By Rebecca Davison, also signed by Les Blomberg, Chuck Daghlian, Dot Helling, and Andrea Stander
We are some of the community members participating in the appeal concerning the Montpelier Development Review Board’s (DRB) approval of the city’s application to build a municipal parking garage. This parking structure is supposed to serve a hotel and provide permit parking and some public parking. We are appealing a decision made by the city’s DRB that we believe did not meet the requirements of the city’s own zoning regulations. Let us be clear: we are not against a private landowner developing his or her own property.
We understand the chronology of the bond vote to be as follows: In The Bridge (July/August, 2018) City Manager Bill Fraser stated that the proposed Hampton Inn and Suites project had been given a permit for a 200-space parking garage, but “the overall project is not financially feasible if the developer builds both the hotel and the garage on their own.” The proposed public-private partnership would increase the size of the parking garage by an additional 148 spaces and would be paid for by a bond vote in the November 7 election. City Council discussions took place on August 22, September 12, and formal public hearings on September 26 and in October. The Development Review Board held two public hearings, one on October 29 and one November 5—two days before the election.
On November 7, 2019, a $10.5-million bond item was included on the general election ballot, and the vote was 2459 to 1877 in support of the bond article. At the time of the election, voters had had only about 2 and 1/2 months to consider the implications of this project, which will indebt the city for 30 years.
In the lead-up to the November public vote, a number of citizens realized that the DRB was possibly not abiding by the zoning regulations. At the November DRB meeting, a petition was circulated that met the requirements under Vermont State law that allow citizens to appeal a DRB decision should they believe that it is flawed.
On December 13, the DRB released its decision. We reviewed the decision and found it seriously defective. We hired a lawyer and 18 people agreed to be formal appellants in the legal appeal to the Vermont Superior Court’s Environmental Division. Here is a summary of the concerns submitted to the Court:
- Was conditional use approval required for a nonconforming use project? If so, no conditional use application was submitted to the DRB or subject to public notice.
- Does the project satisfy conditional use standards under the zoning ordinance regarding location, size, height, building bulk, yards, courts, setbacks, density of buildings, off-street parking, loading facilities, traffic, noise, lighting, landscaping, and screening?
- Does the project comply with the zoning ordinance requiring 30 feet of street frontage, setbacks, and a number of other considerations
- Does the project comply with ordinances that deal with pedestrian access, alternative transportation, street trees, parking lot landscaping, and screening?
Since the filing of the appeal, our group has met with the mayor, a council member, and members of the retail business community (including representatives of Montpelier Alive and the Montpelier Economic Development Corp.). We have been in steady communication with the city manager, and are now in confidential negotiations with the city and hotel developers.
The appellants are a diverse group of people with differing views on whether the hotel/garage project is a good idea for the city. We all agree, however, that how the city handled the development and permitting of this project was deeply flawed. If the city does not follow its own rules, how can it expect others to do so?
Montpelier’s Master Plan states the following:
“Our vision is to excel as a creative and sustainable community. More specifically, we seek to safeguard the natural environment and enhance our small-town setting.”
We believe the city’s process leading up to the November 7 bond vote did not live up to fulfilling this vision.
Unfortunately, this rushed and inadequate planning process has created a situation that has divided our community. We sincerely hope that whatever the outcome, the community can come together to support an economically and environmentally sustainable future.
Dot Helling is a former advertising representative of The Bridge. Ms Davison’s name was misspelled in the print version of this piece. We regret the error.