A huge thanks to the voters of Chittenden 6-4 for sending Brian Cina and I to the VT legislature as your representatives in the House. We are thrilled and honored to serve you. Thanks also to my family for trusting in me and making it through another campaign season. Thanks to my wonderful campaign manager Lauren and to all the volunteers who helped us drop leaflets, make phone calls, stamp postcards and much more. Thanks to the many donors whose modest, grassroots contributions helped fund a people-centered campaign. Thanks to the Vermont Progressive Party and Rights and Democracy VT for their support for my candidacy, and to the many organizations who provided endorsements in support of our shared vision for a progressive Vermont. Thanks to outgoing Representatives Kesha Ram and Chris Pearson for their long and valuable service to our district and the state.
Like many Vermonters, I am dismayed by our national election results. As I have said elsewhere:
I am not going to Canada or Norway or Mexico. I am going to the Vermont statehouse where I am going to fight with everything I’ve got to turn back this wave of hatred, racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and ableism. I am going to stand against the criminalization of poverty and addiction, the climate change denial, and the income inequality that is sweeping our country. I am going to work with my comrades and colleagues on the left to overcome our differences, so that we can build a true movement of working people who can turn this country around and deliver on the principles that excited so many of us earlier in this election cycle…not four years from now when the Democratic Party offers us a candidate, but right now. I am so grateful for the voters who have entrusted me to represent them, who support a progressive vision for Vermont and our country. When I stepped up to run for this office, I thought I’d likely be in for a Republican governor (we are), but I never really believed my work would require pushing back on oppression of this magnitude at the federal level. That’s privilege, pure and simple, and a failure of the imagination on my part. I am not going to let my children, or your children, see me sitting on the sidelines at this moment in history. I am in this 100% and then some.
On November 8th, Burlington voters will weigh in on zoning changes and public TIF investments in support of a mall revitalization project at the Burlington Town Center. We’re three members of the Burlington City Council who strongly support mixed-use development, growth in our local housing stock, efforts to increase housing affordability and the revitalization of our out-of-date downtown mall. We don’t support the size and massing in the proposed zoning, or a process that failed to explore alternatives more in line with the current upper height limits in our downtown.
When we vote on Burlington ballot item #3, we are voting on a zoning overlay district, not a mall project. Zoning, as established through community engagement and codified in the Downtown and Waterfront Master Plan, sets the terms for development. In this sense, the needs of one particular developer or project should not drive zoning policy. This, however, is exactly what happened with the zoning overlay district we’ll vote on this November 8th.
The zoning change process began with a Pre-Development Agreement (PDA) in May between the developer and the City. Current zoning allows developers to go to 65 ft. in height by right with 20% of units in those buildings set aside as affordable. Should a developer want to go beyond that current 65 ft. limit, they can go up to 105 ft. by including more public benefits like additional affordable housing. The PDA asked the Council to commit to changing these current zoning requirements to allow for buildings up to 160 ft and to allow those buildings to reach that height without additional affordable housing requirements.
Over the course of the summer, the Planning Commission and, subsequently, the Council debated an overlay district for the area surrounding the Burlington Town Center. That district included several adjacent properties: Macy’s, the College St. and Lakeview parking garages, and Peoples’ United Bank. Under the proposal, all properties within that overlay would be able to reach 160 ft. in height with an additional 15 ft. allowed for rooftop mechanicals and up to 10% in additional height at the discretion of the Planning and Zoning Director. At the same time, the change removed the bonus concept from our ordinance, meaning that a developer could go up to 160 ft. by right without including other community benefits like more affordable housing. These changes were the issues around which much of the debate revolved.
That debate, however, wasn’t much of a debate. Time and time again, we were told we could not consider changes that were not consistent with the Burlington Town Center PDA. In essence, that agreement was driving and limiting the terms of debate around the larger district. Because of this dynamic, the Planning Commission and Ordinance Committee did not make any substantive changes to the overlay as is typical in the zoning change process. Instead, they merely identified issues around which disagreement existed, leaving those for the full Council to resolve.
Undeterred by the resistance to change at earlier stages, we offered compromise amendments to the zoning overlay when it came to the full Council for final approval. An amendment to bring the height down to 130 ft. was voted down. An amendment to establish a hard cap on height at 160 ft. was voted down. An amendment increasing affordable housing requirements from 20% to 25% at upper height limits was voted down. Compromise that reflected public input and concerns, it seemed, was wishful thinking. Ultimately, the zoning change was passed by the full Council with only minor technical changes by a vote of 8-3 with the three of us voting against.
A vote against the proposed zoning is sometimes described as a vote against mall revitalization, affordable housing, progress, change, growth, the environment and even diversity and equity. This false dichotomy is discouraging to witness at the local level, as our national political discourse gets more and more polarized. Zoning can and should be a thoughtful process where we consider options, defining and upholding community values about how we grow our city. We believe we failed to do that in the context of the proposed zoning changes.
Now, the fate of the overlay district lies with Burlington voters. As you think about your vote on Question #3, we hope that you understand that you are not voting for a mall project, but a zoning overlay that extends beyond the boundaries of the mall that will dramatically change our downtown for generations to come. We’re voting no because the zoning overlay emerged from a process void of compromise or consideration of alternatives, includes increases in height that will result in buildings out of scale with the rest of downtown, and will lower the percentage of affordable housing that developers are required to build.
Growing up in Burlington, I found a home for my interests in art and politics in Bernie Sanders’ Mayor’s Youth Office, at a time when I was struggling to fit in. It was a special honor to receive his endorsement earlier this week.
Senator Sanders writes, “Selene Colburn is a strong supporter of working families, the environment, and LGBT rights. She has done a great job on Burlington’s City Council and I am confident will be an excellent state representative.”
It has been a privilege to represent so many of you on Burlington’s City Council, where together we’ve pushed for housing affordability, quality-of-life improvements, environmental justice, livable wages, police reform and humane solutions to the opiate crisis.
I’m ready to continue this work for you every day in Montpelier and ask for your support as your representative to the Chittenden 6-4 district in the Democratic primary NEXT TUESDAY, AUGUST 9TH.
As I’ve knocked on doors over the last several months, I’ve been continually impressed by how thoughtful, informed and passionate my neighbors are. Thanks to all of you, I’ve learned even more about how badly we need improvements to our systems for healthcare, education funding, childcare access, property taxation and more. I am grateful to you for sharing your stories and your doorsteps.