OPINION: Zoning on Steroids

by Joe Castellano, Montpelier

The planning commission has been working on adopting a new zoning proposal that will affect every neighborhood in Montpelier. While we understand that this has been a lengthy process that has taken quite a few years, we feel that the result is extreme and far too drastic.

On March 22, city council is expected to consider the sweeping overhaul of zoning regulations. A group of us who have reviewed the 189-page document have uncovered flaws and ambiguities that would be detrimental to Montpelier’s character and future. Those of us who love and cherish this special place are devastated that this could all be undone. If this zoning is adopted, Montpelier could eventually end up more closely resembling anywhere U.S.A. than the city with small town charm that many of us call home.

The city’s zoning consultant said early last year that there are approximately 4,239 existing dwelling units in Montpelier. Under the existing zoning regulations, a total of an additional 14,315 more units could be built. Under the proposed zoning, this figure balloons up to 16,158 units. This is roughly four times the number of units currently in the city. This is not a just a zoning revamp, but rather zoning on steroids.

Municipal planning is intended to address short-term goals. It is an evolving approach to goals including lower taxes, housing, schools, green space and more. It is not intended to address goals for the next 20 to 30 years. State statutes require new municipal plans every eight years to catch the mistakes of the past and address new goals.

Planning must contemplate potential impact as well as the possible gain. It is neither prudent nor appropriate for one set of planners today to usurp the future of Montpelier tomorrow without understanding all long-term impacts.

The impacts, should this be approved, are highlighted as follows:

Neighborhood Character. New rules allow for higher densities on smaller lots, with larger buildings, reduced setbacks and a reduction in off street parking.

Taxes. Based on an analysis by the city manager, increased residential development would not greatly lower taxes. Instead, with the elementary school getting close to capacity, this might require investment in new school facilities and staff. Union Elementary’s K-4 enrollment has risen 36 percent from 2008 to this year. The school budget is over $20 million. If more development is allowed to occur and one or more new schools must be built, what would the additional cost be?

Traffic and Parking. If you drive downtown at certain times, not only is traffic an issue, but parking can be challenging, too. Substantially more development would mean that both traffic and parking would be worse than it is now.

Parks and Recreation. The recommendations from both the Parks Commission and the Conservation Commission were essentially ignored. There are no parks on the eastern side of town.

In the 2010 Master Plan, Sabin’s Pasture was designated as Conservation Land or Parkland. In the new zoning proposal, it has been zoned Residential.

Governance and Accountability. Few people know or understand the proposed zoning. Critical documents and maps are missing from the city’s website.

We believe that housing and economic growth should occur in the right places, such as downtown.

We also believe that proposed zoning changes should be tabled until the new master plan (which is presently reviewed and updated) is completed later this year. It is our suggestion that zoning be evolutionary with a focus on fewer changes in fewer areas of town.

We encourage citizens to pay attention to this issue and weigh in at the City Council hearings. This will likely take place starting in April. Residents will need to speak out if they want to see responsible growth.

A democracy only works when citizens get involved.

Joe Castellano, Secretary for Montpelier Citizens for Responsible Growth

Note: Edited for length