New Historic Design Rules Take Shape

Map courtesy of HPC

By Tom Brown

While Montpelier’s City Council makes the final adjustments to its exhaustive zoning rewrite, officials and advisory groups are turning to a similar update of design standards that will apply specifically to buildings in the downtown historic district.

Given the enormous challenge of the recent top-to-bottom zoning overhaul, which took more than two years, the city elected to put off reconsideration of regulations within its historic preservation district until the zoning work was done.

As part of its overall Unified Development Regulations the city hopes to integrate its design review standards, which apply only to buildings within the Downtown Historic District, into its planning guidelines. The idea in both sets of regulations is to provide clarity for developers and homeowners before they start the permit process, Planning Director Michael Miller said.

“In the zoning process we did hear from people who said that we should be making some of these changes,” he said. “That, and from a legal standpoint, we need to have these guidelines. We can’t just have a one-line guideline (for design review). We need to make that clearer, and if we are going to be clearer, we need to have a public process.”

That process has begun as the planning commission has just received a 17-page draft of proposed design review standards written by the volunteer Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). The draft proposes detailed standards for alterations of existing historic structures within the district as well as new buildings. Miller said the process will serve to instruct the city’s permitting staff in what role historic preservation is to play in the downtown district.

“As administrators, we see these as policy decisions,” he said. “We want clarity from the council and the public of which one are we doing because we can administer in either direction. The new rules, we hope, will help answer more of those questions of are we just doing development or are we doing historic preservation or are we doing a little bit of both.”

Speaking of New Development

With the voter-approved city parking garage and related hotel construction tied up on appeal in state court and likely delayed until next construction season at the earliest, the first building to go up utilizing the city’s new Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district could be an office and retail project on the site of the former Gulf station on State Street. That project will likely not be subject to the proposed new rules, which are at least a year away.

Former Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon owns the lot and said he expects to submit a permit application and design next month. It will be a two-story building with retail and office space, Lauzon said. He said uncertainty over construction of the parking garage delayed submission of the design and led to his decision to reduce the project from three stories to two.

“It would have been a lot easier and a lot less expensive if this were resolved three months ago, but there’s no hard feelings,” he said of the delay. “I know it’s going to be a great project for  Montpelier, and we’re looking forward to it. With it being a very prominent location we are going to do a project that everybody in Montpelier can be proud of in the historic district.”

Meanwhile, the planning commission will evaluate the new design review proposal, take public comment, and eventually forward recommendations to the city council.

“We are trying to create a working plan,” said Eric Gilbertson, acting chair of the HPC. “It’s not going to happen real fast.”

Miller said the HPC will formally present the draft proposal to the planning commission on June 24. Residents may ask questions then, and if the commission schedules hearings, public comments can also be made at that time. The city council will likely do the same once it receives the planning commission’s recommendations.

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