New "Pocket Neighborhoods" in proposed zoning bylaws could transform Thetford

Denser housing developments could be built along any paved road regardless of zoning district, and are required to be visible from the road.

New "Pocket Neighborhoods" in proposed zoning bylaws could transform Thetford
Paved roads of Thetford, highlighted in red. 

Thetford’s Planning Commission is considering permanent changes to now interim zoning bylaws. The work is being supported by Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission and funded by a grant that was awarded to a consortium of seven towns in early 2022. The objective of the grant is to ease restrictions on local housing development under the state’s Bylaw Modernization Initiative. 

The new language makes it easier to get permits for Accessory Dwelling Units (independent housing units that are subordinate to a primary single-family house) and multi-unit residential buildings such as tri- and four-plexes as well as 5+ unit buildings. All of these are now permitted without condition (although with a site plan review) in Thetford’s villages. 

The language also adds a new zoning district to the bylaws – the Neighborhood Residential District in Post Mills, joining the extant Village Residential, Rural Residential, and Community Business (East Thetford) districts. The new district “is intended to serve as a residential and commercial ‘bridge’ between Village and Rural Residential Zoning Districts.”  

In changes unrelated to housing, new language under consideration would prohibit formulaic chain businesses in all of Thetford. Formulaic chain businesses are defined as “A type of retail store, rental establishment, restaurant, hotel, or motel which, along with fifty (50) or more other business locations within or outside the United States, regardless of ownership of those businesses, maintains two (2) or more of the following features: standardized array of merchandise or standardized menu, standardized façade, standardized decor and color scheme, uniform apparel, standardized signage, or a trademark or service mark.”

A significant change not seen in the interim bylaws but being proposed now is a novel type of housing development called a Pocket Neighborhood. 

Pocket Neighborhood (PN): A group of three to seven detached one- to two-bedroom dwellings on a single lot, arranged on at least two sides of a central court which is visible from the street. The PN is served by an internal road with access to the public highway. Examples of this include cottage courts, bungalow courts, and horizontal apartments.

Article II Section 2.01 of the interim bylaws states that  “[t]he general purpose of [Zoning] Districts is to encourage future growth that complements past patterns of development, preserving the rural character of Thetford and strengthening the identity of Thetford’s villages.” However, under the proposed new language, Pocket Neighborhoods would be allowed on any paved road in Thetford regardless of Zoning District, setting a new precedent for how development in Thetford is defined and envisioned. In fact, the proposed language allows for a greater density of units in Rural Residential (up to seven per Pocket Neighborhood) than in any other district. By contrast only five units would be allowed for a Pocket Neighborhood in the Community Business district. This odd proposal seems to conflict with statewide, regional, and town planning goals for greater density in our villages and restricted density in Rural Residential. State and regional planners are concerned about protecting important regional forest blocks from fragmentation and endeavor to keep development very sparse in this zone. 

In another precedent-setting move related to Pocket Neighborhoods, Thetford’s Zoning Bylaws would, for the first time, contain language that prohibits short-term rentals. This topic is nationally debated. On the one hand, short-term rentals are alleged to reduce the number of available long-term rentals. But on the other hand, for some lower income households, income from a short-term rental is a way to afford the mortgage and other costs such as rising municipal and education taxes in Thetford and statewide. In other words a short-term rental can allow lower-income homeowners to keep their homes.

Also new in concept to Thetford’s bylaws is language restricting who can own certain land. Specifically, proposed language would determine how Pocket Neighborhoods can be owned: “land shall be held in common ownership … the application for a PN shall include a legal agreement on how common lands and utilities shall be maintained.” No other bylaw provision makes ownership structure a condition of getting a permit. 

The proposed bylaws include a diagrammatic site plan of a Pocket Neighborhood, also a first for Thetford zoning..

Pocket Neighborhoods are being promoted as part of a national effort as one way to add more “missing middle” housing, which is generally any residential building that is more than a single-family unit but less than a large-scale apartment building. It includes everything from Accessory Dwelling Units to multi-unit buildings and/or developments. 

The Planning Commission is expected to meet two more times in December to discuss proposed bylaw revisions before the changes are passed off to the Selectboard for review, with an anticipated Public Hearing on January 8, 2024.

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