a hearing on Oct. 4, according to Boulanger.
The board previously voted to scale back the proposed height increase from 110 feet to 87 feet, according to chair Terry Macaig, who voted in favor of the reduction.
Macaig said that his decision was in part influenced by “major input” from residents who expressed that 110 feet was “much too high.” He characterized 87 feet as a “good compromise.”
Boulanger also noted that although some areas in Taft Corners have a proposed maximum height restriction of 87 feet, other areas will be limited to 42 feet.
“There’s an intent there to have some transitional areas where you don’t have the very tallest buildings… right up against the border with what might be you know multi- and single-family residences on the other side of the boundary,” Boulanger said.
Some Williston residents remain concerned about the potential height increase of Taft Corners apartments.
“You're still going to have a massive building in the middle of real estate and blocking all the views, which most people don't want,” Williston resident David Martel said.
“I just don’t want to see a tall building in the middle of Williston, period. You know, it’s a small town. It is a town, it’s not a city,” he continued.
Boulanger said that the height increase in Taft Corners buildings could be more environmentally beneficial and could allow for units to be more affordable because they would require less infrastructure to be built.
Selectboard member Greta D’Agostino, who voted against decreasing the height requirement from 110 feet to 87 feet, had a similar rationale. She said she thought that the height increase would keep growth more concentrated and that it would allow for more affordable housing.
“Affordable housing is a concern of mine and knowing that the more units available, the more likely housing is to be affordable was my kind of my rationale,” D’Agostino said.
However, taller buildings won’t guarantee the creation of affordable housing.
Williston currently relies on a residential growth management system to regulate the rate at which new dwelling units can be created.
Within this system, Taft Corners is allowed to build 50 dwelling unit equivalents every year (usually housing about 90 people). Of those, 13 can only be built if they are affordable to a household making the median income for the region or less.
Boulanger said that the town is also performing a housing needs assessment, which, once completed, would allow the town to pass zoning bylaws to require a certain amount of affordable housing. He said that it could take six to eight months for the zoning amendment to be put in front of the Selectboard.
Part of the reason Williston is performing the assessment is because the current system hasn’t incentivized the creation of much affordable housing in Taft Corners, Boulanger said.
Fewer than 5% of units proposed by developers for new projects in Williston have been affordable, according to Boulanger.
“We have some, but not a lot,” he continued. “And we think probably not nearly as many as are needed.”
Boulanger said that he has heard a strong sentiment from Williston residents who are upset that the growth and development in Williston has not created enough affordable housing.
Martel said that he’s in support of affordable housing, especially because his children can’t afford anything in Williston. However, he said he isn’t optimistic that Taft Corners will actually produce more affordable housing.
“You’re not going to get a landlord to say ‘I’m going to charge half the rent here because I want to make it more affordable and lose money.’ People don’t build apartment buildings to lose money or to break even. They build them to make money,” Martel said.
Jay Petrillo, a Williston resident, said that although he understands that developers of Taft Corners need to earn a profit, he’s also concerned by the lack of affordable housing in Williston.
“The person working at Shaw’s should be able to afford some housing nearby. They shouldn’t have to drive a mile to work at Shaw’s,” Petrillo said.
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