Home News and Features Council Adopts Nonconforming Elevation Amendment, Hears Alternatives for Rebuilding City Properties

Council Adopts Nonconforming Elevation Amendment, Hears Alternatives for Rebuilding City Properties

Cory Freshee, executive vice president of operations, left, and Mark Herbkersman, director of architecture — both with Stevens and Associates — present information to Montpelier City Council about rebuilding the fire station, police station and City Hall. ORCA screenshot.
Owners of nonconforming commercial buildings can no longer place residential spaces in ground-level areas where flooding is likely to happen. 

Montpelier City Council passed this interim amendment to the existing River Hazard Regulations during their meeting April 17. Planning Director Mike Miller said he called an emergency public hearing concerning the matter after his office received applications to turn the first-floor spaces of the former Uncommon Market and Hippie Chickpea into residential units. Both were flooded last summer and both are nonconforming commercial spaces. A loophole in the unamended regulations had allowed building owners to convert such spaces into living units.

Miller said 13 properties that experienced flooding on the main floors were seeking financial assistance to rebuild in such a way as to withstand future events. Twelve of those properties are applying for FEMA grants to elevate essential utilities, and one is a larger property seeking money directly from the Vermont Legislature. The cost to “elevate” most of the properties ranges between $140,000 and $200,000, Miller said, but the larger one would cost more.

Councilor Tim Heney said such regulations should be formed carefully. “I don’t think there were just 12-13 properties that had water on the main floors,” Heney said. He noted that some property owners dealt with the reconstruction problems without calling Miller’s office. “The burden is with individuals and not this big social burden that you are painting it as,” Heney continued.

However, Council Member Sal Alfano said the flooding caused problems for people he knows.  “I know people who lost their car and couldn’t get to work, and so lost their job, and so lost their housing,” Alfano said. He also was among the city officials working on tax abatement proceedings for flood damaged properties. He said if the city doesn’t allow residential spaces in new buildings, it should not be allowed in nonconforming commercial buildings. Alfano then moved to adopt the amendment as written: “The conversion of non-conforming, non-residential space to residential space is prohibited unless that residential space and all attendant utilities are in conformity with the same requirements as new and substantially improved residential structures in Section 804.A (of the river hazard regulations).

Renovating City Hall, Fire Station, and Police Station

Three executive members of the Brattleboro-based Stevens and Associates architecture and engineering firm presented architectural drawings and cost-related information on how to manage the flood-damaged fire station, City Hall and police station. Cory Freshee, executive vice president of operations, said his firm created a few options, ranging from a baseline plan to return the buildings to the way they were before the flood, to some completely new construction — especially in the case of the fire station.

The fire station could not be used at all during the flood, forcing staff, equipment and operations to be relocated to other buildings in the city, as Stevens’ Director of Architecture Mark Herbkersman noted. And, while the basement can be waterproofed, the station itself cannot be used during a similar flooding event. Herbkersman said an alternative would be to build a new fire station in the parking lot area behind the current building, where it stayed dry during the flood. The cost to repair the fire station without renovating would be around $430,000 while building a new building would cost about $1.5 million, according to company owner Bob Stevens.

As for City Hall, a few options are in play. One option is to simply return the spaces to their pre-flood conditions with no improvement to mitigate future damage from flooding. Another is to elevate all utilities to other parts of the building and find new places for the basement office functions within existing structures. For example, the Department of Public Works would need to stay at the Dog River Road location. A third option is to build a two-story addition to the existing building. Herbkersman said they could relocate utilities to the second floor, and even to the attic. 

Also, Herbkersman said the elevator could be returned to use at any time, but the City should consider replacing it, since it is past its “serviceable age.” Stevens said the costs for pre-flood-only repairs would be about $2 million, while the most expensive alternative that includes an addition would cost about $5 million, but with that option, the risk of flood damage in the future would be close to zero.

The police station had flood waters enter the building, but future flooding could be mitigated by installing adequate sump pumps at a cost of about $100,000.

According to Stevens, the costs would conceivably be fully borne by insurance and FEMA. “There may be little difference in the cost to Montpelier residents,” he said.

Council Member Lauren Hierl asked if they build a new fire station, could they also appropriate money to fix up the old fire station for offices? Stevens suggested it could be possible. And, Alfano noted the addition of public restrooms to the plan. City Manager Bill Fraser said this meeting was to get a feeling for what the City Council would want to do before moving forward. No action was taken.

Facilities and Energy Efficiency Goals

Chris Lumbra, sustainability and facilities coordinator, presented information on the status of the work his office is doing to meet its goals. Although some of the projects were delayed by the flood, Lumbra said the LED lighting conversion project is 34% complete. Efficiency Vermont gave the city $23,000 for LED bulbs for every fixture in every building, Lumbra said. This will result in a savings of almost a quarter of a million dollars. 

Also, in addition to the three EV chargers in the City Hall parking lot, Lumbra is working on installing two additional EV chargers. He said two DC fast chargers are on track to be installed at 12-16 Main Street near the pedestrian bridge. Due to supply chain issues, the installation may not be complete until October, Lumbra said.

Proclamation of Appreciation

Mayor Jack McCullough gave former City Council member Dona Bate a key to the city at the beginning of the City Council meeting April 17. He also gave her a framed proclamation of appreciation and her name plate, and spoke of what a good job she did as a councilor. Bate accepted the appreciation, and then spoke highly of the city staff members.

Other Matters

Assistant City Manager Kelly Murphy discussed the city’s strategic plan, Ben Doyle of the Montpelier Commission for Recovery and Resilience talked about watershed management and downtown emergency response, and Communications Coordinator Evelyn Prim talked about improving communications after the flood.

Also, liquor licenses were granted to Sodexo Operations LLC at National Life, Julio’s Cantina (inside and outside consumption), Positive Pie (inside and outside consumption), FGB Capitol Showplace Theater, Perry’s Service Station, and Sarducci’s (inside and outside consumption).