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Zoning Changes Focus on Housing Density

Pictured is a view of Montpelier from Cliff Street just below Hubbard Park. Photo by Carla Occaso.
Montpelier residents commented on 10 proposed zoning changes at a hearing Nov. 29. Most of the changes address Montpelier’s housing shortage by creating more population density. Changes range from increasing housing density in the Harrison, Whittier, Heaton, and Northfield Street neighborhoods to changing how the city approaches zoning in riverfront and high-density areas by basing zoning decisions on the size of buildings rather than the number of housing units.

Another hearing will be held Dec. 13, after which the planning commission will deliberate and vote on all 10 proposed changes. 

Before hearing comments, planning commission Chair Kirby Keeton said they will be “considering changes based on what the city plan says, and the vision we’ve had all along for zoning bylaws,” rather than basing a decision on the merits of any one project. He then listed each proposed change and opened the floor for comments from the public one item at a time.

  1. Rezoning the Harrison/Whittier Street Area
The first proposed change came from a resident wanting a tiny house on their property in the Harrison/Whittier Street area, currently zoned as “Residential 6000.” If approved, zoning will change to “Residential 3000.” The numerical designation refers to the number of square feet in the lot per unit — the lower the number, the higher the housing density. 

Joan Kahn opened up discussion saying she and her husband requested the change because they wanted to add a tiny house to their quarter-acre lot. She said she has spoken to neighbors about it, and “a lot of people felt it would have a positive impact on them as well if they ever wanted to change something in their home in a similar way.” 

Nobody spoke out against the change.

  1. Added Housing on Heaton Street
Washington County Mental Health requested a zoning change as it plans a housing project for clients. If enacted, two parcels on Heaton Street would change from Residential 6000 to Residential 3000, creating more density. A memo prepared by Planning Director, Mike Miller, addressed concerns that a field well-used by the elementary school might no longer be available. The memo states “A majority of the Heaton property, including Heaton field, is permanently conserved by an easement so regardless of zoning change, no development can occur in the area protected by the easement.” 

Keith Grier, director of the Washington County Mental Health Community Support Program, said the proposed zoning change “would allow us to put in family housing. What families need right now is family housing. We were looking at developing some houses there, keeping in mind the “vibe” of the neighborhood. It wasn’t originally all for staff, it really is for people served, for families.”

In a minor but telling snafu, one resident on the Zoom call had not muted their computer and could be heard repeating in a frustrated tone, “the vibe of the neighborhood!” The response indicated that some neighbors may not favor more housing in the neighborhood. 

Grier said his organization is planning a feasibility study about adding 22 units in four houses in a wooded lot adjacent to its parking lot.

  1. Affordable Housing on Northfield Street
The third zoning change would enable a 50-plus-unit, 3-story affordable housing development on Northfield Street. The project is not allowed under the current rural zoning and would need to be changed to Residential 9000 in order to proceed. This item by far generated the most comments of the evening. See the full story here.

  1. Smaller Setbacks
A fourth proposal would change setback requirements from 15 feet to 10 feet throughout the city. In his memo, Miller said most Montpelier properties are in compliance with existing setbacks, but a few are not. He explained that a 10-foot setback creates a 20-foot space between each building. The only comment about the proposal came from Joe Castellano, who wanted to know what prompted this proposed change.

Miller responded that since 2018, this issue has arisen on properties on Terrace, Northfield, Berlin and Main streets.

  1. Railway Setbacks in the Eastern Gateway
The fifth zoning change, limiting setbacks for rail lines in the “Eastern Gateway” neighborhood, near the John Deere dealership, refers to an abandoned rail line that currently requires a 20-foot setback. Neighbors have requested the setback changed to five feet or even removed. One person commented, Alicia Feiler, who said she represents one of the property owners in the neighborhood. She said the current 20-foot setback “is limiting our potential use.” 

  1. and 7. PUDs
The sixth and seventh zoning changes generated no comment. One proposed change generates new rules for Planned Unit Developments for “general PUDS and footprint PUDS” and also proposed “Removal of required PUD language in new neighborhood and conservation puds.”

8. “Bulk and Massing” Replace Residential 1500 Housing Density

The eighth zoning change generated concern from at least one resident: removing residential density requirements from Riverfront and Residential 1500 districts and instead using “bulk and massing” criteria. The effect of this change would mean the city looks at the size of buildings for zoning rather than the number of people housed in them.

“So whether you put four apartments or six apartments in a building is less important than what the size and shape of the building looks like,” Keeton said, adding that this proposed change came directly from the Planning Commission.

Miller added, “We’re going to look at how big of a structure you can build, rather than count the number of units. If you’ve got a certain size building, you can fit 16 studios or eight two-bedrooms; the impact on the neighborhood is virtually the same between the two. That is the reason some communities are shifting toward these form-based codes.”

Sandra Vitzhum, Montpelier resident and long-time architect, vehemently disagreed with form-based codes. While Vitzthum lauded the commission’s “noble intention” behind it, she cautioned that zoning based on building size, rather than housing density, can overtax infrastructure, and get abused by developers.

“Once it’s abused, that … transgression starts to become the norm,” Vitzthum said. “It only takes one or two other buildings on a street to significantly change what is considered the norm for that street. It plummets housing values.”

Vitzthum pointed to the example of a house at 10 Loomis Street, originally built for a family of seven, and now divided into 15 studio apartments. “Think about how much water and sewage that house uses,” she said, adding “… I don’t think Montpelier has the first clue how much water and sewage capacity we have.”

Vitzthum cautioned against making a significant zoning change without a “true, from-scratch” city plan in place, which she said hasn’t happened in 14 years.” … we have to think it through,” she said, “otherwise. … all of a sudden we don’t have enough infrastructure … that includes schools, budget for roads, plowing, maintenance, water, sewer … it seems unconscionable to me to start to go in this direction without a new master plan.”

9. “Minor Technical Fixes”

Item nine on the list of proposed zoning changes encompassed a long list of “minor technical fixes” that includes:

  • Splitting up the definition of “nature” and “recreational park.” 
  • Better define “accessory structures” when attached to a primary structure.
  • Clarification around when wetland permits require a hearing.
  • Minor edits to language in the “internally illuminated signs.” 
  • Updates to the “nonconforming signs” section in the city’s zoning regulations.
  • Fixing typos.
  • Clarifying the description of fencing.
  • Updating the description of shading to only apply to existing and permitted solar devices and to no longer be applicable to “walls, yards and roofs.”
Thomas Weiss asked the Commission to not change the language regarding solar access because, he said “it will restrict access to sunlight for both energy and for growing food … The proposed amendment no longer preserves the right to solar access.”

In fact, Weiss went on to say, “the proposed amendment removes the existing right of access to growing food and future passive (solar), … and future active solar systems.” He asked the Planning Commission to add in the right to grow food on one’s property as an amendment.

10. River Hazard Regulations

The tenth and final item on the long list of proposed zoning changes generated no comments. The proposed change would adopt interim river hazard area rules to make them more permanent and permit accessory structures as long as they meet existing requirements.

The Planning Commission will hold its second hearing about proposed zoning changes on Monday, Dec. 13 at 5:30 p.m. The meeting agenda calls for deliberating and acting on the changes at the end of the hearing. To see the agenda, go to https://www.montpelier-vt.org/129/Agendas-Minutes .