Vermont’s residential and non-residential buildings account for roughly two-thirds of the state’s total energy needs – both in heating and electricity – and about one-third of its heat trapping, greenhouse gas emissions, which means that increasing the efficiency of our building stock is a must. However, because a third of Vermont’s energy consumption comes from transportation, where a building is located also matters. The municipal zoning bylaw is a tool that can shape both how and where buildings get built, ensuring orderly development patterns that also reinforce other community goals.
A zoning bylaw is a way to regulate land use and development, and is intended to implement the municipal plan. Zoning can be used to address a wide range of planning considerations – such as housing, transportation, and natural resource protection – and may also be used to address community energy concerns. A zoning bylaw can address energy efficiency in several ways. It can:
- Create and reinforce smart growth development patterns. Smart growth fosters compact, walkable downtowns, village centers and neighborhoods, while preventing the development and fragmentation of farm and forest land and protecting natural resources. Zoning regulations that support compact, walkable development may include characteristics such as maximum lot sizes, shared driveways, parking behind buildings, minimum building heights, front doors and windows that face the street, and allowing a mix of uses.
- Prevent strip development. As opposed to smart growth, strip development is automobile oriented, land consumptive, and detrimental to the economic viability of historic centers – all of which make it more energy intensive. Zoning regulations can discourage strip development patterns by not allowing general commercial development (i.e., retail, restaurants) along highways, or by allowing these uses only if they are designed in compact patterns with bicycle, pedestrian, and transit connections.
- Include energy-related site development standards in the zoning bylaw. These can include:
- Building location and orientation standards to maximize passive solar;
- Building fenestration (i.e., window and door openings) standards to maximize passive solar;
- Site standards to consider whether the developed site will be configured to accommodate renewable energy facilities (e g , solar photovoltaic panels) in the future;
- Lighting standards to avoid overlighting and require the use of LEDs or other efficient fixtures
- Include building energy standards. Since a significant portion of the state’s total energy demand comes from buildings, a zoning bylaw that requires or incentivizes development to meet energy efficiency standards is a great step in reducing our total energy and climate footprint. State statute (24 V.S.A. § 3101) allows towns to create such codes and regulations. It is important to note that it is often easier to pass policies that incentivize energy efficiency, rather than policies that require it.
- Provide incentives for renewable energy generation. Provide incentives, such as increased density, in exchange for on-site generation of renewable energy or compliance with certifiable energy efficiency standards (e g , LEED).
- Avoid barriers to renewable energy facilities that are subject to local zoning. For example, communities could exempt wind turbines from height requirements or enact building design standards that accommodate solar hot water systems on rooftops.
- Address historic preservation. Include historic preservation and adaptive reuse provisions to allow for economically viable uses of historic structures and avoid their demolition.
- Include development standards to address transportation efficiency. These can include:
- requiring bicycle racks or lockers;
- ensuring connections to existing or planned sidewalks, bicycle lanes and paths;
- requiring transit shelters where appropriate.
Zoning and other development regulations are not the only tools to implement smart growth. Municipal policies for managing water and wastewater facilities, especially the extension of such facilities into un-serviced areas, can have a profound impact on the success or failure of smart growth policies. Generally, infrastructure policies should reinforce municipal land use policies.
Just as important for maintaining smart growth patterns is maintaining the economic and cultural vitality of Vermont’s traditional downtowns and village centers. Programs such as the Vermont Downtown Program provide technical assistance to help communities develop skills and strategies for downtown revitalization efforts. The Vermont Neighborhoods and the Growth Centers Programs also help reinforce downtown and village vitality.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
- Zoning bylaws implement the town plan, so municipal planning is always the first step. It’s an opportunity for a community conversation about shared goals and ways to achieve those goals. The discussion about the town plan will ultimately inform what tools you use to reach your energy and climate action goals.
- Policies that offer incentives, such as density in exchange for on-site generation of renewable energy or compliance with certifiable energy efficiency standard (e.g., LEED), are often easier than policies that require it.
- The energy footprint of a building includes building materials, siting, efficient use of electricity and heating, among other criteria.
Related case studies:
- Hinesburg Energy Efficiency Standards in Zoning Bylaws
- Downtown Designation
- Mixed Use Development
- Subdivision Regulations
- Transit Oriented Development
- Vermont Neighborhoods Program
- Energy Planning and Implementation Guidebook
- Communities Tackling Vermont’s Energy Challenges
- Resilient Communities Scorecard
- Department of Housing and Community Development’s designation programs
- Vermont Department of Public Service
- Vermont Green Building Network