by Andrew Martin
Work to give designated downtowns and village centers more tools to aid in maintaining the appearance of their buildings is continuing. Morristown Zoning Administrator Todd Thomas will be testifying before the Vermont House of Representatives on Friday, March 15 in support of House Bill 400, a piece of legislation he has written that aims at giving towns like Morristown a tool to regulate the appearance of commercial and retail buildings in downtown areas.
Thomas wrote House Bill 400 with the aid of Morristown Town Administrator Dan Lindley and sent the document to the legislature over a year ago. The bill was submitted to the legislature by Morristown Representative Peter Peltz during the last week of February. Thomas will be testifying before the House on the proposed legislation at 10:30 a.m. on March 15.
The legislation that Thomas will be testifying on would aim at giving municipalities the power to regulate the outer appearance of commercial buildings in a downtown or village center by ensuring a bare minimum for the building façade. According to Thomas the general worry with buildings falling into disrepair with no plans by the owner to remedy the situation is that those buildings will then undermine the appeal and success of other businesses in the vicinity. In Vermont towns are not able to simply write new bylaws or ordinances. Instead the state legislature must first give its’ municipalities permission and the tools to write the bylaws if they choose to do so.
The goal of ensuring that a town’s downtown buildings all maintain a bare minimum of appearance would be accomplished by an addition to the Vermont Statutes, specifically to Vermont Statute, Title 24: Municipal and County Government, Sub-Section 4414 Zoning; Permissable Types of Regulations. The addition Thomas is proposing would state that “A municipality may adopt bylaws for the purpose of regulating the appearance of building façades in a ‘downtown district’ and in a ‘village center,’… to prevent the physical state of a building façade from negatively impacting the economic vitality of the downtown district or a village center; to ensure that building façades in a downtown district or a village center are not reasonably out of character with neighboring buildings; to ensure that building façades in a downtown district or a village center are not in such a state of disrepair that the interior of the building is clearly open to the weather and elements; and to ensure that building façades in a downtown district or a village center do not feature boarded-up or broken windows for longer than six consecutive months.” If created then these ordinances would be enforceable as civil ordinance violations.
Thomas went on to explain that smaller towns like Morristown currently do not have any recourse to ensure the upkeep of businesses downtown due to the fact that they do not have any health ordinances. Larger Vermont towns and cities like Burlington and Barre are able to deal with dilapidated buildings through the use of health ordinances that are based on building codes. Morristown and many other small Vermont towns to not have building codes and therefore do not have this tool at their disposal.
“We don’t want to adopt a building code and tell people how to construct their buildings,” stated Thomas.
House Bill 400 would solve this problem by giving Morristown and other similar municipalities the option to create ordinances dealing with dilapidated buildings. The proposed legislation also seeks to ensure that any ordinances that would be created would not be aimed at residential buildings in any downtown or village center. The proposed legislation states “Nothing in a municipal bylaw regulating the appearance of building façades in a downtown district or in a village center shall have the effect of interfering with a building being used as single-family home.”
Thomas also stated that other than requiring the minimum façade appearance the proposed legislation would have no effect on the property rights of building owners in a downtown or village center.
“I don’t expect to see House Bill 400 pass this year,” explained Thomas on when he could see a final decision on the proposed legislation, “It received a bill number so late in the session, close to the crossover point… I’m just glad it’s moving forward at this point… Hopefully the legislature takes this issue seriously and gives us a tool to help us with these situations.”