EDITORIAL: Design Review: It’s Broken, Please Fix it

by Nat Frothingham

Clarity is a wonderful thing.

In a recent phone conversation with City of Montpelier Planning and Development Director Mike Miller (who came aboard in this post in May 2014), Mike gave me a very clear explanation of the Montpelier Planning Commission, the Montpelier Development Review Board and the city’s Design Review Committee.

As he explained it — the Montpelier Planning Commission is the legislative arm of the city’s planning process. It writes the zoning rules, regulations and ordinances.

Then there’s the Development Review Board, a quasi-judicial body that considers and approves or disapproves or calls for amendment in proposals for building, development or changes in buildings that are currently in place.

Finally, there’s the Design Review Committee that reviews an applicant’s project with specific concern about architectural and design issues in a city that’s notable for its historic character.

At this very moment the Montpelier Planning Commission is wrapping up a rewrite of the city’s zoning bylaws, sometimes called zoning ordinances.

This rewrite has already taken five years and has been, by almost any measure, a protracted process. It’s been protracted because of disagreement. And there has been disagreement because there is almost always disagreement when a city works with citizens, homeowners, taxpayers and developers to create zoning, building and design standards that often limit and create demands on what a private property owner can do.

As the Montpelier Planning Commission seeks to wrap up its rewrite of the city’s zoning ordinances and regulations it will be discussing — and perhaps resolving — an important question that has become contentious. “What standards and requirements should the city apply to buildings both new and old in the city’s historic design control district?”

As part of a September 14 meeting in city hall, the planning commission heard testimony from a group of residents who define their neighborhood by Cliff Street, Corse Street, Waverly Place and Hillside Avenue and that neighborhood is part of the city’s historic distriect and thus subject to the city’s design review process.

Testifying before the Planning Commission on September 14 was Arthur Foelsche whose home is located at 25 Cliff Street.

Foelsche told the commission about his interface with the Design Review Committee when he proposed to replace his old wooden windows with new (state-of-the-art) energy efficient windows. The committee insisted that Foelsche retain and repair his old wooden windows. But Foelsche stood his ground and his application to install new energy efficient windows was granted on appeal by the Development Review Board. Foelsche characterized his encounter with the design review process as “adversarial at best.”

A second neighborhood resident who testified at the September 14 meeting was Bob Sheil who owns a home at 6 Cliff Street.

When Sheil made a start on a series of home improvements all aimed at improving the insulation on his house, he was not aware that his home was located in the design review district. What he aimed to do was replace his old, drafty windows. He also hired someone to put a sheet of insulation covered by vinyl siding on the outside of his house. When he applied for these improvements with the Design Review Committee, they suggested blown-in insulation. They also wanted him to abandon vinyl siding in favor of new wooden clapboard. Sheil consulted the ordinances and the cityscape booklet and found that vinyl siding was permitted as an economic alternative under certain circumstances if design and color were consistent. The Design Review Committee denied his application. He appealed to the environmental court and won but the court required that he keep the  original wooden clapboards on the front of his house.

The residents who spoke before the Planning Commission on September 14 were critical of the city’s current design review process. They contended that the current process is often confusing, inconsistent, unpredictable, sometimes arbitrary, sometimes unfair. But almost everyone who testified said something else — they said they liked living in Montpelier because they liked its historic character.

As it wraps up its current five-year zoning ordinance rewrite — the Montpelier Planning Commission needs to give timely and serious attention to design review standards and the design review process.

This includes a close look at boundaries of the city’s historic district — what’s in and what’s out. This includes clear standards that will guide design review and design decisions. This involves a process that needs to be clear, fair, consistent and predictable.

Those who testified before the Commission on September 14 had deep misgivings about the current workings of the design review process. That’s a given. But they also care deeply about Montpelier’s historic character. What they want is an intelligent and workable overhaul of the city’s design review ordinances, standards and process.

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