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City Leadership Forgoes Salary Hikes

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Man stands at table in front of city councilors seated around a U-shaped podium.
Planning Director Mike Miller addresses Montpelier’s City Council during its Feb. 28, 2024 meeting. Screenshot from ORCA Media.
Montpelier department heads saved $50,000 in the wake of a brutal budget year by forgoing their own annual cost-of-living pay increases, including for City Manager Bill Fraser. The City Council accepted an amendment to Fraser’s most recent contract during its Feb. 28 meeting to reflect the loss of his usual annual raise. 

Without this amendment to his contract (effective March 1, 2022 through March 1, 2026), Fraser would have gotten a pay increase ranging between 2% and 8% each year depending on the consumer price index (CPI). The CPI is the average cost of prices paid for a market basket of goods over time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The city manager’s contract includes an increase each year because of annual CPI increases. 

But this year, his contract was amended to forgo that raise. “The city manager and directors of all departments have agreed to not take the increases that they would be entitled to,” said Mayor Jack McCullough, adding that the combined sacrifices of CPI raises adds up to around $50,000. Council member Cary Brown pointed out that this was not something the Council asked for, but rather something department heads brought to them as a way to save money.

Farmers Market

City Council also agreed to sign on to a letter from the mayor and Council members asking the Vermont Agency of Buildings and General Services to allow the farmers market to continue to operate at 133 State Street next to the tax building. This came at the request of John Snell, who said he found out on Feb. 26 the agency withdrew permission to operate the market at that location for reasons related to oil deliveries on Saturdays, a generator and an electrical box. Instead, the agency asked for the market to either return to Vermont College of Fine Arts campus or relocate to another vacant parking lot (such as Taylor Street). Snell said the college campus had disadvantages relating to the ability of farmers being able to load in and out. Additionally, not as many tourists came to the more out of the way location, Snell said. This resulted in losses of half a million dollars. And the problem with the Taylor Street location, according to Snell, is that it is “windy, dusty, and full of potholes.”

McCullough agreed to send a letter to Ed Pembroke, director of the Agency of Buildings and General Services, requesting the continued use of 133 State and other councilors agreed to sign it.

Audit Report

No action was needed nor taken following an audit report presented by Finance Director Sarah LaCroix. The financial statement presentation, prepared by RHR Smith and Company, showed a fund balance of $1.8 million, with much of it restricted for particular uses. Expenditures exceeded revenues in fiscal year 2023. Of the expenditures, 45% was spent on public safety, 22% on general government and 19% on public works. Of the revenues, 75% came from taxes, with the next largest income coming from fees for service and then grants, LaCroix said.

Zoning Changes

City Council continued ongoing talks about changes to the city’s zoning regulations. Montpelier Planning Director Mike Miller addressed the Council, and explained his presence represented the second of two public hearings regarding proposed zoning regulation changes. The thrust of the changes is to allow increased density in some areas, such as allowing building lots to increase living spaces from four units to six units in certain downtown areas. Additionally, they hope to unify development regulations and address river hazard regulations. More hearings may be held at the request of the City Council, Miller said.

One big change is to call the Country Club Road property its own district and draft unique regulations within its bounds to allow for housing development there. City Councilor Tim Heney objected to creating specific regulations for the Country Club Road property without also applying the same regulations to surrounding similar properties. “It feels like we are just zoning this piece because it is our piece. But really if we are looking at creating housing and zoning that is good for the community, it seems like there are pieces nearby that are big that are also in Montpelier that we could look to create housing on. Why aren’t we looking at the zoning or zone to get it right?” Heney said. Heney said to create this one isolated zoning area “feels like bad government.” 

And, after continued discussion — and clarifying to approve any amendments was not the same as adopting regulations — the Council approved the following draft changes: To amend the use table regarding water supply and sewer related facilities and greenhouses and to remove the nonconforming requirements from 3002, to expand density exemption from four to six, and to draft new solar protection requirements with a policy of protecting existing solar devices (also to adjust the solar analysis time frame from December 21 to between March and September at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.). They also agreed to amend the sign rule by adding a waiver provision regarding freestanding sign height and to add stormwater considerations.

 Heney asked to amend the motion to accept proposed amendments by adding a provision to study expanding urban residential zoning applied to the Country Club Road properties to other adjacent properties. His amendment was seconded and approved by voice vote. The next meeting to discuss zoning issues is scheduled for March 13.

Rights to Sunshine

The conversation turned to solar shade issues once it became clear the degree to which the Council is trying to spur housing development. One example: What if someone raises their house by a story to create a sixplex, and that blocks the sun from their neighbor’s house who just installed a rooftop solar system? Miller said there are currently no rights to the sun in the zoning regulations, and in fact, there are no rights to the sun in general United States law. Miller alluded to the “ancient lights” theory of law, and how it had been consistently shot down during the building of skyscrapers in New York City.

The Ancient Lights theory is applied as common law in England, according to an article by Howard Davis in the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 132 in 1989. The law protects a property owner’s access to daylight if the window has been in place for at least 20 years. It does not protect rights to a view or to sunlight, but only to daylight. Davis gathered his information by reading 160 legal cases on rights to light argued in British court between the 18th and early 20th centuries. Davis said the U.S. adopted the law following 1776, but ended it in 1838 in a New York case because the law infringes on economic expansion and private property rights (Davis p. 144).

Regarding Montpelier’s future development, the new zoning proposal eliminates any solar access language it had previously. But also, in previous zoning regulations, shading would have been measured on Dec. 21 — the darkest day of the year, according to City Councilor Sal Alfano. It had been in the regulations to “protect and incentivize people to use solar energy,” Alfano said. Alfano further said if solar regulations are put back in, the testing time should be between April 21 and Sept. 21 when there is more light. “If there is potential for solar, there at least has to be protection around it,” he said. Several councilors agreed some regulation protecting solar devices should be included in new zoning regulations.

Exemptions

A proposal to eliminate exemptions from permit fees caused a split vote toward the end of the meeting. Eliminating exemptions was conceived as a possible way to increase some revenue into city coffers, Miller said. Permits and fees are one of the ways the City makes money. The three exemptions they discussed were for sprinkler systems, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance construction (such as ramps or elevators), and energy efficiency measures. City councilors discussed the matter, with some saying removing the exemptions would remove incentives for such construction. However, in the end, the issue ended in a tie vote broken by the mayor. Councilors Dona Bate, Sal Alfano, and Pelin Kahn voted “yes” to eliminate all exemptions while Cary Brown, Tim Heney and Lauren Hierl voted “no.” McCullough voted “yes” to break the tie.

Meeting Schedule Change

And finally, before last words and adjournment, the Council voted to change its meeting dates in April to April 3 and April 17, so as not to conflict with another meeting and the schools’ April vacation.

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