New Zoning Laws in City Council’s Hands

by Michael Bielawski

MONTPELIER — The ability to rebuild and make additions to neighborhoods was a common theme through the presentation of new unified development bylaws to the City Council March 22. The unified development bylaws are also popularly called “zoning.”

“We just fixed the rules in order to match what’s on the ground,” said Director of Planning and Community Development Michael Miller, in reference to neighborhood zoning. “I think it’s mostly common sense things.”

Miller gave the presentation on the 200-page zoning revisions document, which the Planning Commission voted to send to the council on March 13. Miller’s department worked for years with the Planning Commission, Development Review Board, Design Review Board and zoning administrators on the revision.

“So, congratulations, the zoning is now yours,” Miller said, which drew some laughter. He said his goal for the evening was to give the council a “50,000-feet view” of the broad plan.

Miller made sure to note that there will be no side-by-side comparison of this document with its previous edition.

“The only thing that has changed is everything. This is a new document,” he said.

Bullet-point goals include: increasing housing, having more mixed-use zones, reviewing historic site boundaries, adding shoreline restrictions, storm-water planning and more.

One change involved the zoning map, in which the zoning boundaries are better lined up with property boundaries. Another change is six residential zoning districts, instead of the existing three.

One of the primary goals is “to make 90 percent of the properties conforming for a district.” Miller said that properties around city buildings are about 50 to 60 percent nonconforming with current zoning. For example, of the Town Hill region’s 157 parcels, 100 don’t conform.

“So most of the developed land on Town Hill could not be developed today under today’s zoning,” he said. “So really what we are trying to do is identify rules that would actually allow these neighborhoods to be built today.”

This iteration of the zoning would have stronger conservation standards, like river corridor setbacks, wetlands and vernal pool protection and erosion control.

In terms of parking, there are currently 1.5 parking units per standard dwelling. Under the new rules that would be reduced to one unit. Parking in the downtown area, however, will have some less restrictions.

Another change would be allowing for minor site plans to forego some processes, such as public hearings deemed more appropriate for larger projects. Major site plans are also going to have new architectural and energy efficiency requirements.

A couple of zoning items were punted down the road, probably for the summer. The historic design review rules and boundaries are put on hold, largely due to push-back from the public.

Some stormwater management policies are on hold until more data is available regarding impervious surfaces in town. Discussion around trail and park development is also being postponed.

Planning commission chair Leslie Welts gave high marks for Miller’s work:

“We’re certainly proud of this product. We know it’s not perfect but we think it’s going to go a long way towards rebuilding Montpelier if something terrible happened,” she said. “Whereas the zoning we have right now doesn’t really allow that to happen.”

City Councilor Jean Olson hopes the public will continue to engage in the zoning process.

“Getting the deepest content, and the deepest questions, might move us along,” she said.

There were some public comments at this meeting. Resident Carol Dorfline said there needs to be some way for people to compare the new and old policies.

“We need some tools,” she said. “While I understand that a full side-by-side comparison of the old and the new is not possible, surely you can do for each neighborhood a one-page sheet saying these are the major changes from the last plan to the current proposal. This will help people focus, and it will improve the discussion as well.”

Miller responded by saying that’s possible, but that with so many changes and so many neighborhoods, it would be a challenge.

The council is going to break several sections of the new zoning bylaws over at least their next five meetings. The zoning portion of their meetings should start at 6:30 pm, on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month.