An affordable housing development planned by Central Vermont Habitat for Humanity on Northfield street generated significant discussion at a Montpelier Planning Commission hearing Nov. 29, in which residents commented on 10 proposed zoning changes. The hearing was the first of two before commissioners make a decision. The second hearing will be held Monday, Dec. 13 at 5:30 p.m.. Addressing just one of the 10 proposed changes, the Commission opened discussion about Central Vermont Habitat for Humanity’s request to change zoning on a 68-acre lot that sits across the street from the Econolodge on the east side of Northfield Street and is also bordered by the Hill Street neighborhood. If approved, the lot, plus a few neighboring parcels, will change from “Rural” to “Residential 9000,” a designation that allows for more density, and extending city water and sewer to the property. “CVHH has been building housing for over 30 years; we know this is an ideal site. It’s close to services, walkable to town, out of the flood plain,” Zack Watson, executive director of CVHH said at the hearing. Asked how many units he expects in the development, Watson answered “50 will be a great starting place.” Watson also immediately addressed a neighborhood concern: the property, a privately owned haven of open green space, has been used for hiking, dog walking and biking for years. Watson said he has no intention of changing that.“As part of this development, over 50 percent of the parcel would go into a “forever wild” easement,” he said. “It would prevent land currently not protected, and we could put trails and bike paths there.” In order to move forward on the project, Habitat for Humanity’s next step is a feasibility study that Watson said costs somewhere between $60,000 – $100,000. Watson indicated that his organization cannot spend that much money without the zoning first being in place. While residents who commented at the hearing overwhelmingly voiced support for the project, two neighbors expressed concerns about a “cart before the horse” mentality. Dayton Crites, an abutter on Pleasant Street, said he had “wholehearted support for this type of development” but also would like to see the feasibility study come first, and a change in zoning afterwards. A speaker named Tyler, who did not provide a last name, said he works in construction. He described the relationship between zoning and a feasibility study as a “chicken and egg” issue, “not a cart and horse.” “Feasibility and zoning go hand in hand,” he said. “Knowing that the zoning will allow the project to go forward is a huge part of what makes it feasible. So if the organization can save 10s of thousands of study costs, that’s a huge decision that can be made early on.” Several people spoke to the need for affordable housing in Montpelier, especially in an area outside of the flood zone. “One of the things we forget in Montpelier is that we live in a floodplain downtown,” said Dan Jones, who said he hikes on the property regularly. “We have a massive housing (problem) and have to start looking at places proximate to our downtown that can be developed.” Jones referred to climate change causing more frequent flooding, and concluded with “This climate change thing is going to impact our future and we do have to make some choices around it. Please consider the zoning change … because I think it’s absolutely needed.” Other commenters spoke to the need to preserve open space, concerns about changing the zoning designation and then having a different developer come in and change the character of the neighborhood, the process of how and why zoning ordinances change in Montpelier, and the urgent need for affordable housing. Planning Commission Chair Kirby Keeton reiterated what he’d said at the start of the hearing: that commissioners are hearing comments now, and will deliberate after the two hearings. And when they do make a decision, he said, “It will be based on the city plan … not about what a particular project will do, but what we think is right for zoning in the city to address housing.” Read about the other nine zoning changes discussed at the hearing here.