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Burlington planning board delays decision on changes to city’s historic districts

An effort to fast track some new regulations for Burlington’s two main historic districts became bogged down this week as the proposed changes came up for review before the city’s planning and zoning commission.

The planning commission ultimately opted to postpone its assessment of this regulatory overhaul after its members received a cursory report on the potential new rules at their latest regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday.

A majority of the commission was eager to let everything stew for at least another month due to sheer breadth of the 200-page proposal – which didn’t even include a couple of last minute additions that the city’s planning director mentioned to the group’s members.

Yet, the commission’s insistence on having the time to properly digest these provisions could put a wrinkle into the city’s plans to expedite the proposed regulations before the city council revisits a contentious request to let two sets of property owners defect from Burlington’s West Davis Street/Fountain Place historic district.

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At the moment, the city council is scheduled to hold a vote on August 16 to determine whether the bounds of this historic district should be adjusted to exclude four lots along the 1000 block of West Davis Street that belong to Emily and Patrick Robinson and to local industrialist Allen E. Gant, Jr.

These property owners originally sought to secede from the district in the spring of 2021 due to concerns over the obsolescence and impractically of the design standards that apply to this area as well as another historic district near Glencoe Mill. Gant and the Robinsons also raised objections to the cumbersome review process that the district’s property owners must go through to make changes even as modest as replacing leaky roofs or removing unhealthy trees.

The proposed defections of Grant and the Robinsons didn’t go over entirely well with most of the other homeowners in the West Davis Street/Fountain Place district. By the time that their requests reached Burlington’s city council in March, city officials had received hundreds of letters and emails decrying the bids of these homeowners to secede. In the meantime, a deep sense of animosity grew up between the would-be defectors and their neighbors that drew some strong words from Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler when the matter came before the council in March.

The council eventually decided to put off its decision on the proposed boundary change in order to give the city’s planning department an opportunity to revise the design standards, which hadn’t been updated in roughly three decades. The city had nevertheless obtained a state grant to conduct this overhaul, and by the time that the defection requests reached the council on March 15, the planning department had already selected a consultant to oversee upgrades.

During the council’s initial debate about the defections, the planning department’s staff assured its members that a new set of design standards should be ready for them to review and approve by mid-July. With this ambitious timeline in mind, the council agreed to postpone the matter until August in order to give the new design standards enough time to germinate.

The planning department didn’t officially kick off its overhaul of the rules until April 12. From there, though, the rewrite progressed at a rather brisk clip. Under the guidance of the hired consultants, the city’s planning staff bandied around potential improvements with a 15-member steering committee, which included some of the would-be defectors in addition to others involved in the preservation of Burlington’s history. This core group eventually sent a package of proposed upgrades to Burlington’s Historic Properties Commission, an advisory board appointed by Burlington’s city council that’s tasked with enforcing the district’s design standards. The commission, in turn, suggested some tweaks of its own before it gave the proposed revisions its blessing during a special meeting on June 8.

The results of this two-month makeover were ultimately presented to the planning commission at its latest regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday. During these proceedings, which took place online due to renovations at Burlington’s city hall, the planning commission’s members received an overview of the proposed standards from the project’s consultants Phil Walker and Keith Covington.

In his report to the commission, Walker laid out three objectives that he said the proposed overhaul is meant to achieve. These goals include the modernization of the design standards and the development of clearer, more reader-friendly ways to present them to the general public.

Walker also touched on a third objective of streamlining the approval process for repairs, renovations, and other upgrades to homes in the district. In order to make the process less taxing on the property owner, the proposed rules distinguish between major improvements, which need an all-clear from the Historic Properties Commission, and minor work, which can be approved administratively by the city’s planning staff. The rules also establish a third category of routine maintenance, which won’t require any special approval.

In addition to Walker’s broad overview of the proposed changes, Jamie Lawson, the city’s planning director, mentioned some specific suggestions pertaining to the administration and oversight of the design standards. Among other things, Lawson said that the proposed draft calls for annual updates of the new rules. It also contains provisions for the expedited approval of building improvements in emergency situations, and it proposes a new staff member within the planning department to administer these regulations.

These prospective revisions went on to receive an enthusiastic endorsement from Ryan Kirk, a member of the planning commission who has served as the group’s eyes and ears during the rewrite.

“I was very impressed with this process,” Kirk told the rest of the commission on Monday. “I think Phil [Walker] and Keith [Covington] worked well to orchestrate the process…and they worked very hard to reduce some of the bureaucracy.”

The overhaul of the rules also drew a vote of confidence from Burlington’s former mayor Ian Baltutis, who is also a resident of the West Davis Street historic district.

“I’m really happy with the document as it stands,” Baltutis said as he joined the discussion over the Zoom teleconferencing platform. “I appreciate the way it mirrors other city documents with charts and photos that make it more digestible…and it reads very easily to guide people’s thought processes.”

The proposed changes got a more measured endorsement from Tom Cowen, a resident of the Glencoe historic district, who questioned some of the things that the draft designates as minor work.

Meanwhile, the commission heard an even more skeptical take on the rules from Allen Gant, Jr., who owns two stately manors on Davis Street that are among the properties slated for potential removal from the historic district.

Gant proceeded to raise several concerns that may or may not be adequately addressed by the recommended revisions.

“One issue that we tried to address is what happens to a property that has been neglected,” he told the commission’s members. “The city needs a very quick way to assess a condemned building and not have to go through the rigmarole of the historic process…and in terms of landscaping, I think we should make it much, much looser than it currently is.”

Gant went on to concede that the overhaul process has made some real improvements to the district’s design standards. He nevertheless urged the commission to postpone its vote on the document in light of certain provisions that he said “cross the threshold into violating private property rights.” Gant also expressed his dismay that the presentation to the commission had been squeezed into a mere 30 minutes – which he deemed overly brief given the volume of information involved.

Gant’s suggestion to postpone the matter was later echoed by the commission’s chairman Richard Parker. Other members of the commission were more inclined to proceed with the vote. Member Lee Roane even pointed to the proposed annual updates as a way to tie off any loose ends that may remain in the wake of an immediate decision.

“I’d like a little more time,” Roane went on to acknowledge. “But we’re basically spinning our wheels if we get too deep into this mud.”

Roane’s mood nevertheless changed when Lawson observed that the city’s planning staff has just received two more recommendations that weren’t submitted in time to appear in the draft that was presented to the commission.

Although Lawson added that these late additions have already passed muster with the planning staff, their omission from the available materials was enough to persuade Roane, Parker, and Kirk to vote for a month-long delay – along with fellow commission members James Kirkpatrick and Ethan Raynor. The commission’s vice chairman John Black and Joan Zec Nelson voted against the delay, which passed by a margin of 5-to-2.

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