Can Mixed Zoning Bring Affordable Housing to Norwich?

The new mixed use zone in Rt. 5 South is outlined in red.

Vocal opposition to proposed mixed use district. Hopson Lane residents object.

About 100 people showed up Thursday evening to hear the Norwich Planning Board’s proposal to rezone roughly 350 acres into a new, mixed-use zone. The new zone would include Rt. 5 South, River Road and a portion of Church Street.  The primary purpose behind a mixed-use zone in town is to encourage sustainable growth as defined by the board, and to create financial incentives for developers for building affordable, workforce housing in Norwich. Click here to read the board's full proposal.

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After a 45-minute presentation the meeting was opened for public comments. The public comments, mostly negative, were so numerous that the scheduled time ran out before the board had time to respond to them.

On the plus side, everyone who spoke was in favor of creating affordable housing. Few speakers, however, were in favor of the tradeoffs and the risks the town would have to take in order to the achieve the goal.

Residents from all over town commented, but a contingent of Hopson Lane residents was the most organized in speaking against the plan, because the change would affect them directly by changing their neighborhood from a rural residential zone to a mixed-use zone. 

"The town is overreaching by rezoning such a large area," said Rusty Sachs. "If you want to rezone something for affordable housing, rezone that section.” He pointed out that the area to be rezoned is already densely populated and there is “nothing in there about the current residents.”

Another Hopson Lane resident, Marcia Calloway, was upset that the plan had not taken current residents into account. She purchased a home in the rural residential zone and objected to the change as "spot zoning." She called the plan “discriminatory, unfair and overly burdensome” on her small neighborhood.

Frank Manasek, also of Hopson Lane, cautioned the board about the unintended consequences of the change in zoning. "When you rezone a district that is populated by people who live there, there will be things that are harmful to the community and there is no guarantee of any benefit."

Although the goal of setting aside 25 percent of the housing units in the new zone as affordable was not controversial itself, it was the anxiety over unintended consequences that drew out the opposition. 

 "I’d love to see affordable housing, but I’m not sure about the other 75 percent of stuff,” said Chris Moore, a longtime resident of Lebanon who moved to Norwich in the past year.

It was the “other stuff” — the prospect of new commercial development drawing vitality away from the village core, the height of new buildings, the prospect of hundreds of new housing units, the cost of infrastructure like roads and sidewalks and increased taxes that drew out voices opposed to the plan. 

Several people challenged the plan’s assumption that development in the new zone will result in lower taxes. 

“There is a fallacy in the proposal —- that you can develop your way out of a problem,” said Stuart Richards, a former chair of the affordable housing committee. “More people equal more taxes," he added— paraphrasing a stance taken by the Vermont Land Trust.

“My belief is the proposal will increase taxes and suck vitality from existing business,” said Dean Seibert. He went on to quote from the 2011 Norwich Town Plan —“Towns should not substitute tax policies for land use policy.” 

“This sort of planning never, ever, works as anticipated,” argued Ernie Ciccotelli, who also complained that the rezoning did nothing to no offset sprawl in the rest of the town.

One of the last speakers, Jonathan Teller-Elsberg, asked a question that was probably on the minds of many— "Are there examples of other towns where these kind of changes have had the impact Norwich Planning Board desires?"

In the next phase of the process the board will evaluate the public comments, come up with answers to unanswered questions and refine the plan. If history is any indication of the town's future,  it may be a long time before any new affordable housing is built. Various boards and committees have been working on the issue since 1996.


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