By Michael Bielawski
MONTPELIER — On the hot-seat once again before City Council was Mike Miller, planning director. Again, he explained and defended the new unified development bylaws before a crowd of about 30, who were mixed but largely against the new proposals. The development bylaws are popularly known as “zoning”.
The general debate was if the new rules would allow for aggressive new development that might transform the character of Montpelier’s more industrial-era neighborhoods. While most agreed there’s no overly aggressive push for development at the moment, the fear is that by allowing some changes it could escalate into larger transformations of whole neighborhoods.
“I can guarantee you that over time, and it may be talking 20 or 30 years, that change will exponentially increase and at what point do we say that our neighborhood is lost?” said resident Sandra Vitzhum.
Vitzhum is a resident and landlord in the city who spoke twice during the evening. Her fear is the new zoning would allow for many ordinary two-story homes to become less attractive flat-roof three-story buildings, which would be much out of character with existing homes. She also questioned the city’s overall capacity for growth.
“What is our capacity for water? What is our capacity for sewer? What is our capacity for schools? What is our capacity for police and fire service? And ambulance? And roads? Parking? How do we measure if this is going to work or not?” Vitzhum said.
Miller and members of the Planning Commission got some responses in. Barbara Conrey, Montpelier Planning Commission member, addressed some of the growth concerns.
After the hearing, the council started asking questions of planning commissioners and Miller after most of the public had left.
“The frustration for me is listening to all of these comments because they’re only looking at one factor, they are looking at the actual lot size,” she said. “They are not looking at the fact that half of that lot might be a 30 percent slope so that means that your lot is only half as big as you thought it was. And they are not looking at frontage or all of the other things that limit development.”
Conrey said ultimately these new rules should keep new development consistent with existing neighborhoods. She said the new restrictions on building footprints is one way this will work.
“Basically, you can’t build a 6,000-square-foot building in a neighborhood that has 3,000-square-foot buildings,” she said. “So, the footprint is basically what’s on the ground, and so keeping what’s on the ground consistent in scale with the other buildings.”
Miller also responded to the critics.
“Under the new zoning, a multi-family structure would be a conditional use, under the zoning today it’s a permitted use, which means actually under the new zoning she [Vitzhum] has more rights and her neighbors would have more rights to participate.”
Other residents were supportive of the new zoning. When they spoke, they got few if any applause, suggesting the crowd overall was very much against the proposals. Those in favor felt that development in Montpelier has stagnated and these zoning rules might allow for much-needed new development to be kickstarted.
“In fact, rather than calling it a sustainable level of development, I think what we are facing is stagnation,” said Jack McCullough, Montpelier resident. “We’re in a situation where, I don’t want everyone who can afford to live in the city to be as old or older than me. I’m concerned that’s where we are getting to.”
Council member Rosie Krueger, District 1, gave her take on the zoning documents. She said she hopes that the zoning encourages that new development be sufficiently energy efficient. She and others in the audience had referenced a goal to make Montpelier a “net zero” city in regards to energy usage.
Miller said that new development, even those of more complex designs, are generally more energy efficient under today’s building standards.
One statistic repeated a few times throughout the evening was that the city’s total population from 1910 to 2010 had a net change of just one citizen fewer.
The City Council intends to stay on reviewing the zoning documents starting at 6:30 p.m. each of their meetings for the foreseeable future. They indicated that next time there may be a little less public comment and more council discussion. The next council meeting will be on April 26 starting at 5:30 p.m.