Posted by: Patricia Salkin | December 30, 2009

Court Upholds College Dormitory Expansion Project Finding it Met Density and Setback Requirements

In 2005, the Burlington Design Review Board approved the college’s application to renovate an existing residential building on its campus and build a new 18,000-square-foot building for student housing. The project would create 49 new student rooms housing 94 students, 39 rooms in the new building and 10 in the renovated building, plus an apartment in the new building for the head resident. The 4.6-acre parcel is within the University Campus (UC) zoning district, which also includes the campuses of the University of Vermont and its medical center. The lot is also within the Champlain College Core Campus Overlay (CCO) district.  Neighbors objecting to the college’s plan appealed to the Environmental Court, which ruled the project satisfied the city’s density and setback requirements.

The lower court identified two parts of the city’s zoning ordinances that appeared to set the density requirements for the project. Section 3.2.7 (e) states that maximum residential density within the CCO is 24 units per acre. Article 5, part 2 sets maximum residential density in the UC District at 20 net dwelling units per acre with an inclusionary housing bonus of up to 24 units per acre. Using the 24-unit per acre figure, the Environmental Court concluded the maximum residential density on the entire parcel was 110.4 units.  

As applied to a dormitory, the court found the ordinance’s definition of a dwelling unit did not work. It calculated the project density using both the city’s method, treating four student rooms as a dwelling unit equivalent, and its own method, treating each student room, regardless of the number of beds, as a single residential unit. It concluded the project met the maximum allowable density using either method. The neighbors argued the maximum allowable density for the project was 92 units, not 110. They reasoned that each room should count as a housing unit and thus, because the project would create 106 units, it violated the city’s density requirements.

The Vermont Supreme Court said it did not have to decide whether the Environmental Court erred in concluding the maximum allowable density was 110 units because the project also complied with the 92-unit standard. The city’s approach, treating dormitory rooms as “rooming units,” was reasonable. The city presented evidence of use of the four-to-one ratio to measure the density of dormitory projects and other types of rooming house project in the city. The court said it would defer to the city’s approach, which appears to have been applied consistently.

As to the controversy over setback requirements, the court noted the locus fell under the ordinance’s definition of a “corner lot,” because it adjoined two streets at their intersection, and had more than one front yard as a result. Applying the city’s consistent interpretation of the corner-lot provision, the lower court concluded the lot line perpendicular to each street was considered a side-lot line. The neighbors disagreed, arguing rear-lot requirements should apply.

The court said the Environmental Court’s conclusion was consistent with the regulations’ plain language. The lot met the definition of a corner lot. The lower court reasonably labeled the lot lines adjacent to the front yard lines as side yard lines rather than rear lot lines in order to avoid having a front and rear lot line adjacent to and forming a corner with one another.

In re: Champlain College Maple Street Dormitory, 2009 VT 55 (8/14/ 2009).

The opinion can be accessed at:

 This abstract appears in the recent issue of the Land Use Legal Report.  Special thanks to editor James Lawlor.  For more information on the Report, contact Jim at

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