• Montpelier relaunches zoning rewrite effort with a plan
    By Amy Ash Nixon
     | April 16,2014

    MONTPELIER — Now that the city has brought in a consultant to fast-track the rewrite of its zoning ordinance, the Planning Commission and City Council will hold two joint sessions to be sure there is consensus on broad policy matters.

    The panels will meet April 28 and May 12 so that members of both bodies can contribute to discussions about issues that include parking, affordable housing, the possible increased density on city lots and more.

    At Monday’s Planning Commission meeting, consultant Brandy Saxton brought in the start of her work, a document in which she pulled information from the city master plan’s policies and the current zoning regulations, and offered alternative approaches in many areas. That document will also be the subject of the next meeting with the City Council.

    Saxton told the board her approach “will speed up the future process.” After the joint meetings, she said, “I’ll have some directions to head in and I’ll know what the issues are.”

    Assistant City Manager Jessie Baker said the intention of the joint discussions is not to reach final decisions with council approval.

    “The point of the next meeting and the meeting after that is to really have a conversation about how the new zoning is going to reflect the master plan and to give (Saxton) some guidance as she starts drafting what the new, edited language should look like,” Baker said.

    Kim Cheney, chairman of the Planning Commission, said the meetings and Saxton’s involvement with the zoning update “will assure the council that hard and thorough work is being done. We’re not in a position to make serious policy choices. They’re just going to have to let us take a shot at it.”

    Too, members noted, there is healthy debate within the commission on approaches to the city’s growth, infill housing, affordable housing and more. Member Tina Ruth said those discussions and points of view represent “very healthy” debate that she and others felt the council should be privy to.

    Saxton explained that she started with the city’s master plan “and walked straight through the plan,” pulling out the current regulations and offering alternative approaches.

    For example, the master plan envisions creating “incentives for development that may be less profitable but desirable.” The zoning regulations say the Development Review Board may encourage that by granting “density bonuses” — letting developers who create affordable housing put more units on a parcel than would otherwise be allowed.

    Saxton outlined a different approach: “Consider incentives other than a density bonus — parking reductions (less than current requirements per dwelling), ... fee reductions or waivers, etc.”

    The commission also heard concerns and suggestions from two staff members who work with the city’s zoning documents on a daily basis and who regularly field questions from the public on everything from solar installations in the downtown design district to treehouses and small structures on wheels.

    The commission received a five-page document from Dina Bookmyer-Baker, assistant zoning administrator, and Audra Brown, the planning and zoning assistant, with observations and recommendations about the current zoning ordinance. The document notes, “The ordinance is silent on treehouses. The planning department has received several inquiries about treehouses recently.” The two suggested that treehouses either be regulated or that the new ordinance state they are not regulated.

    Home occupations were also touched on, including people who work from home via computer but do not generate traffic or any issues that would need zoning approval. “We are seeing many home occupations that are strictly cyber, with no traffic, no employees, no extra space, etc.,” they indicated. “Does a use that requires only a computer and maybe a phone need to be permitted? The definition should be expanded. If a person has an office job but works from home half-time do they need a permit?”

    @Tagline:amy.nixon @timesargus.com

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