Presented to the City Council June 15, 2016
To: Mayor Hollar and Montpelier City Council
From: Steve Sease, former member and chair, Montpelier Planning Commission, former land use attorney and director of planning, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources
Re: Section two of Proposed Zoning Bylaws
- Reduce the geographic extent of the Mixed Use Residential zone.
- Reduce the geographic extent of the Urban Center zone.
- Revise density changes upward, except as noted below. (Make no density changes one mile or more from downtown.)
- Include school, municipal and state properties on the zoning map.
- Do not close discussion or propose changes on any section of the zoning proposal until all sections have been heard. Subsequent sections may influence what you are hearing now, particularly section 3.
This letter repeats, with some new thoughts and some different emphases, comments that I submitted to the Planning Commission in May, 2015, and February, 2016.
In general, I believe it would suit the city well to take an incremental approach to proposed zoning. First, the 2010 master plan has expired, but has been extended to 2017 by the council. This means that much of the original research, assumptions, and outreach for the plan are now as much as eight or nine years old. None of the annual meetings that were proposed in the 2010 plan ever occurred, meaning that there was no opportunity for discussion of interim revisions. Frankly, the master plan is stale, and it makes sense to move slowly in adopting zoning when the city expects to have a new plan in 2017.
The master plan sets out, broadly speaking, two significant goals: increases in housing, and preservation of the character of existing neighborhoods. Under present zoning, something on the order of 14,000 housing units are possible today. The proposal would increase that number to 16,000 — a very modest increase. The proposed zoning would be transformative of existing neighborhoods, however, to levels that would, in some parts of the city, make them unrecognizable to people living there now. This vision of dense future development seems completely at odds with the goal of preserving the character of neighborhoods and argues for a slower and more modest approach, growing out from the downtown, in order to assess results and make appropriate changes.
State law, which requires master plans to be redone every five years, supports an incremental approach. Zoning must be based on master plans. As plans are redone every five years, there is an opportunity to revise zoning. There is no reason in law or on the ground to attempt city-wide zoning revision when, for the most part, neighborhoods are happy with their settings and an incremental approach can achieve the same planning goals. Each successive plan should include an assessment and evaluation of progress under the preceding plan, with the possibility of amending zoning bylaws accordingly. There is no need to rezone the entire city now in a drastically transformative way.
It makes most sense to grow density and commercial development incrementally outward from the downtown, which would augment and strengthen the downtown.
Mixed Use Residential
In the new Mixed Use Residential zone, conversion of residential units to office space, B&Bs, inns, and daycares, among other uses, would be permitted. It is proposed along major streets and in existing residential neighborhoods such as St. Paul Street, lower Liberty Street, Franklin Street, up Bailey Avenue and behind the State House. The physical extent of this zone would include scores of existing residential units. No study has quantified the potential loss of dwelling units and the potential for increased traffic and parking needs under the potential buildout. The magnitude of this zone seems contrary to the goal of preserving and enhancing housing activities.
The existing CB-II zone was controversial for its loss of residential space. The new zone is significantly larger than the CB-II zone. The history of the CB-II zone should teach us to proceed conservatively when considering conversion of residences to offices and other non-residential uses. Unintended consequences are best dealt with if they are designed to be modest.
I recommend shrinking the Mixed Use Residential district to keep it out of existing residential neighborhoods.
I recommend shrinking the proposed delineation of the Urban Center zone. This new zone would allow 100 percent lot coverage and buildings up to six stories high — with no parking required. There is no reason to propose the Urban Center zone for the neighborhood behind the State House (which, incidentally, is mapped erroneously) and it should be dropped. See my comments below on revising the zoning map.
The Urban Center zone is also proposed for the CB-II zone along Main Street to the roundabout and beyond to Franklin Street. This section of Main Street is lined with beautiful historic buildings. Would the new zoning incentivize proposals to tear down buildings along this section of Main Street or build out vacant space on existing lots to 100 percent coverage? Is this the vision we want for the city? In my view this is an experiment that we should not undertake.
I would recommend dropping the Urban Center zone designation from the library northward. This area would be appropriate for Mixed Use Residential.
The proposed ordinance would increase density dramatically in the Low Density Residential LDR and Medium Density Residential zones.
In the Low Density Residential zone, for example, where my house is located, present zoning is one dwelling unit per acre, with a minimum front setback of 20 feet, a side setback of 50 feet, and a rear setback of 75 feet. Under the proposed ordinance, minimum lot size would shrink to 9,000 square feet, minimum front setback would be 20 feet (unchanged), the side setback would be 15 feet, and the rear setback would be 30 feet. Buildings of up to 4,000 square feet would be permitted.
In the Medium Density Residential zone, one unit per 6,000 square feet would be permitted. Buildings could consume 4,000 square feet — not leaving much room for open space!
