Morristown (Morrisville) is on track to have permitted and built 500 new housing units from 2021-2023 according to Todd Thomas, the town’s planning director and zoning administrator.
Thomas said 325 units were built in 2021-22 and he expected another 100-200 to be built this year.
How did that happen? Thomas, who joined the town in 2010, said his specific marching orders from the select board when he was hired were to revitalize the downtown. At the time there were seven empty buildings downtown, one of which was full of pigeons. He was able to grow the Grand List to keep up with inflation until inflation took off last year.
“One of the reasons why downtown was a shell of what it used to be was the zoning and especially the parking requirements. Each unit in our downtown needed two parking spaces, which made little sense. Most of our buildings go back to the horse and carriage days and our buildings are built to the property line. There's no place to put cars,” he said.
But the town has multiple municipal lots and changed its parking requirements to require only 0.75 spaces per unit which works because businesses and their customers use the lots during the day and residents use the lots at night.
“That was a big change. It allowed second- and third-floor apartments above businesses, which is a traditional New England development pattern,” Thomas said.
ANOTHER MAJOR CHANGE
Another major and significant change was to allow the zoning administrator to waive even the 0.75-space requirement if the proposed development is within 500 feet of a municipal parking lot. The zoning administrator can issue permits for projects so developers do not need to go the town development review board. He can permit up to 20,000 square feet of commercial space.
He said Morrisville was able to entice developers by showing how easy permitting is.
“Developers don't like to go to the DRB. There’s a risk there. Anyone can appeal a project and then you’re stuck in court for a year and a half with a lot of money in the project and no certain outcome. We made it so I can approve projects by right if buildings meet certain minimum requirements,” Thomas said.
Those changes didn’t happen overnight. Thomas spent time with town officials walking around the downtown looking at the built environment asking them what they liked and what they didn’t like and identifying the obstacles that the zoning code presented to rebuilding or redeveloping in the area.
Those obstacles included setbacks, parking, building heights. Thomas said they took apart the pieces of the zoning bylaws for downtown and were successful in getting it redeveloped. And that included adding housing to downtown, which hadn’t happened in over 20 years at that point.
Other changes included getting rid of setbacks in the downtown area and asking developers to build as close to the sidewalks as possible. They required a minimum of two stories. New construction can't have parking between the building and the sidewalk to discourage strip malls. With the revised zoning changes in hand, Thomas did a lot of outreach in the community to sell those changes. He pitched them to Rotary and to the chamber and to school boards and other community organizations seeking buy-in.
Thomas said all of the redevelopment of downtown and the extensive housing development on both sides of the Route 100-bypass that rerouted the road away from downtown would not have been possible without municipal water and wastewater.
WATER AND WASTEWATER
“We have a water supply here that has generations of capacity and the same for our wastewater system,” Thomas said. The wastewater treatment plants were expanded in 2006 for the town, which has a population of about 5,400.
“We have decades more of a residential growth before we even talk about sewer plant expansion,” he said.
Asked about limits to growth in the town, Thomas said he thinks things are slowing down now, noting that there was a lot of “cheap money” available during the pandemic and that spurred developers and development. In terms of what has been built, he said the ratio of single-family homes to apartments/condos was one to three in 2021 and one to four in 2022, but it was one to two in 2020 and he expects that ratio to return. As for who is moving into those new units? One-third are new to Vermont, one-third are from more rural areas of Vermont and one-third are local and are commuting out of town.
What advice does he, as a former Warren resident, have for The Valley in terms of housing?
Despite trying to woo developers from afar, Thomas said he’s had the most success getting local and Vermont developers interested in investing.
“You really grow from within your community. Those are the developers that took a chance on building in Morrisville. They're from Morrisville, they're from Stowe, and they’re from here. If you want to change as a community, you really have to look amongst yourself, who's going to do it, who's got the talent, who's got the wherewithal, who's willing to take the risk? You'll find more people willing to do that, if you give him a reasonable sense of permit surety. If you said this is what we want for building and someone does it why send it to the DRB and let the neighbors throw eggs at it, potentially having an appeal where the project gets killed because it sits in court for years,” he said.