Sylva considers reduced-size residential lots
The town of Sylva took a tentative first step this month toward easing residential zoning restrictions that some credit with hindering growth in the geographically constrained town.
At its Jan. 12 meeting, the town board voted unanimously to reduce the minimum acreage for multifamily developments from 5 acres to 3. Because there are not currently any undeveloped 3-acre parcels in town, the change is unlikely to have much impact, though landowners could choose to combine separate parcels to meet the 3-acre minimum.
The real significance of the vote, however, lay in the direction it indicates the board may take going forward.
“This is the first part of a long discussion about density and lot size in our residential districts,” Town Manager Paige Dowling told the board.
Sylva has relatively high minimum lot size requirements, with residential parcels required to be 0.18 to 0.4 acres per building, depending on the residential district in question. Constrained to a valley where steep slopes restrict development and with state law making annexation a difficult process, Sylva has seen little growth in its property tax base over recent years — with the cost of running a town continually rising, the town struggles each year to craft a budget sufficient to cover its basic needs.
Some town leaders have eyed easing the restrictions on minimum lot sizes as a solution that would boost the potential for tax base growth while giving landowners more freedom to use their property as they so choose.
“People that want to keep large lots can do that, but if they wanted to sell land that would allow us to grow the tax base,” Dowling said. “Not everybody needs four-tenths of an acre. We have a lot of homes in the R1 district that are quarter-acre lots.”
The R1 district, however, requires that all lots be at least four-tenths of an acre.
While this month’s vote was a quick one with zero input at the public hearing held beforehand, the rest of the revision process isn’t likely to be as simple. The town has a variety of different zoning districts, each with different restrictions and with different reasons for those restrictions. The planning board, which meets monthly, is just beginning to talk through all those decisions and their implications — Dowling expects it will be at least a year before they’ve finished a revision of the zoning ordinance’s lot size requirements for the town board to consider.
“It’s a decision that really needs to be thought through and studied,” Dowling said.
While the benefits of a larger tax base and more options for homeowners are obvious, easing restrictions could create concerns as well. Minimum lot sizes are put in place partly as a way to maintain the character of a neighborhood and prevent haphazard development.
“We want to look at what is feasible for a town the size of Sylva,” said the Sylva Planning Board’s vice chair Ellen Hunter. “There are only a few lots that are available that meet the present requirements. Questions raised are: Are these present requirements too strict? Will lowering the size requirements affect the uniqueness of Sylva? What is the balance between growth and the environment?”
Those are the questions that the planning board will tackle in the months ahead.
Participate in the process
The Sylva Planning Board regularly meets at 5:30 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month at Sylva Town Hall, but an irregular January schedule means its next meeting is 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26.
Members of the public are welcome to come and listen to planning board members discuss the issues.