ST. ALBANS CITY — St. Albans City Planning Commission Chairperson Chris Dermody opened the Design Advisory Board (DAB) portion of Monday night’s meeting, made a series of brief remarks, and then recessed the session without hearing from the applicant.
The board was to have heard from Gordon Winters about the addition of a propane filling station to the Ace hardware site on North Main Street.
Dermody began his remarks by apologizing to Winters.
“I would like to be respectful of the efforts of the Design Advisory Board,” said Dermody. “It is my belief that the public, the staff and the board should all be treated this way.”
Explaining his action, Dermody said, “The Design Advisory Board is, as its name says, advisory. If the Design Advisory Board is to put the effort in, then at the very least our advice should be delivered to all equally. And it is my expectation that others should treat it in a thoughtful and respectful way, to include public discourse about the opinions the Design Advisory Board has put forth.
“With these thoughts in mind, I am recessing the Design Advisory Board, for if the efforts of this board are, in my opinion, not to be respected, I question the need for such advice. I will ask the mayor for a meeting before our next scheduled meeting.”
Dermody specified that his decision was not about the Ace project.
Chip Sawyer, the city’s director of planning and development, questioned whether Dermody had the authority to recess the DAB portion of the meeting without a vote. Dermody answered that he possessed that authority as chair. He offered to step down as chair if that was what the rest of the board wanted.
Board member Tom Murphy answered, “I’ll trust your judgment as chair.”
Dermody then continued with the evening’s planning committee agenda.
The job of the DAB is to consider the aesthetics of projects within the design advisory district, which includes downtown St. Albans. The board is charged with making certain the project fits in with the rest of the neighborhood in which it is to be located, considering purely at the way the proposed building’s appearance. That also includes the relationship between the private space of the building and the public space of the street and sidewalk.
The Development Review Board (DRB) is tasked with considering other aspects of development projects, such as traffic, noise, the overall site plan, and, in some cases, use.
The DAB has no enforcement authority, but the DRB can attach conditions to permits on the advice of the DAB.
During 2013, both boards heard multiple large projects including the new state office building, the Ace project, a new municipal parking garage and the Connor Group development project on Maiden Lane.
In a conversation with the Messenger this morning Dermody suggested taking the experience gained in the past year and using it to improve the way applications are handled.
One of the items to be considered is whether the application is complete. “The Connor Group was not a complete application because it didn’t include the three historic pieces,” said Dermody. The Connor Group was seeking permission to demolish a historic building. Under city regulations, anyone wanting to demolish a historic building must include specific pieces of information, which were not in the application when it came before the DAB.
That put the DAB in the position of asking the applicant for that information. The process then became muddled for both the applicant and the board, said Dermody.
Once a decision has been made, Dermody questioned whether he has been successful in communicating that information to the DRB and the public.
For example, the DAB made multiple recommendations to the DRB concerning the Connor Group’s proposal for a new building at 13 Maiden Lane. The DRB incorporated only one of those recommendations into the permit, and it is unclear to Dermody how much of the information from the DAB was received or considered.
He provided city staff with a letter outlining the DAB’s concerns and recommendations, but does not know whether it was included in the packet of information given to DRB members, if they read it, or if they considered the DAB’s recommendations during their deliberations, which were not public.
On the same project, the DAB voted unanimously against a proposal to put diagonal parking in front of 13 Maiden Lane partially in the city’s right of way. The City Council voted last week to allow the parking, but did not make any request from the DAB for information about why the DAB had objected to the parking plan.
“Our board did not want to see the green space … on Maiden Lane changed. I’m not sure that message ever got communicated,” said Dermody.
If people are being asked to volunteer their time to review projects, then their advice should at least be considered, in Dermody’s view.
Dermody also said he believes there should be more reflective time for the board to consider its recommendations. “I don’t think the board should be a rubber stamp,” he said.
“Emotions can get high because it’s about people’s property,” said Dermody.
While Dermody wants the advice of the board to be respected. He acknowledged that some members have not always treated applicants respectfully, something Dermody has tried to stop. “I’m still trying to get a handle on that one,” said Dermody.
The ultimate question, Dermody said, is “should there be a DAB?”
It’s a question he has asked the mayor, with whom he is seeking a meeting.