Planning board divides 4-3 over allowing residents to pull out of historic district; city council sets March 15 public hearing

The future of historic preservation in Burlington has become all the rage, in more ways than one, as the city’s elected leaders prepare to consider some contentious requests that two sets of property owners have filed to withdraw from the city’s primary historic district.

These pending requests, which call for the removal of four parcels from Burlington’s West Davis Street/Fountain Place District, are currently scheduled to go before Burlington’s city council on the evening of March 15.

The Allen Gant house, where Allen Gant, Jr. now resides, is one of the four homes whose owners are asking to be let out of the historic district along West Davis Street and Fountain Place.
In September 2021, Allen E. Gant, Jr. (far left) shepherded members of Burlington’s historic preservation commission across the grounds of one of the period homes he wants stricken from the city’s largest historic district.

The council ultimately chose the Ides for this fateful debate during a regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday – just one day after the city’s planning and zoning commission narrowly voted not to endorse the withdrawal applications to the city council.

Yet, the council’s overriding concern when it scheduled this hearing wasn’t so much the proposed defections themselves as a long-promised overhaul of the rules that govern everything from roof repairs to tree removal within the historic district.

The process that has led to the council’s forthcoming hearing ultimately began about nine months ago when the city’s planning department received applications from Emily and Patrick Robinson and Allen E. Gant, Jr. to redraw the bounds of the West Davis/Fountain Place District to exclude property they own along the 1000 block of West Davis Street.

By their own account, these would-be defectors have been motivated by a desire to escape the regulations and red tape that apply within the historic district. They’ve been especially forceful in their objections to a ream of architectural design standards that largely date back to the early ‘90s.

The requests of the prospective defectors have since gone before Burlington’s historic preservation commission – a quasi-judicial body that’s tasked with enforcing the district’s design standards. A month ago, the commission’s members unanimously recommended against the withdrawal applications based, in part, on a consultant’s report, which nevertheless predicted that the removal of the four parcels wouldn’t necessarily endanger the district’s integrity. The historic preservation commission was also guided by over 80 letters and emails from organizations and residents that unanimously opposed the removal requests.

This veritable mail sack of feedback had swelled to 139 missives by the time the withdrawal applications came before the city’s planning and zoning commission on Monday. Yet, this outpouring of negative sentiment seemed to only redouble the determination of the would-be defectors – as Emily Robinson acknowledged when she appeared before the planning commission.

“It has made us more committed to trying to get our amendment passed,” she conceded.

“People are writing in assaulting our character and misrepresenting our intentions about this application…I think for us it has highlighted a really toxic part of being within a district like this.”

Robinson and the other applicants also shrugged off a proposed effort to update the district’s design standards. According to the city’s planning staff, the consultant selected to oversee this rewrite has yet to begin work in earnest, although the new regulations are slated to be ready for the city council’s review by the middle of July.

This overhaul of the existing rules was ultimately a key factor in the historic preservation’s commission’s decision to recommend against the property owners’ requests. It also received considerable attention before the planning and zoning commission’s own 4-to-3 vote in opposition to the proposed defections. This same consideration has, therefore, not been lost on the council, which inquired about the proposed overhaul before it scheduled the upcoming hearing on the removal requests.

Jamie Lawson, the city’s principal planner, informed the council that the district’s existing rules are, indeed, in need of proposed revisions.

“The standards are really antiquated, and the [approval] process [for building modifications and repairs] is also something that we want to include in the rewrite,” Lawson acknowledged before the city council’s vote to schedule a hearing. “We’re expecting a pretty significant rewrite of the entire document.”

In response to Lawson’s admission, mayor Jim Butler commended the planning department for the strides it has already made in streamlining the district’s approval process.

“But 30-year-old standards are still 30-year-old standards,” he added before he and his colleagues unanimously voted to set March 15 as the date for a public hearing on the removal requests.

See earlier coverage of the requests to withdraw houses and lots from the historic district:

Breaking news: planning board splits 4-3 against allowing withdrawal from historic district:

Planning board to consider requests for withdrawal of four homes and lots in historic district along West Davis Street:

Historic preservation commission given tour of area where residents want to withdraw from city’s historic district: