Home News and Features Residents Rally About VCFA Zoning Request

Residents Rally About VCFA Zoning Request

The Vermont College of Fine Arts. Photo by John Lazenby.
The Vermont College of Fine Arts met resistance from neighbors at a Development Review Board hearing last week, when, one after the other, commenters objected to a key piece of the college’s “planned unit development” application. At the Jan. 3 hearing, neighbors raised concerns about the college’s request to change a significant number of potential future projects — ranging from housing to a restaurant to a gym — on its College Street campus from “conditional use” — which requires a public hearing — to permitting, which does not require public input.

Commenters also requested the hearing be continued at a later date in order to give neighbors and board members time to absorb the 77 pages of staff notes, plus nearly 100 pages of written public comment. After a brief discussion, DRB members opted to continue the hearing on Feb. 6, and will meet in a deliberative session, which is not open to the public, before then. The board also requested traffic data from VCFA for the College Street area, where the 15-acre campus is located. 

The college’s request is part of an application for a campus development “PUD” or “Planned Unit Development,” which zoning administrator Meredith Crandall said is “basically a plan for how the campus can move forward.” 

Crandall summarizes the crux of the issue in her staff report: 

“This particular Campus Development PUD does not request any changes to structures, impervious surfaces, signs, or other aspects of the built environment at this time. Instead, VCFA is requesting that the board approve: (1) a roadmap for future potential changes — which would require future, project-specific permits as applicable; and (2) alternative, less-stringent approval processes for some of those future projects when compared to the typical approvals required for the properties in the same zoning district.” 

“The college is in a period of transition,” said Katie Gustafson, VCFA’s chief financial officer and vice president for finance and administration. “So the campus master plan is trying to contemplate different uses in the future so that there can be a vibrant, fully utilized campus at some point in the future.”

Last June, 2022, the college announced plans to sell 10 of its 11 campus buildings (the exception is College Hall and the green that’s widely used by the community), and move its low-residency graduate arts programs to Colorado College. There have been no sales of campus buildings since the announcement, but VCFA has been working on an updated master plan plus the PUD application for over a year. According to Crandall’s staff report, the current application is “very similar” to one put before the DRB in an informal “sketch review” Dec. 6, 2021.

“The campus is going to change. No matter what, it’s going to change,” said David White, president of White + Burke Real Estate Advisors, presenting on behalf of VCFA. “ … the question is not whether it changes, but … what’s the process to get from today to ultimately those uses?”

The uses to which White referred represent possibilities not yet in the works, he said, and range from adding various types of housing, to a restaurant, a laboratory “or technical facility,” a performance theater, an athletic facility, and more. The plan also calls for adding angled parking around the green, which would slightly narrow the green’s current footprint.

“Housing seems like one likely scenario,” White said. “We are not proposing any new construction at this point, other than an elevator and a stair tower.”

One big change, though, White added, is that when campus buildings sell, the campus will likely convert to a commercial condominium association, with the “land held in common and operated in common by the condo association.” 

Dan Towle, a resident of First Avenue, and president of Park Advisors, a consulting firm hired by the city to look at housing the unhoused, asked to postpone a DRB vote at least a month. 

Other neighbors raised concerns about hedges, fences, and borders, asking who would be maintaining them when the property sells? 

But the theme that kept repeating was concern about losing public involvement if VCFA’s request to change the process in the PUD gets approved.

“One of the big issues here is about community involvement and maintaining the right of the community to weigh in. There’s a huge difference between the notification process and the hearings required under conditional use — the time and opportunity for community members to reflect and then actually have a dialogue. With a permitted use, the zoning administrator approves it and there is no discourse with the community … that makes me very nervous,” said Alicia Dworsky, a First Avenue abutting neighbor. 

Donna Ackerman, whose home shares a border with college land on Kemp Avenue, said “I would not support any change to make something not a conditional use. I think it’s so important that the neighbors have the opportunity to weigh in — on lighting, noise, and boundaries. Every change creates some ripple effects. Too many changes without oversight can really change your neighborhood.”

The continued hearing about the VCFA planned unit development application is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 6, at 7 p.m. The agenda and meeting information will be posted at montpelier-vt.org/129/Agendas-Minutes.

Editor’s note: The Bridge is a tenant of VCFA at Stone Science Hall.