by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — After momentum of the zoning bylaw adoption process had ground to a halt over a legal challenge to the master plan, a divided council determined zoning bylaws should prevail.
Following several legal opinions and hours of airing opposing views, Montpelier City Council voted during their July 26 meeting to move forward with zoning rather than stop the process to untangle a challenge to the underlying plan. Therefore, city officials will have to readopt the old master plan as they concurrently move forward on adopting the bylaws, and then start working on a new plan.
Preserving zoning momentum won out by a vote of 4 to 2, with councilors Anne Watson, Dona Bate, Ashley Hill and Rosie Krueger voting ‘yes’ to readopt the 2010 master plan in the name of pragmatism — several development projects are waiting to go pending new zoning, it was said. Councilors Jean Olson and Justin Turcotte voted ‘no’ in the name of ‘getting it right.’
At issue is a charge from resident, former planning commission member and property owner Alan Goldman, represented by a lawyer, that the 2015 master plan was not properly adopted and cannot now be the basis for new zoning bylaws. He strongly recommended the city scrap the master plan they are using and write a new one. The city’s lawyer advised it would be okay to readopt the 2010 plan — provided city council take the legally required steps.
The following information is from several city council meetings viewed by The Bridge on ORCA media.
“At the last meeting there were issues raised. I definitely feel that there are some areas we want to be cautious about. Our goal would be to make sure we go the extra mile and do everything properly,” said City Manager William Fraser. “I think it is clear we want to make sure we have some kind of master plan adopted before zoning is enacted. My suggestion — backed by my staff — is that we not lose the momentum of the zoning process that we’ve spent a lot of time on. The planning commission has been years on it. You folks have spent time reading it, getting familiar with it. We’ve taken testimony. People are engaged, and we need to finish it at the same time we need to have a legal master plan. Our suggestion is to do the readoption process — concurrently have the readoption completed and do the final adoption of zoning.”
However, Mayor John Hollar had a different view. “I think these are going to be difficult to bifurcate.” He posed questions, “What do we do about the master plan? Do we go about a readoption process or do we adopt a new master plan? … We’ve received a legal opinion that the master plan adoption process wasn’t followed properly there.”
Hollar said he struggles with the “notion of spending months going back and patching up a plan that needs to be replaced, that it’s not workable, that it’s too long, it doesn’t create clear benchmarks and objectives.”
“I think we should say ‘we need a new master plan.’ Let’s focus on that and let’s get that done first. That is what we should have done at the outset,” Hollar said. “Let’s do that now rather than spend time working on a plan.” Audience applause broke out in reaction to Hollar’s words.
Hollar said he didn’t think it should take overly long to write a new master plan since, in his view, many of the pieces are already in place. He said he would rather get a good plan in place before finishing the zoning bylaws. He then lamented what he said was as an earlier botched attempt at doing a master plan at the hands of a hired consultant who cost the city $20,000.
Planning and Community Development Director Mike Miller said there had been a miscommunication between his office and the consultant.
Overall, it was generally agreed that writing an entirely new plan would take longer than readopting the old plan and would derail the zoning process.
Councilor Anne Watson said, “I am interested in not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good here and, practically speaking, if this is what is going to allow both processes to be healthy then I would like to see us go forward with a simultaneous processes with us initially just readopting.”
Councilor Ashley Hill reminded those present to remember the 7,800 Montpelier residents “waiting on us to make that decision.” She noted that many of the people in the room have housing security and own their own homes, but “there are a huge number of people out there who are trying to find housing and we’re waiting on these developments.”
Councilor Rosie Kreuger said, “I am generally on the same page to not lose momentum of the zoning so I think the most pragmatic way is to make the updates on the existing one and go forward. I don’t like that solution, but (it’s) the most likely way to get us where we want to go.”
Planning Commissioner Barbara Conrey said, “I understand the hard place that City Council is being placed in and it has been difficult for the Planning Commission as well, we believed we were operating under a readopted plan until just recently, so I would urge you to readopt that plan.” Conrey said a new plan would “follow many of the aspirations” of the 2010 plan, adding that the commission would use many aspects of the old plan in the new plan.
Then, several members of the public spoke out, mostly favoring the creation of a new master plan.
“You want to make potential changes to the city, then you’ve got to do it right,” said Gerry Tarrant. “Your planning director should not be giving legal advice. We should not be in a position of pitting neighbor against neighbor.” He also criticized Miller’s job performance and the entire planning commission for having five lawyers but not knowing the master plan was incorrectly adopted.
Hollar urged Tarrant to focus his comments.
Steve Sease of North Street said it is important for zoning to follow planning. “That is pretty simple. You can’t do them at the same time. That is just nuts,” he said urging city council to write a new plan rather than readopt.
Tarrant, Sease and several others agreed they would prefer the city adopt a new plan.
But then Jack McCullough took the mic and urged the council to take the path that causes the least amount of delay. “Take the most pragmatic approach. Don’t waste the work that has already been done. If you think it is prudent to readopt because you don’t want the city to have the exposure to a court challenge. Readopt. Get it done in time to complete the work of the zoning … Don’t do anything but keep going. Make sure we have a valid ordinance and let people do something else with their lives.”
With that, the vote was held and zoning won.
The motion they voted on was to “instruct staff and the planning commission to begin work to readopt the 2010 master plan and for council to continue work on the zoning ordinance.”