Friday, September 30, 2016

At the end of last night's gripping City Council meeting, Brian Dunkiel, the developer's lawyer who also seems to work for the city, approached the City Attorney, Eileen Blackwood, who also seems to work for the developer, and shook her hand. "Thank you," he said, and they both seemed to wink.

What was this hand shake about and what could Dunkiel have to thank Ms. Blackwood about on a night wherein the Council voted to put the controversial zoning change that would allow Dunkiel's client, Don Sinex, to build his behemoth multi-use skyscraper (not just a mall, folks!)?

Hadn't the mayor listened to the public's comments (otherwise described as misrepresentations and misunderstandings) and decided to bring this huge zoning change to the people, jeopardizing Sinex's plan? Hadn't he saved upwards of 80 volunteers from spending the next 20 days petitioning to put this thing on the ballot?

Well, of course we wondered when we heard on Thursday afternoon that this was going to happen. What possible trick could the Mayor have up his sleeve besides trying to make the vote come sooner and expediting the project and stopping the public criticism as soon as possible. But lawyers assured us that the vote would be binding and that Sinex would not be able to get a permit on the new zoning until/or if the people approved it. We went to the City Council feeling victorious and pretty sure that all would go as expected. The 7 councilors who voted for the zoning would do so again and the 4 who had voted against it would do so again, and all of them would vote to put it on the ballot. This was not to be so simple, however. The Mayor had a plan to coerce those city councilors who were against the zoning change but for the ballot item to vote in favor of the zoning change. He wanted to have a unanimous council vote for the zoning change and thus presented the amendment in one packet, forcing Sharon Bushor, Max Tracy, and Selene Colburn to vote no on putting the item on the ballot so that they could maintain their no vote on the zoning change. Sara Giannoni rescinded her recent no vote, noting that her no was not as strong as her fellow dissenters, but that what she really wanted was a public vote.

Max was calling in from Colombia, and Selene was also calling in, as was Adam Roof. And Councilor Bushor, made a motion to "divide the question" so that she could vote No on the Zoning and Yes on the ballot. While she maintained that a councilor could simply call to do that, she was told that there had to be a vote on it, and before that vote occurred. The City Attorney found a choice passage in her little book of laws that made it seem that it was impossible to divide the question: apparently, if two parts of a question are dependent on each other in some way, they cannot be voted on separately. Thus, since the item could not be put on a ballot unless it was approved, these two questions could not be separated. I am no legal scholar, but this certainly seems like the height of absurdity. In almost every City Council meeting the councilors vote on one thing and then vote on another thing separately that is contingent upon the last thing they voted on. Well, Brian Dunkiel could thank Eileen Blackwood for getting Sara Giannoni to change her vote so the Mayor could say that 8 councilors, not just 7, voted for the zoning change. Thank you to Councilors Bushor, Colburn, and Tracy for not falling for this absurdly dirty trick.

The Mayor encouraged people to vote for this project, explaining that no votes for development all over the country were making cities less equal. This, from the man who argued against raising the affordable housing percentage in the overlay zone from 20% a mere 5% more; this from the man who wants to remove the affordable housing requirement in Burlington, claiming a free market wild west trickle down flooding of the market with unaffordable units will serve the poor and disenfranchised. And that is why he is asking the poor and disenfranchised people of Burlington to pay corporate welfare to fund a millionaire developer's street construction, something that developers almost always pay for themselves!? The Mayor further continued to argue that with this outsized development that will have almost no green spaces and add 450 cars, we were getting new environmental standards. He must have missed Logic 101, because we could get these new environmental standards with a building at 5 5 feet just as easily as with one at 175 feet, which would actually harm the environment, the lake even more. But he acts as if the only way we could get these good things would be to bust our zoning and destroy our city. Outrageous doublespeak.

Councilor Shannon went along with the Mayor's party line, by insisting that this project/and zoning provide many public benefits, further slandering the concerned citizens of Burlington by calling us misinformed and our facts misprepresentations. She knows very well that there is a difference between public benefits (lower case) and requiring Public Benefits (upper case) in exchange for building heights as part of a project. She knows very well that this zoning change removes the leverage for getting increased affordable or senior housing in exchange for height or other Public Benefits such as green space, but she continues, after months of discussion to refute the citizens's concerns about the removal of the traditional Benefit system by pointing more subjective benefits we might get along with this development. Public Benefits are explicitly things that do not help the developer's project. In any case, like the Mayor, she has never been able to prove that we could not get these lower case public benefits with a lower-scale project. Instead she insults the public and tells them not to listen to their neighbors but instead, to trust the information on the city government's website.

