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Planning board recommends overhaul of historic design standards to city council

Burlington’s planning and zoning commission has given its unanimous nod to a proposed overhaul of the architectural standards for the city’s two primary historic districts.

The commission voted 7-to-0 in favor of these prospective provisions during a special-called meeting on Monday – clearing the way for these proposals to go before Burlington’s city council later this month. Should the council go on to adopt the revisions, it would mark the first substantial change in more than two decades to special zoning restrictions that govern Burlington’s Glencoe Mill Village and the equally-storied neighborhood centered on Fountain Place and West Davis Street.

The commission’s enthusiastic endorsement comes barely two weeks since its members took their first crack at the proposed regulations during their latest regular meeting in June.

At the time, the members of this appointed advisory board were unable to reach a consensus about the changes due, in part, to the sheer breadth of the 200-plus page proposal.

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Another sticking point concerned some additional suggestions from the city’s historic preservation commission, an appointed, quasi-judicial body that enforces the architectural standards within the aforementioned districts. Meanwhile, a number of late-coming changes and various textual wrinkles cemented the planning commission’s decision to put off its final vote on the proposal.

“There were some loose ends that were caught at the last meeting, and I think that it’s much clearer. I’m very much supportive of moving this forward…and I hope that this [will be] a living document that we don’t wait 20 years, like with the last version, [to update].”

– Planning and zoning commission member Ryan Kirk

The planning commission’s misgivings were more or less put to rest by the time that its members wrapped up their special-called meeting on Monday. The group’s prevailing mood was aptly summed up by commission member Ryan Kirk, who had also served as a liaison to an advisory committee that had helped the city’s planning staff shape the proposed regulations.

“There were some loose ends that were caught at the last meeting, and I think that it’s much clearer,” Kirk told his colleagues during Monday’s proceedings, which took place online due to ongoing renovations at Burlington’s city hall. “I’m very much supportive of moving this forward…and I hope that this [will be] a living document that we don’t wait 20 years, like with the last version, [to update].”

 

Planning board trying to meet city council’s timeframe for review

The planning commission ultimately had conducted this special-called meeting in order to meet the city council’s rather tight timetable for the overhaul of the architectural standards.

The council had previously announced that it would hold an initial review of the rules on July 19 followed by a formal public hearing in August. This hearing is, in turn, a prerequisite for the adoption of the new regulations, which the council hopes to dispense with before it revisits a contentious proposal to allow a whole block of West Davis Street to defect from the city’s primary historic district.

The council initially confronted this secession movement in March when it took up requests from textile magnate Allen E. Gant, Jr. and neighboring homeowners Emily and Patrick Robinson to remove four parcels they own from the West Davis Street/Fountain Place district.

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.

Exasperated by the city’s 30-year-old design standards and its cumbersome review process, these property owners had originally lodged their requests to withdraw from the district nearly a year earlier. In the meantime, however, their intended defection raised the hackles of many of the district’s other residents, who bombarded the city officials with letters and emails in opposition to the neighborhood’s proposed diminution.

This reaction eventually grew so hostile that Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler felt the need to admonish the anti-secessionists when the matter came before the council in March. Even so, the mayor and his colleagues also seemed to have some reservations about whittling down the historic district before exploring other possible ways out of the impasse.

In the midst of this brouhaha, the city’s planning staff had begun to lay the foundation for a proposed overhaul of the design standards for Burlington’s historic districts. Thanks to a $22,000 grant from the state, the planning staff was able to retain a consultant to assist with the venture, and the council agreed to postpone its vote on the defections in order to give the proposed overhaul time to proceed. The city’s leaders nevertheless set an ambitious schedule for this rewrite, which they demanded before their anticipated return to the defection requests in the third week of August.

Despite a somewhat halting start to the project, the overhaul of the design standards has proceeded at a reasonably brisk clip. By the time that it reached the planning commission in June, this effort had produced a ream of updated design standards that Philip Walker, the lead consultant on the project, hailed as both user friendly and in tune with the latest technological advances.

Meanwhile, the city’s planning staff had proffered some recommendations of its own to streamline the review process for renovations and other improvements within the historic districts. According to Jamie Lawson, the city’s planning director, these proposed rules distinguish between major work, which would require an all-clear from the historic preservation commission, and minor improvements that the planning staff could approve administratively. Lawson also alluded to a third category of routine maintenance that wouldn’t require any approval at all from the city.

In addition to these procedural suggestions, the planning staff has proposed several other suggestions, such as an annual reassessment of the design standards and the designation of someone within the planning department to enforce the provisions.

 

Input from city’s Historic Preservation Commission – and its vice chairman

This raft of revisions ultimately came to the planning commission with endorsements from both the planning staff and the historic preservation commission. Even so, the historic preservation commission had taken issue with a number of the staff’s suggested changes to the review process – changes that weren’t entirely clear to the planning commission when it first discussed the matter in June.

Lawson tried to elucidate some of the key differences during Monday’s special-called meeting. She stressed that, in each instance, the historic preservation commission suggested a different level of review from those she and her colleagues proposed for certain kinds of improvements.

Lawson recalled that the historic preservation commission demanded administrative approval for repairs to non-historic accessory buildings that the city’s planning staff had filed under routine maintenance. The historic properties commission also wanted to retain oversight over new windows and doors that aren’t visible from the street – changes that the staff had deemed sufficiently minor to warrant administrative approval.

The planning commission was ultimately spared the Sophie’s choice of having to pick between the city’s planning staff and the historic preservation commission thanks to some timely input from this quasi-judicial body’s second in command.

   “I would just like to voice my support for moving forward with these staff recommendations. When and if we encounter problems with any of these items, we have the ability to go back and revise these standards. So, I would be in favor of just moving forward with this.”

– Historic preservation commission vice chairman Brian Pennington

During Monday’s online proceedings, Brian Pennington, the vice chairman of the historic preservation commission, was invited to clarify the group’s departures from the planning staff’s recommendations. But rather than defend those recommendations, Pennington deferred to the staff’s less demanding suggestions in the interest of moving the process along.

“I would just like to voice my support for moving forward with these staff recommendations,” he told the city’s planning commission. “When and if we encounter problems with any of these items, we have the ability to go back and revise these standards. So, I would be in favor of just moving forward with this.”

In the meantime, Lawson addressed some of the other loose ends that had puzzled some of the planning commission’s members in June. In the end, her explanations were enough to earn a hearty endorsement from planning commission member James Kirkpatrick.

“I think this is one of the great collaborations that I have seen,” Kirkpatrick declared before that evening’s 7-to-0 vote. “This seems like it was really well done.”

Kirk, likewise, lauded the conciliatory nature of the endeavor, although also saw a potential need to revisit some of the rules sooner than the staff’s recommended annual assessment.

“Especially this first year,” he said, “I think we need a quicker mechanism for the review of changes.”

The planning commission went on to endorse the staff’s version of the overhaul, paving the way for its review at the council’s next regularly-scheduled meeting on July 19.

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