Home Commentary Premature Use of New Zoning in Montpelier: Planning Commission is Not Planning

Premature Use of New Zoning in Montpelier: Planning Commission is Not Planning

Photo of four story building with snow bank in front.
An example of high-density reconstruction on Cedar Street in Montpelier. Photo by Sandy Vitzthum.
The Montpelier Planning Commission has recommended 11 changes to the city’s zoning regulations. The city council begins consideration March 23. One change stands out: dropping density limitations in key downtown residential areas, the “Riverfront” and “R-1500” districts.

I believe the Planning Commission has gotten ahead of themselves: in an effort to achieve affordable housing (a worthy goal), they have applied a new planning concept haphazardly to an ordinance that already lacks coherence. While the change is miniscule in print, it could have terrible consequences for our vulnerable neighborhoods. 

Recently, a think tank for livable city planning, the Congress for New Urbanism, reviewed Montpelier’s zoning ordinance and specifically cautioned us against making this change before aligning our masterplan and zoning regulations … in other words, top-down recalibration is needed to address 21st century issues. 

In addition, Montpelier’s Planning Director Mike Miller advised against this change. The Planning Commission’s only design professional, Barbara Conrey, resigned in protest over this issue.

Residential density, expressed as dwellings per square feet of parcel size, is typically regulated to manage demand on natural resources, public services, and parking space. For the two districts in question, one dwelling is allowed per 1,500 square feet of land, plus an accessory dwelling is allowed.

The Planning Commission intends to eliminate density requirements throughout the city, starting with these two districts, which include all or part of these streets: Loomis, St. Paul, Liberty, Brown, Jay, upper Main, North, Franklin, North Franklin, Cross, Scribner, and Mechanic, Hubbard, Nelson, Wilder, and Monsignor Crosby, Barre, and Berlin.

Deregulating density may sound great and even essential in the current housing crunch. The change, however, has unforeseen consequences that should at least be examined at the larger level of master planning before they are unleashed. 

Consider an example: a 1,500 square-foot, two-story, single-family home on a quarter-acre property. Owners can already carve out an apartment and build a tiny house out back. Let’s say that any combination will yield $2,500/month if entirely rented. 

Under the proposed zoning changes without any special review, a developer can raze the structure and build a three-story box with a 2,500 square-foot footprint yielding seven one-bedroom units, or about $10,500/month income. This is already a huge impact on a humble neighborhood. With no density requirement, the same buildout could easily yield 15 small one-bedroom units, or about $18,000/month income.

It is important to further note that R-1500 no longer has parking space requirements. This example could add 14 or more cars to a small street with even/odd or no overnight parking in winter.

I asked the Planning Commission what would be the impact on Montpelier’s water, sewer, emergency services, schools, and road maintenance. Their responses ranged from “we doubt people will actually do this” to “many services are at about half capacity.” But there has been no comprehensive assessment of our services, as is required by Vermont statute as part of our master plan for over a decade. 

It is shortsighted to eliminate regulation with a hope developers will not do that simple math. In reality, dense build-outs are already happening. An historic building on Cedar Street was razed to construct six apartments on top of a parking garage. Neighbors now have to deal with additional cars on a tiny street, fluorescent lights emanating from the garage, and a new lack of privacy. Everyone who walks Cedar Street has to look at the eyesore. 

Regarding historic preservation, I have purposely minimized the question of aesthetics. Existing buildings are certainly important, not only for culture and property values but also for embodied energy. Some now say those considerations are far less important than the need for affordable housing. 

Regardless how one prioritizes, the zoning tool of a design review district can help slow demolition of “less efficient” structures. Most of R-1500 is not in the design review district despite being predominantly historic. If this measure passes, at the very least the remainder of these districts should be added to the district in accordance with one of the recommendations from the Congress for New Urbanism.

Young people I talk to aim for home ownership, not tenancy. Do we really want to reduce one- and two-family properties in Montpelier for large apartment buildings? Will this sacrifice truly make a difference in Vermont’s housing crisis?

Last, the amendment process for this change has been deeply flawed. Characterized as “minor” and “experimental,” there has been near-zero input from the community because most people don’t even know about it. As a landowner, I got minimal notice. District tenants were not even notified. By the time citizen input was invited, our comments were limited to two minutes and seemed confrontational.

In such a sequestered process for amending our ordinance, we must rely on Planning Commission members themselves, yet not a single planning commissioner is a professional architect or planner. While their proposal pretends to be based on sound professional logic, they chose to override their (professional) director and the Congress for New Urbanism. In their memo to the city council, they fail to recognize harms or even to calculate outcomes. In other words, they are not planning.