Home News and Features Flood Shouldn’t Discourage Higher Housing Density, Commission Says

Flood Shouldn’t Discourage Higher Housing Density, Commission Says

Flood damaged debris outside residences on Elm Street in Montpelier after the July 10 flood devastated downtown homes and businesses. Photo by John Lazenby.
Floating oil tanks and freeze-dried zoning permits were among the topics that came up at a meeting of the Montpelier Planning Commission, which convened via Zoom on Monday, July 25, for the first time since June. (It did not meet July 10 while floodwaters were rising downtown.) 

Chair Kirby Keeton opened by ruefully sharing the news that his red car, parked on Main Street, was destroyed by the flood and that he had spotted it on Weather Channel footage. He has since upgraded his vehicle.

An early discussion centered on the zoning changes the group has proposed in the density cap, or limits on the number of housing units per lot. Raising those limits, which allows more residents to live in a given area, is one tactic for improving housing choice and walkability. In an Aug. 14 Zoom meeting, the commission will hear public feedback about its suggestions for relaxing density caps, including in the design review district — an area of town with strong design controls. 

Asked if the flood will change the commission’s thinking on its density recommendations, Planning Commission chair Kirby Keeton said the group hadn’t yet talked about it. But after a brief discussion, they concluded they didn’t expect it to. 

“I’m not sure where there could be a problem caused by having more people in these areas, as long as it’s being done the right way and it’s done smart, which we already have covered with the regulations we have,” Keeton said.

Downtown, including some areas hard-hit by the flood, already lacks density caps. So the proposed change to the design review district would affect specific circumscribed areas outside downtown.

Under that change, City Planning Director Mike Miller predicted many projects would involve infill, such as subdividing existing homes built when families and households were bigger. 

These projects would be subject to flood hazard rules, he said, which “having helped write [them], I think we have very good rules there. They do a good job of protecting buildings from floods.”

Keeton had similar expectations. “If we remove density caps, it’s most likely going to lead to someone taking a big building and renovating, and putting more units in,” he said. 

“Maybe previously they were being grandfathered and they didn’t necessarily comply with all of our flood mitigation regulations, but now they would. So it could actually lead to more flood resiliency,” he said.

The commission discussed how else the city can prepare for the next flood.

“[We need to] do a better job of elevating buildings and incrementally making ourselves better and more flood resilient,” Miller said. “That’s probably the most appropriate thing to do at this point. We have some fairly aggressive regulations right now.” 

These can be found in the 2021 Local Hazard Mitigation Plan and the 2022 River Hazard Area Regulations.

Elevating one’s house, filling in basements, and moving furnaces and electrical panels out of basements are among the steps people can take to boost their flood resiliency, Miller said. While the requirement to move utilities onto the first floor might mean the loss of some commercial or residential space, loans are available to help cover costs. Hooking into district heat is another option.

With two tales of ill-fated items in basements, he underscored the point. His own office in City Hall received 41 inches of water. While his computer and furnishings were losses, sodden files full of zoning permits were sent away to be freeze-dried, irradiated, and returned for scanning into digital files. “I didn’t even know you could do that,” he remarked.

In addition, Miller told the Commission that many oil tanks downtown broke loose during the flood, some of which floated up and crashed into high-pressure water lines. “We had just these fountains of water pouring into basements on top of the floodwater,” he said.

There is not a lot Montpelier can do to prevent future floods, according to Miller. 

“Some communities have a lot of opportunities to go through and conserve more land and leave it as open space. We already have a lot of it conserved,” he said. 

With Wrightsville dam, East Barre dam, and the Marshfield dam built in the 1930s, he said, “mostly everything we can do, we did do, and it basically saved us about 6 or 7 feet of floodwater, because we had basically a 1927 flood two weeks ago,” he said. 

“A lot of it is going to come down to these [regulations] and making buildings more resilient going forward,” he added.

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