by Phil Dodd
MONTPELIER — The planning commission has wrapped up work on the latest draft of its zoning proposal, but because the final wording is still unfinished, a public hearing originally planned for Dec. 12 was postponed and a new hearing date of Jan. 9 has been set by the commission. The final draft and a proposed new zoning map should be posted on the city website by the end of November at the latest, according to Planning Director Mike Miller. The prior draft, currently on the website, is dated March 24, but several revisions have been made since then.
After the Jan. 9 public hearing, the planning commission expects to consider additional changes, then plans to ship the zoning draft off to the city council, which is required to hold two public hearings on the zoning draft and is allowed to make its own changes before voting on whether to adopt new zoning. Miller said the council could decide to hold public meetings about the zoning before scheduling the two official public hearings.
The draft zoning, which runs to almost 200 pages, is a complete overhaul of existing zoning. It is a complex document that is based on the city’s 2010 Master Plan and has been under development by the planning commission for several years.
This article attempts to touch on four major aspects of the proposed zoning. The Bridge plans to cover other details of the zoning proposal in a future issue.
Design review boundaries would remain the same as in current zoning — at least for now. An earlier draft would have expanded the area where homeowners are required to get permission from the city’s design review committee to make certain changes to their homes, such as putting on siding or replacing windows. At a hearing on the topic earlier this year, many homeowners expressed concerns about being added to the district, and members of the Cliff Street neighborhood, who are currently subject to design review, asked to be removed from it. This draft leaves the design control boundaries where they are currently, covering downtown, nearby neighborhoods, Vermont College, National Life and Stone Cutter’s Way. But the planning commission has indicated it will consider again next year whether to propose amending the new zoning, after it is in place, to alter or enlarge the boundaries, Miller said. He also said the Commission has also asked the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to make recommendations for further changes to design review standards, so additional changes to those standards could be made after the public hearing but before the proposed zoning is sent to the Council.
Housing density would increase significantly throughout the city. Lot sizes would be smaller and housing density increased in most areas of the city, if the proposed zoning is adopted. In many parts of the current Low Density district, for example, density would change from one unit per 43,560 square feet (an acre) to one unit per 9,000 square feet. In current High Density areas, minimum lot size would drop from 8,700 square feet to 3,000 square feet, though density would remain the same or decrease somewhat. Many minimum setback distances are also being reduced. In parts of the old High Density district, for example, the rear setback would drop from 30 feet to 10 feet. Also adding to potential density is a group of mostly optional Planned Unit Developments that would allow base district density to increase by 25 to 50 percent if goals such as energy efficiency and affordability are met. Under the proposed zoning, any conforming single-family house in the city could be converted to a duplex. The density changes reduce overall nonconformity and satisfy the Master Plan goal of boosting housing. But Commission chairman Kim Cheney has pointed out that the Plan’s goal of increasing housing does conflict in some ways with other Master Plan goals, such as preserving traditional residential neighborhoods and conserving open land.
There would be many more zoning districts, most with new names. The number of different zoning districts in the city would increase significantly, and most traditional names for districts would be eliminated. Under current zoning, for example, there are three generally residential-only districts: Low Density, Medium Density and High Density. The new zoning proposes six different residential districts, plus a new Mixed Use Residential district, with new names linked to their maximum density. The “Residential 6000” district, for example, will be an area where there can be one unit per 6,000 square feet. Much of this district is now called Medium Density (at 10,000 square feet, it is less dense now than is being proposed). The new generally residential-only districts would include Residential 1,500, Residential 3,000, Residential 6,000, Residential 9000, Residential 17,000, and Rural. Other districts would include Urban Center 1, Urban Center 2, Riverfront, Eastern Gateway, Western Gateway and Mixed Use Residential.
The size of the Mixed Use district has been scaled back since an earlier draft. Mixed Use is a new type of district, where both residential and some limited commercial uses are allowed. The minimum lot size is 3,000 square feet, and maximum density is two units per 1,500 sq. ft. An earlier draft map showed this district extending into several residential areas, which sparked objections from residents of St. Paul and other neighboring streets. At the City Council’s urging, the Planning Commission scaled back the district mostly to busier arterial streets such as East State Street (including Vermont College), Northfield Street at the downtown end, the western end of State Street beyond Bailey Ave., and a portion of Elm Street. The permitted commercial uses in this district include stores, markets and professional offices. Conditional uses include restaurants and general offices.