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OPINION: On Zoning: Reduce Certain Areas, Revise Density Changes and Keep Hearings Open

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by Steve Sease

Presented to the City Council June 15, 2016

To: Mayor Hollar and Montpelier City Council

Re: Section 2 of Proposed Zoning Bylaws

Summary: I would like to suggest the following:

1. Reduce the geographic extent of the Mixed Use Residential zone.

2. Reduce the geographic extent of the Urban Center zone.

3. Revise density changes upward, except as noted below. (Make no density changes one mile or more from downtown.)

4. Include school, municipal and state properties on the zoning map.

5. Do not close discussion or propose changes on any section of the zoning proposal until all sections have been heard. Subsequent sections may influence what you are hearing now, particularly section 3.

Background

This letter repeats, with some new thoughts and some different emphases, comments that I submitted to the Planning Commission in May, 2015 and February, 2016.

In general, I believe it would suit the city well to take an incremental approach to proposed zoning. First, the 2010 master plan has expired, but has been extended to 2017 by the council. This means that much of the original research, assumptions and outreach for the plan are now as much as eight or nine years old. None of the annual meetings that were proposed in the 2010 plan ever occurred, meaning that there was no opportunity for discussion of interim revisions. Frankly, the master plan is stale, and it makes sense to move slowly in adopting zoning when the city expects to have a new plan in 2017.

The master plan sets out, broadly speaking, two significant goals: increases in housing  and preservation of the character of existing neighborhoods. Under present zoning, something on the order of 14,000 housing units are possible today. The proposal would increase that number to 16,000 — a very modest increase. The proposed zoning would be transformative of existing neighborhoods, however, to levels that would, in some parts of the city, make them unrecognizable to people living there now. This vision of dense future development seems completely at odds with the goal of preserving the character of neighborhoods and argues for a slower and more modest approach, growing out from the downtown, in order to assess results and make appropriate changes.

State law, which requires master plans to be redone every five years, supports an incremental approach. Zoning must be based on master plans. As plans are redone every five years, there is an opportunity to revise zoning. There is no reason in law or on the ground to attempt city-wide zoning revision when, for the most part, neighborhoods are happy with their settings and an incremental approach can achieve the same planning goals. Each successive plan should include an assessment and evaluation of progress under the preceding plan, with the possibility of amending zoning bylaws accordingly. There is no need to rezone the entire city now in a drastically transformative way.

It makes most sense to grow density and commercial development incrementally outward from the downtown, which would augment and strengthen the downtown.

A detailed section of Sease’s opinion has been omitted from the print version, but can be viewed in its entirety online at http://www.montpelierbridge.com )

In closing, I hope you will agree with me that zoning should be an incremental process and should proceed in concert with successive stages of the planning process. I feel that you should grow density and commercial activity from the city core, based on the principles of walkability, protection of neighborhood character and maintenance of the vitality of the downtown, while assessing and evaluating the effects of zoning changes periodically throughout the life of each successive plan.

Thanks for your attention, and thanks for all your hard work!

Steve Sease is a former member and chair, Montpelier Planning Commission, Former land use attorney and director of planning, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources

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