Councilor Colburn noted clearly that opposing this new zoning was not to oppose affordable housing or equity, and that these things could be fulfilled with a lower scale building. She further noted that we really do not know what might be possible at a lower height because Sinex has NEVER told us what he could do within the current zoning. The rationale for the height increase, she said, was that the developer wanted it and that, she said, "Is not good enough for me". She ended by saying that she hoped we would get a better version of the project that the majority of Burlington residents will be proud of.

Next, councilor Hartnett told us that this new development would bring back the old Italian neighborhood that was displaced, as if somehow those families (he can still hear the pain in their voices, he said) would be compensated for the loss of their homes and neighborhoods by a giant multi-use apartment complex with a multi-plex movie theater and a college dorm! He also noted that people don't come to Burlington because the schools are in trouble, but  I can't imagine why he thought that spending more tax payer money on corporate welfare (with the TIF) instead of to help pay back the 65 million school debt would help the schools.

Councilor Wright, before unfortunately saying "lower class" when he was supposed to say "lower income,"  warned us that if this zoning change is defeated it will be a signal to businesses that Burlington does not want to grow. Businesses will leave.

Councilor Bushor came next, countering the false dichotomies of some of her fellow councilors, asserted that she has not heard anyone speak in opposition to growth or a more dense downtown. She notes that there were three factions, characterized as follows:

1. Those who affirmed that Plan BTV allows for more growth, please use that allowance (of current zoning) to grow the density.
2. Those who, like herself, wanted to create an overlay district with a smaller footprint (say 135 feet buildings)
3. A group of people, mostly businesses, who say: we like this overlay district.

She also noted, as she has before, that she does not know how representative the 1st group is, which is why she supports putting it to a vote, but that she could not vote for the overlay district zoning because it is too tall, too dense, not right for the city. Finally, she noted, as she has before, that the problem with this process thus far, has been that the zoning amendment was driven by the Sinex project. It should have stood alone. She said, finally, that she was "really annoyed" at being put in a position of having to vote no on putting the question on the ballot in order to vote no on the zoning.

Tracy then spoke from Colombia, saying once again that the elimination of bonuses (Public Benefits) in the new zoning did not adequately address affordable housing needs, noting that he would not be satisfied with the zoning unless it were at least pushing past the minimum required affordable housing. He also noted that the huge leap from 2 story to 14 story buildings was not in keeping with recommendations of form based code (our new zoning in progress), which calls for gradual gradations of height.  He declared that the combination of the zoning ordinance vote with the vote to put the question on the ballot meant he would have to vote no on the bundle.

Tom Ayres closed out the show by telling us with trembling in his voice about how his childhood home in rural New Jersey was ruined by sprawl. Close to tears, he celebrated this project , which comes with 450 new cars and minimal impermeable surfaces, hundreds of new toilets and showers and waste-producers (just as he had celebrated the destruction of the Burlington College land and the wildlife corridor from the Intervale to the lake) as a great triumph for the environment. We should not, he said, "shirk our social and moral responsibility". Which is why, I guess, he refused a few weeks ago to vote to raise the affordable housing percentage in the overlay zone a measly 5%.

That's All the News for Now, folks, but please stay tuned to participate in the Coalition's continual education campaign to prepare for the November vote. If you are not yet registered as a Burlington voter, please go on in and get it done!

We will be saying
No to the zoning Change
No to the TIF money (no public money for private profit)
No to Spot zoning and preferential treatment
Yes to adhering to Plan BTV
Yes to a livable City
Yes to democratic processes
No to conflicts of interest
Yes to transparent policies

Let's not forget that handshake between the City Attorney,Eileen Blackwood, who seems to work for the developer, and the developer's lawyer, who seems to work for the City. Thanks, Brian Dunkiel said.
No thanks, say the people of Burlington.



  1. I walked out when he (Ayers?) said "we won't get another chance for 20 or 30 years!" which was not based on any kind of factual evidence. This project or we die...not true.

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