After an outcry from residents at a hearing March 23, the Montpelier City Council removed a contentious item within a long list of proposed zoning changes. Most speakers at the hearing agreed that Montpelier’s zoning bylaws should allow for more housing. How that happens generated significant debate. In the end, the Council opted to quash “Item 8” which called for removing density limits in zoning districts. It also adopted two other zoning changes.
The Planning Commission sent 11 zoning changes to the council in February, most of which make it much easier to develop housing in existing neighborhoods. After removing one item on the list, and adopting two there remain eight more, which are slated for a second hearing on April 13.
Councilors approved a change that paves the way for a potential Central Vermont Habitat for Humanity affordable housing development on Northfield Street. The approved change shifts two parcels on the east side of the street from a “rural” designation to “Residential-9000,” a designation that allows CVHH to move forward with a feasibility study for developing more than 50 housing units across the street from the Econo Lodge.
Also approved at the hearing is “Item #7” – which removes “the requirement to use New Neighborhood Development PUD for projects greater than 40 units or dwelling units over a period of ten years (on certain parcels in certain districts),” according to a memo from Planning Director Mike Miller. Item #7 also removes “the requirement to use Conservation PUD in the rural district if there is a subdivision of more than 4 parcels over a ten year period.
The most debated proposal, “Item #8,” – the one the Council chose to reject – called for ending density limits in Residential-1500 and Riverfront districts. Those include all or part of: Loomis, St. Paul, Liberty, Brown, Jay, Upper Main, North, Franklin, North Franklin, Cross, Scribner, Mechanic, Hubbard, Nelson, Wilder, Monsignor Crosby, Barre, and Berlin Streets. Removing density limits means losing the cap on how many housing units can be built within a specified amount of space.
Proponents say this is the future of city planning, but opponents say it could destroy the fabric of Montpelier’s neighborhoods and invite developers to tear down existing housing to build multi-story buildings packed with tiny apartments.
Planning commissioners recommended removing density caps despite the fact that Montpelier’s Planning Director Mike Miller did not. Miller said he agrees with the commission on the concept, but he’d like to see more design standards in place first.
“The planning profession is moving away from density as a guideline for zoning, as it is arbitrary and can have unforeseen outcomes,” Miller told the city council. He said Montpelier’s zoning bylaws were recently reviewed by both the AARP and a planning think tank called the “Congress of New Urbanism.” Both groups said zoning without density limits “is a good idea, but that we need better design standards.”
Miller added that “moving away from density requirements is a good idea. I agree with that. The question is whether or not we have the design standards in place today that would prevent bad things from happening.”
And those potential bad things are exactly what concerned those who spoke up at the meeting. All who spoke acknowledged the need for more housing — especially affordable housing — but they also decried doing it in a way that could threaten the character of Montpelier’s neighborhoods.
“I’ve lived on Saint Paul Street since 1986 or so,” wrote John Peterson in an email to District 3 Councilor Carey Brown. “I would hate to see our unique neighborhood become transformed by tearing down any of the existing homes and have them replaced by multi-level structures. In addition, parking on these small streets is difficult enough with the current number of residents, so I can’t imagine how all those extra vehicles could possibly be accommodated.”
Sue Walbridge, a resident of Monsignor Crosby Avenue “for 67 of my 69 years” said she thought the zoning change would “destroy the city.” Walbridge expressed a concern that removing density requirements could mean “They can come in and take my house down and put up some monstrosity — some three story, flat-roofed thing.”
“Us natives, nobody asks us about these things … What this planning commission is doing is like a cancer to Montpelier. It’s invading Montpelier slowly and chewing it up and changing its whole way and why people are here.”
A letter submitted to the city council, signed by 27 residents, stated, “We take strong issue with the Planning Commission’s statements regarding Item #8, ‘Removal of residential density requirements from Riverfront and Res 1500 districts,’ and we urge you to reject this amendment.”
The letter went on to say that the Congress on New Urbanism (CNU) specifically recommended three changes occur simultaneously to Montpelier’s zoning ordinance:
— Encourage a moderate increase in residential density in certain areas.
— Adopt design standards for additional residential units.
— Clarify processes for incrementally adding residential units.
“In plain language: without compensatory adjustments,” the letter states, “just removing density limits will encourage tear-downs and large apartment building construction.”
Barbara Conrey, an award-winning architect and professor of sustainable design at Vermont Technical College, served on the planning commission until she resigned over this issue last October. Conrey also serves as chair of the board for the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition. Conrey said removing density limits without adopting the other recommendations from the CNU “is going to remove our historic fabric, even for the buildings that are not in the historic district.”
“I urge you to turn this down … and take a stronger look at what we can do to maximize the use of our existing buildings … and the potential for infill between existing buildings so we can really retain the character of our [neighborhoods],” she said.
Kirby Keeton, chair of the Planning Commission, said planning experts around the country are moving away from density caps. He pointed out that this proposal calls for removal of density caps in just two neighborhoods (Residential-1500, and Riverfront).
“Density is a regulation of how many people can live in your neighborhood,” Keeton said. “Our values are we want people, we want lots of people. … The density caps only regulate something that goes against our values.”
He added that, “As far as how our neighborhoods look, we also have a lot of other zoning bylaws that regulate how things work other than design review. That’s not necessarily the answer. … Density has never ever been designed to regulate [how neighborhoods look]; it’s designed to regulate how many people live there.”
The city council is holding another hearing about the 11 proposed zoning changes on Wednesday, April 13 at 6:30 p.m.
“They could vote that night or they could decide to have more hearings,” Miller said in an email to The Bridge after the hearing. “They could also vote to add items not in the proposal but that would require sending it to the planning commission for comment before voting at a future meeting. They could also strike sections as they did at the last meeting. They have a lot of flexibility.”
Miller added that in 2017 the city council held more than 20 hearings about certain planning commission proposals before making a decision.