Political Maneuvering Sidetracks a Plan for Permit Reform in Burlington | Construction & Development | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Political Maneuvering Sidetracks a Plan for Permit Reform in Burlington

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SEAN METCALF
  • Sean Metcalf

If there's any consensus among Burlington politicians, it's that the city's convoluted permitting process needs an overhaul. Even the simplest home renovation involves a tangle of red tape: trips to two city offices, a host of permits and various fees.

But when Mayor Miro Weinberger and members of his administration introduced a proposal to streamline the process late last month, it wasn't welcomed with open arms. Rather than sticking to permit reform, the mayor's measure also suggested merging the city's planning arm with the Community and Economic Development Office. The change would give Weinberger — and future mayors — the power to handpick the city's planning director.

Some Burlington City Councilors balked, claiming that the sweeping proposal would politicize the planning process and cause fundamental changes within a key city agency.

"I always thought autonomy for the planning director was a good thing," Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) said early last week at a special city council meeting on the topic. "I don't believe we are well served to have the mayor make that appointment. I'm not comfortable with this."

Days later, Weinberger's administration abandoned the merger part of the plan, which had insufficient support on the council. But the surviving proposal still allows the mayor to choose the planning director, the only department head not currently appointed by Burlington's chief executive.

It also creates a new city agency: the Department of Permitting and Inspections, which would offer a one-stop shop on Pine Street for all things construction — building permits, plumbing and electrical oversight, and, once a project is complete, code enforcement.

The current Department of Planning and Zoning would be dismantled. Five zoning employees would join the new department, while director David White and two staffers would work in a separate planning unit.

The council has to approve the measure before the end of January in order to get it on the ballot for Town Meeting Day in March.

Like Bushor, Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-North District) remains wary. Allowing the mayor to appoint the planning director would mean "there will be fewer and fewer people making bigger decisions about development in this city," Hartnett said in an interview last week. He expressed worry that the change could also jeopardize what voters and councilors actually want: permit reform.

Some contractors won't work in Burlington. They complain about a process that, at its most orderly, requires a visit to the zoning office in city hall, followed by another to the Department of Public Works in the city's South End. Routine home projects such as replacing a rotting window or installing a railing can involve multiple permit forms and fees. When it's over, all of those permits have to be "closed," which involves more paperwork and an inspection.

A missed step can have real consequences for people like Kristy Cross and her husband, Brandon, who were 48 hours away from buying their New North End home last month when they discovered the sellers had an open electrical permit.

It took a barrage of calls to the Department of Public Works and an assist from Hartnett to persuade an inspector to come out on November 29 to close the permit. With moving boxes loaded and two small kids to wrangle, "I can say it was a stressful situation," Kristy Cross said. The snafu was sorted out in time for the couple's 9 a.m. closing the next day.

Officials have long been aware of this "Gordian knot of city government," as Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) described the permitting process problem. "It's been a challenge for three, four, perhaps five decades," he said.

That's why, in 2014, a tri-partisan group of city councilors, including Hartnett, sponsored a resolution to create a "soup-to-nuts" fix for the system. The city established a permit reform advisory committee, hired a consultant who produced an 84-page report, and considered a lengthy list of recommendations including a different fee structure and online operations for a more user-friendly approach.

Given their efforts, the administration's recent proposal came as a surprise. "This is not what I envisioned when I proposed permit reform," Hartnett said.

In fact, the planning office is not involved with permitting. Its employees oversee long-term urban design for the city. Their most recent effort, the 126-page planBTV, sets forth land-use goals for transportation, development, housing and energy for the next decade.

CEDO helps implement those broad plans, while the zoning and building permit offices regulate city construction and development.

Surprisingly, Department of Planning and Zoning director White supports Weinberger's plan — even though he could have the most to lose if the mayor gets his way. White has worked in the department for 23 years and served as its director for 10.

"For me, it's about good governance," White said, noting that it would allow policy making to become more efficient. "Ultimately, the mayor is elected to fulfill his or her vision for the city ... My job is to assist those whose responsibility is to do that."

But members of the volunteer Burlington Planning Commission, which oversees the city's Department of Planning and Zoning — and currently appoints its director — aren't convinced, according to one of them, Alex Friend. Emails obtained by Seven Days through a public records request revealed that numerous planning commissioners raised concerns about the plan, though many of the details in the documents had been redacted.

The proposal could serve as ammunition for Weinberger's political opponents, who have long portrayed him as a mayor too focused on development. A former affordable housing developer, Weinberger has faced criticism for his ambitious construction agenda, which has included support for Don Sinex's CityPlace Burlington project.

The issue came up frequently on the campaign trail earlier this year. Mayoral candidates Infinite Culcleasure and Carina Driscoll both accused Weinberger of mismanaging CEDO, a department with a broad mission that includes everything from overseeing development projects to providing advice to local businesses and facilitating community engagement.

It was Driscoll's stepfather, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who created the department in 1983 when he was mayor. Back then, officials intentionally kept CEDO separate from the planning department, recalled Bruce Seifer, who started working for CEDO six months after it was founded.

"The development office was to put the gas on development, and the planning office was to put the brakes on development," Seifer said.

Merging may be off the table for now, but interim CEDO director Neale Lunderville hasn't given up on the idea of moving the planning office from the basement of city hall to the third floor, where he oversees 26 community and development employees. Staffers in the two departments often duplicate work, he said.

He also left open the possibility of reconsidering the merger again next year.

Whatever happens, he won't be around for its implementation; Lunderville is stepping down at the end of the month, when a second interim director will take over CEDO's top job until spring.

Seifer, who worked for CEDO for 29 years, urged caution. "To me, it's worth really carefully looking at what those unintended consequences might be," he said, suggesting that a merger could divide the attention of CEDO employees.

Weinberger vowed to proceed judiciously. "You're seeing the deliberative process play out," he said. "We're looking for a plan that will have a solid majority, tri-partisan backing."

It remains to be seen how Weinberger's amended proposal will fare, though there is some historical precedent. In 2001, then-mayor Peter Clavelle pushed for a charter change that would have allowed him to appoint the planning director.

What motivated Clavelle? The planning commission had objected to his plan to remove the Pease grain tower along the Burlington waterfront, contending that it had historic value. The rusted tower was eventually demolished, but not without several commission votes and a process that took years, according to a 2001 Burlington Free Press story.

The planning commission opposed Clavelle's proposal back then and, ultimately, so did the public: 55 percent of residents voted against the measure.

According to Clavelle, the proposal failed because the public wanted to see "distance" between the planning director and the mayor, he said.

But Clavelle's personal view hasn't changed.

Sounding a lot like White, Clavelle said, "The mayor is directly accountable to the citizens of Burlington," noting that he or she is the only citywide elected official. The mayor "runs on an articulation of his or her vision for the future of the city. I think he needs to have the ability to realize that vision. That requires a team directly accountable to the mayor."

Clavelle said he supports Weinberger's plan — but then he wavered.

"Let's just make certain, as we're pursuing permit reform, we're not undermining efforts to build a more equitable, healthy, safe and vibrant city," Clavelle cautioned.

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