by Michael Bielawski
MONTPELIER – The zoning portion of the April 26 City Council meeting was prefaced with a statement by Mayor John Hollar that it was not a public hearing, but nonetheless about a half dozen residents were lined up and ready to have their say on the new unified development bylaws (popularly known as the revised zoning plan).
Director of Planning and Community Development Michael Miller was again on hand to take the heat. Once again, the public scrutinized the proposals generally along the theme that these new rules might allow an undesired make-over of the city’s 19th and early 20th century architecture.
One concern Miller addressed up front was to assure that their attorneys said the bylaws conform with the city’s master plan and would survive any challenge on that front.
The comments were all over the map. According to City Council member Jean Olson, some of her constituents are concerned about where development will take place.
“Most of us I think want to keep the density and the growth downtown in the core to the extent that we can and there are folks commenting that they are concerned that this proposal encourages growth beyond the downtown at an equal rate,” she said. “Some folks have said this proposal would encourage growth well beyond the walkable area, perhaps off Towne Hill, perhaps off College Street, sort of the outreaches.”
Barbara Conrey, Montpelier Planning Commission member, responded.
“Certainly, we want to increase the density downtown,” she said. “But it might also behoove people to have to move into a smaller house or a smaller half of a house out in the residential areas as well. That’s sort of what I call invisible infill. There’s no additional buildings, it just might be two families in place of where there used to be one.”
Conrey addressed concerns about properties converting into duplexes. She explained that for her family three decades ago, turning their property into a duplex helped significantly, without negative impact.
“We have had two families in there since we created it,” she said. “In some cases, it almost pays the taxes. It’s been a really good experience for us and I think for some people who have concerns about duplexing existing buildings, it really has not had an impact on the property values on Liberty Street.”
Resident Joe Castellano asked about a matter brought up in previous meetings, namely why there is so much pressure to have zoning modified so that existing neighborhoods are more compliant?
“It’s my experience that I don’t often see a 90 percent compliance, what would you say is more typical of a compliance ratio as far as legal, nonconforming, small lots?” he asked.
Miller didn’t have an exact number offhand regarding other communities’ percentage of compliance. He did reference a movement in the 1990s to bring about new development of traditional neighborhood styles from the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s.
“Part of those studies was that people actually went back and looked at the zoning bylaws and found that the reason we aren’t building those great neighborhoods is our zoning says that you can’t, that you’re not allowed to,” he said. “So, a lot of the communities are now trying to bring their zoning back to conformance to allow these neighborhoods to happen.”
Resident Anthony Iarrapino said there needs to be more affordable housing.
“Like the rest of Vermont, I think it is a challenge to sustain what is excellent about this city and I think a huge portion of that challenge is we have people who want to live here, people who would make tremendous contributions to the civic life and the economic life of this city, and there is not any place for them to live.”
He went on to say despite some strong reaction he’s read in media to the zoning, he’s not sure that the zoning actually goes far enough to encourage growth.
More of the public spoke, mostly critical of the zoning documents. Some warned against overreacting to the changes, cautioning against irrational fears.
Miller said after the meeting that it’s important for those participating in this zoning process to be mindful that the “final” document will still be amendable going forward. He gave the example of building footprint standards, if it’s not working out and enough people are unhappy about it, the conversation can continue and changes can still be implemented.