EDITORIAL: A Request to City Voters: Pay Attention to Proposed New Regulations

by Nat Frothingham

Let me encourage Montpelier residents and voters to pay very close attention to a couple of packages of regulations that will begin to come before the city council for review beginning with the council’s May 11 meeting.

Sizeable Proposed Regulations

One package of proposed regulations is the “River Hazard Regulations” that runs to some 60 pages in draft form. A second package of proposed regulations is the “Unified Development Regulations” that run in draft form to almost 200 pages.

And let’s also acknowledge that both planning documents (River Hazard and Unified Development) are meant to flow directly from and implement the master plan that as it was approved ran to 148 pages.

When you think of the city’s master plan — think of dreaming big. Think of what the public in a series of meetings would like the city to look like and be like over the next five or so years or even longer. Then think about the River Hazard Regulations as an attempt by the city — at the bidding of the federal government — to get some control over high water and flooding that can be dangerous, costly and destructive to a little city like ours that’s largely situated on a floodplain near the confluence of rivers and watercourses that flow and predictably overflow. Now finally think of the Development Regulations as an effort by the city both to spur and guide intelligent growth, development and change to our downtown, our neighborhoods and to the more open and rural parts of the city.

Council Review Process

A recent council decision to bring in the new regulations in separate chunks for review and comment over a number of meetings underscores two points. First, there’s a lot to consider and it would have been unrealistic for the council to have taken up all of the zoning bylaws and flood hazard regulations in one sitting.

According to the current plan, the council will review the planning documents over several meetings. Once that review and comment period ends, the council will be set to schedule public hearings. And once those hearings are over, the council can vote on the two packages.

No one I’ve talked to who is close to the planning process is defending the length of the process. It’s been long. And some are saying overlong.

First, Master Plan

The master plan that continues to guide us was adopted in 2010. Five years later the clock ran out, but the city was given permission to adopt that master plan as is without making any changes. It will expire on December 1, 2017.

Now, let’s talk about the River Hazard and Unified Development regulations. Five going on six years have passed since the planning commission started rewriting the zoning bylaws. That’s too long. And now the zoning bylaws respond to a master plan that expired and was readopted as is.

Critic Steve Sease

Some people like Steve Sease, former director of planning at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (see sidebar) feel strongly that we need a new master plan. He argues we need a new master plan before we write new zoning bylaws (see sidebar). But that’s not happening. Clearly that process was punctuated by moments of hot disagreement and contention. Despite that, almost everyone at the moment is praising the current (all-volunteer) planning commission for their hard work and tenacity in producing the two packages.

Two highly regarded professionals, architect Greg Gossens and realtor Tim Heney have written letters that react to the proposed new zoning and planning documents.

Critic Greg Gossens

In his letter Gossens said, “They are a very forward thinking set of documents and will serve our community well going into the future.” But he also described the new regulations as “too prescriptive.” He went on to say, “This might be the architect in me chafing at potential lack of creative freedom so I will scale back on my general objective and get more specific.”

He objected to the proposed requirement that new construction be “one foot or more above flood limits. I just do not see how this can be accomplished in many cases,” he said. He also took aim at such widely used words as “compatible” and “neighborhood character,” terms that have been popular in planning circles. He said such terms have often been used as “show stoppers” in permit hearings.

Critic Tim Heney

By comparison, Tim Heney’s letter was less happy with the proposed new documents.

“As a general statement,” he wrote, “my impression is that this proposed document, while attempting to be a comprehensive guide,  is too large, layered and far too prescriptive. In my opinion, good public policy must be clear, concise and understandable for citizens.” He went on to make a number of additional well-reasoned points including his view that the Montpelier Conservation Commission should not have an enhanced role in reacting to proposed projects. Like Gossens, Heney feels that raising the flood elevation to one foot above base flood elevation will, as he wrote, “impede use of several vacant downtown sites” and act as a brake to the future growth and vitality of the downtown.

Big Problems

I am neither an architect, developer, realtor or professional planner. But beginning in the late 1970s, for four years I served a term on the Montpelier Planning Commission and was chair for about two years when a new master plan was being put together.

Based on my reading of both proposed packages — and this reading was cursory and not intensive — I concur with those who feel that the sheer length of these documents will encumber the city.

Must these documents be so long? Can’t they be shortened? Can’t they be streamlined? Can’t they be made intelligible to the average person? Must anyone with a proposed development project surround herself or himself with expensive lawyers, engineers, planning experts? Then, there’s the troubling question of whether the city is putting the cart before the horse. The State of Vermont calls upon communities to write a master plan. Then once that master plan is written the city may go on to write zoning bylaws and the like. Because that’s not happening here, is the cart being put before the horse? Is this logical, intelligent planning?

I worry that the pages and pages of regulation that have been produced will in due course call for new hiring and an expansion of the City Planning Office. It’s true that in talking with Planning Director Michael Miller I was assured that his planning staff is there to be of assistance and help to anyone who is trying to construct a building or get approval for a development. I believe that Miller is sincere. Certainly he was helpful to me both in person and over the phone.

Best case, I think, is this. People who care about the future of the city will, I hope, plug into the review process before the city council over the next several weeks by tracking the presentations, asking questions and making recommendations.

Design Control Issues

Please pay attention. Here’s just one reason why. During a recent meeting of the City Council it was pointed out that there are now 200 properties in four different parts of downtown Montpelier, that for reasons of historic preservation, will be moved into the design control district if the proposed regulations are adopted. Michael Miller will be notifying owners of these properties of their proposed change of status. And that’s a good move from the planning department.

But now a little recent history. Let it be noted that a fairly large number of property owners who live in the Cliff Street neighborhood with historic properties have asked the City of Montpelier to take their properties out of the Design Control District. Why? Not because these property owners don’t value historic preservation. But because they felt Design Control decisions were unfairly and inconsistently applied when they came before Design Review and wanted to install energy efficient windows or build a deck or add onto their homes and were temporarily blocked or denied.

All of which leads to the point I am making. It’s now very timely for Montpelier residents, voters, property owners who care about their own property and Montpelier’s future to weigh in with their reactions to what’s being proposed and what’s happening.

Here is an excerpt from a February 8, 2016 letter from Steve Sease to the Montpelier Planning Commission stating that in his view, the City of Montpelier’s proposed zoning should be based on the City’s Master Plan.

“Proposed zoning should be based on the city’s Master Plan. State law requires that plans be redone every five years. That Plan, as you know, was adopted by the City Council on September 8, 2010 and approved by the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission on November 18, 2010. It was renewed last year, with the understanding that it will be rewritten over the next year or so. This creates a somewhat awkward situation for the proposed ordinance, as it rests on research and concerns that are now six or seven years out of date. The series of annual meetings that were to allow for continuing evaluation and assessment of the plan never occurred. To me, this argues for a need to be conservative in adopting the new zoning ordinance.”

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