The Montpelier Planning Commission has recommended a zoning change that paves the way for a 50-plus-unit affordable housing development on Northfield Street last month. The recommendation comes as part of a long list of zoning changes, most related to housing density. After two lively public hearings in November and December, 2021, the commission recommended a compilation of 10 zoning changes to City Council.
Director of Planning Mike Miller agreed with all but one of the planning commission’s decisions. That decision changes the density requirements for “residential 1500” districts so the size and shape of a proposed building may be considered, rather than the number of residents. Miller outlined the suggested zoning changes in a 15-page draft memo to Montpelier City Council.
The 10 zoning changesmostly center on creating more opportunities for residential density in a small city facing a well-documented shortage of affordable housing. The changes must go before the city council for final approval.
In fact, one of the changes allows Central Vermont Habitat for Humanity to move forward on a potential 50-plus-unit affordable housing development on Northfield Street. Another allows Washington County Mental Health Services to explore plans to create both client housing and family housing on its Heaton Street property. Miller also referenced his reason for not agreeing with the planning commission on the recommendation to stop using density requirements for residential 1500 districts.
“I concur with the evaluation of CNU/AARP and our local architect that the city should first work to upgrade our design review rules in any area before we vote to remove residential densities,” Miller wrote.
The planning commission began considering the proposed amendments in October 2021, then held public hearings in November and December. Proposed amendments represent a compilation of zoning requests from property owners or abutting landowners that accrued over several months. Zoning changes as approved by the Planning Commission are outlined below:
Rezoning the Harrison/Whittier Streets Area
The first change came from a resident wanting a tiny house on their property in the Harrison/Whittier streets area, currently zoned as “residential 6000.” 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.
“The change would allow for a very modest amount of development potential on the streets that are not inconsistent with the abutting neighborhoods,” Miller said in his draft memo.
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,” also creating more density. While not fully supported by residents in the neighborhood, the Planning Commission said its decisions are based on what fits with city planning.
Affordable Housing on Northfield Street
The third zoning change would enable the Central Vermont Habitat for Humanity to move forward with plans for a 50-unit-plus, three-story affordable housing development on Northfield Street. The project is not allowed under current rural zoning and would need to be changed to “residential 9000” in order to proceed. This item by far generated the most comments at both public hearings. See the full story here.
A fourth proposal would change setback requirements in “residential 9000” districts from 15 feet to 10 feet. In his memo, Miller said “The setback in this district has come up a few times over the years when proposals came in and we agreed to look at it. There are no specific projects awaiting this change.”
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 go to five feet or even get removed.
“This change is being initiated by a developer looking to build another building and would like to have smaller setbacks where the property line abuts a rail line or abandoned line,” Miller wrote. “… The only comments were provided by the representative from the largest property owner in the neighborhood. She spoke in favor of the proposed change.”
New Planned Unit Development rules general PUDs and Footprint PUDs.
Miller explained that currently, “… if a developer wanted to cluster building lots to protect [sic] they would need to do a “Cottage Cluster (Planned Unit Development [PUD]),” New Neighborhood PUD,” or “Conservation PUD.” They could not, for instance, simply cluster the lots and sell them for development.”
Two new options show up with this change: general and footprint.
“In the General PUD, the property owner will own their home and parcel including most or all features of a standard parcel including private driveway, parking spaces, accessory structures, and private yards,” Miller wrote. “In the Footprint PUD, on the other hand, a person will own their home and small footprint of land but typically share most features of a standard parcel … this PUD will many times be associated with certain condominium associations.
Remove requirement for “New Neighborhood PUDs”
This change, Miller said, removes certain zoning requirements for developments of over 40 units over 10 years. It also removes a conservation requirement in the rural district for subdivisions of more than four parcels over 10 years.
Besides that it’s “difficult administratively to track units and parcels over time,” Miller wrote, also “the rules are not clear as to what rules apply to what properties.”
“The Director’s experience is that developers take the simplest path to approval. If Act 250 has a rule that projects up to 39 units are exempt then they will do 39 units to avoid the extra administrative lift and risk to their project. So even if a site could support 60 units, they will underdevelop the site to avoid triggering extra oversight. Especially in the case of New Neighborhood Developments, the City would not want to see developers under-develop their sites to avoid additional requirements and processes.”
Removal of residential density requirements from Riverfront and Res 1500 districts.
This zoning change generated concern from some residents at both public hearings, and is the only proposed change with which the Planning Commission and Miller disagree.
It calls for replacing identical density requirements from “riverfront” and “residential 1500” districts with “bulk and massing” criteria. In other words, the city looks at the size of buildings for zoning rather than the number of people housed in them.
Sandra Vitzhum, Montpelier resident and architect, vehemently disagreed with form-based codes at both public hearings. She said by not limiting density, infrastructure such as schools, water, sewer, and parking, can potentially see more use than it can handle. Vitzhum also pointed out that areas where no residential densities applied did not have design review. Miller said CNU and AARP independently came to the same conclusion.
Unlike the other amendments, which arose from resident requests, this one came from the planning commission, Miller said. Referring to Vitzhum, he also wrote that her assessment aligned with the city’s independent reviewers.
In an explanation of why he does not support the amendment, Miller wrote “I support the idea of removing residential densities in principle. I concur with the evaluation of CNU/AARP and our local architect that the city should first work to upgrade our design review rules in any area before we vote to remove residential densities.“
Minor technical fixes.
These amendments represent an array of changes that clarify language, fix typos, and address semantic errors such as separating “nature and recreation park” into two distinct categories. It also clarifies details about descriptions of signs and fences.
River Hazard Area Regulations
This section adds language that allows “accessory structures” provided they meet zoning requirements in river hazard areas. Miller wrote that it’s part of new rules adopted almost two years ago but not yet updated.
These changes will go before City Council for final approval, but they are not listed on the agenda for the Council’s next meeting on Feb. 9.