In my view, the proposed changes would not preserve the character of existing neighborhoods, but would instead transform them dramatically to a point that people living there now would not recognize them. In response to the argument that things won’t necessarily change quickly, I say, by virtue of changing the ordinance, this is what the city would expect and hope to achieve. I don’t think it is what the residents want, however.
Lot sizes and setbacks are critical components of neighborhood character. The proposed ordinance would lead to lost green space, loss of privacy and an increase in traffic. The new “low density” would actually be more dense than existing “medium density.”
What’s more, given the relatively modest increase in units that would occur under the new zoning, there does not seem to be any strong driver for such dramatic changes. On the other hand, there are a number of reasons to question the proposal.
One measure for increasing density in any city is walkability. The goal is to have most housing within a walkable distance of downtown. A standard measure for walkability is about one quarter of a mile. Factors that affect walkability include topography, climate, and the pedestrian’s sense of security. Picture yourself walking up East Main Street to Towne Hill Road, or up North Street — on a January night — with a bag of groceries or a couple of small children and you should be able to understand the concept of walkability.
If new housing is not walkable to downtown, traffic will inevitably increase. To my knowledge, however, no studies have been done to quantify how much traffic would increase as a result of increased density in the Low Density Residential and Medium Density Residential zones. These changes should be documented by research on the results.
Zoning helps new residents understand the character of the area in which they live. Zoning is often viewed as protective, since people rely on zoning to protect their neighborhoods. Zoning usually provides a sense that changes will not be drastic, and that neighborhoods will stay roughly the same — one of the goals of our master plan. Moving from one unit per acre to five units per acre is not a minor change. Add in infill development as proposed in Section 3 and density becomes even more overwhelming.
One argument advanced for increased density is to address nonconforming use. The planning commission is aiming for a goal of 90 percent conformance, as opposed to roughly 60 to 65 percent now. Supposedly, this change will reduce variance requests. On the other hand, most variance requests apparently deal with setbacks. Variance proceedings are an important protective process for neighborhoods. It would be more direct to simply address setbacks in zoning without reducing lot sizes dramatically.
The proposed density in the low density zone also appears to be at odds with the city’s growth center designation as approved by the state in 2009. In the approval document, the low-density zone is cited as helping preserve rural character outside the designated growth center.
I would suggest making no changes in density one mile from city hall, and adopting a one unit per half acre in the present Low Density Residential zone closer than one mile to the city. The MDR zone could be designed as one unit per 10,000 square feet. I would suggest that the highest housing density in the city be provided within one quarter to one third of a mile of downtown. To this end, in addition to shrinking the Mixed Use Residential zone as noted above in order to preserve housing, I would suggest retaining density at one unit per 1,500 square feet as it is presently.
Changes to Map
I continue to ask that the zoning map be redone to display municipal, school district and state properties. The present map is misleading, at best, by not displaying these properties. For instance, the large block of land where the high school is located is mapped as “Western Gateway.” The adjoining state properties are not delineated — they are included in Western Gateway. The bike path beyond the high school and the Peace Park? Western Gateway. There is no sign of Main Street Middle School or Union School. City Hall, the Police Station and the Fire Department apparently have been swallowed by “Urban Center” without a trace. The Rec Building on Barre Street? Also swallowed by Urban Center. The State House — Urban Center. The Capitol Complex? You would be hard-pressed, based on the present map, to know there is such a thing, let alone where it is. Oddly enough, the Dog River athletic fields and the Public Works Department are identified as “Civic” — why are they correctly mapped, but not City Hall, the high school, or the State House and Capitol Complex?
The shortcomings of the map are embarrassing and incomprehensible. I first brought these issues to the Commission’s attention almost a year ago, and although the Commission did agree — at last — to include rivers on the map, they did not accept my request to portray municipal, school, and state properties on the map.
Why is this important? Accurate maps are always important in their own right for information and orientation. State, municipal and school grounds are important public investments of which we should be proud. They also have implications in the ordinances. Most significantly, the proposed ordinance at 3401 G. 2 would allow the Development Review Board to waive open space at any infill housing development that is within one-quarter mile of school grounds, the State House lawn, or the Vermont College green. It would be nice, to say the least, to provide an accurate zoning map that displays where these properties are located.
In closing, I hope you will agree with me that zoning should be an incremental process and should proceed in concert with successive stages of the planning process. I feel that you should grow density and commercial activity from the city core, based on the principles of walkability, protection of neighborhood character, and maintenance of the vitality of the downtown, while assessing and evaluating the effects of zoning changes periodically throughout the life of each successive plan.
Thanks for your attention, and thanks for all your hard work!
Former member and chair, Montpelier Planning Commission
Former land use attorney and director of planning, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources