Planners consider flood regs, parking and more

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POWNAL — The town's planning commission is considering flood regulations and changes to parking, lighting and other standards for new construction, among others, in a bylaw review effort arising from the recent town plan adoption.

In a 2 1/2-hour session during its regular meeting Tuesday, the commission heard suggestions from Bennington County Regional Commission Executive Director Jim Sullivan and Solid Waste Program Manager Michael Batcher.

The commission plans to further discuss these recommendations in its ongoing bylaw review.

Flood hazards

Batcher spoke to the planning commission about flood hazards in town, including the fact that 4.6 percent of the town is within a special flood hazard area, primarily along the Hoosic River, Jewett Brook and South Stream.

"Your flood regulations are a bit old," Batcher told the commission. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources has developed model regulations, and, he said, he hopes they can be adapted for Pownal.

"What the state has been trying to push, and what we would like you to consider, is adopting river corridors [regulation]," he said.

Currently, there are no regulations in Pownal regarding river corridors, Batcher said. The recommendation is to inhibit development in those areas, except in areas where there's already development, in which case, there would be allowable infill, "as long as you're staying back a specific distance," he said.

Erosion in Vermont typically occurs along stream banks, Batcher said. That can present a problem for nearby homes.

That's because, if a home falls into a river due to erosion, that kind of damage isn't necessarily covered by flood insurance.

"The whole point of this is to protect public health, safety and welfare," Batcher said when reached Wednesday.

Sullivan added at the meeting that a lot of damage from erosive flooding in river corridors may affect properties that aren't in the flood hazard area, as happened with Hurricane Irene.

Most towns in the area, including Bennington, do have flood corridor regulations, Batcher said Wednesday.

Batcher also suggested a change to current town regulations regarding development in the special flood hazard area. Currently, new development in the area is restricted to be at or above the base flood elevation; the recommendation would require new development in that area to be at least two feet above base flood elevation.

"That's basically where we're trying to go, is to try to make sure there's two feet of additional safety zone," he said. "A lot of this has to do with if you're in the flood zone and you have flood insurance, your premiums are going to be based on some of this flood criteria."

Homes in flood zones

A homeowner would pay less for flood insurance under this new suggestion, because the home would be more above the base flood elevation, he said.

In Pownal, there are 131 mobile homes in some kind of floodplain, along with 86 single-family homes, Batcher said at the meeting. "It's not a huge number," he said.

"When you count people, it's a pretty big number," said Megan Randall, clerk of the planning commission.

There's also a fair amount of overlap between the river corridors and the flood zones, Batcher said. A lot of the flood zones lie along the Hoosic River and around the racetrack, he said.

"Pownal Center is really pretty much scot-free," he said. "Other areas are more affected."

Sullivan voiced concern about the former Green Mountain Race Track in the context of possible river corridor regulations.

That area is zoned for commercial-industrial use, and whether or not the town adopts local river corridor regulations, the ANR will still weigh in, he said.

"You're left with kind of just little strips of land that's actually developable at the racetrack property," he said. "Is our vision for the future development and economic development of the town kind of leaning on the racetrack property for some substantial development potential is that out of sync with reality?"

"That's foolhardy," said Syd Smithers, vice chairman of the commission. "Never going to happen."

Maybe, Sullivan said, the town should spend more time promoting and encouraging economic development in other parts of the town.

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"It's fodder for discussion, anyway," he said. "There's a lot of things to think about."

Parking

The commission also extensively discussed proposed changes to Section VIII of the town bylaws, especially parking.

"The current bylaw has a fairly short section on off-street parking areas," Sullivan said. He suggested a change in the area of required parking for retail stores, service shops and other similar business buildings to two times the floor area used for business, rather than the current bylaw requirement of two-and-one-half times. That's with an eye toward not overbuilding parking.

"It drives me nuts to go by shopping centers," Sullivan said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, [the parking lots are] just empty."

Randall asked about parking areas that have drainage.

"I think a 50-car parking lot ought to have some water control provisions," Smithers said.

Sullivan replied that site plan criteria requires stormwater management plans.

"Anything that would require a substantial parking lot would be subject to site plan review," Sullivan said.

The commission also spent time discussing a proposed new section to the bylaws, 8.2.3, "Parking Area Standards."

Sullivan said the section was added because "There really wasn't anything to tell you how to develop the parking." The proposed section lays out guidelines for parking areas, including location, landscaping, lighting and access management.

One provision, Sullivan said, requires parking to be located in the rear and side yards, with the exception of access drives, for public, multifamily residential, commercial and industrial uses.

"It doesn't prohibit it, per se, but it strongly encourages the parking to go behind or to the side," Sullivan said. "I think the location of the parking for the character and development is one of the most important things you can do. If you have a sea of asphalt, it really kind of sets the tone, as opposed to having an attractive building."

The commission also discussed Sullivan's proposed changes to Section 8.8., "Performance Standards."

The current bylaws contain performance standards, but "how they're going to be used or applied is not super-clear," Sullivan said.

"What it's really trying to get at is [it] takes a lot of the subjectivity out of the application process," Sullivan said of the proposed changes. "The performance standards are really intended to say, by an appropriate lighting plan, we mean this, and by design, we mean this. It may in a way seem more restrictive, but it is intended to be just the opposite."

Members of the board agreed.

The proposed changes including updated air quality language, along with merging two sections on stormwater runoff and erosion control, along with additions to building and site design.

One of the proposed changes, Sullivan said, includes requiring safe and convenient walkways between parking areas and buildings, and between pedestrian ways on or along public streets and buildings.

"I think [that's] one that's often overlooked," he said. "Safe and convenient walkways should be provided."

"Good idea," Smithers said.

"There's stuff in there that is definitely worth chewing over," Sullivan said at the end of the discussion.

He said he would compile the comments he received from the meeting and add them to the composite bylaw draft. The commission also expects Batcher will provide a draft for flood-related regulation.

The commission is reviewing the bylaws as a matter of practice, as the town passed a new town plan on April 25, said Michael Slattery, chairman of the commission, after the meeting.

"It's just logical to do that," he said. "You want to make sure that your newly-adopted town plan is consistent with your bylaws."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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