The planning commission proposes to revise the land development regulations to eliminate all minimum parking requirements for commercial developments. Two rationales have been presented in support of the proposal. First, it has been said that developers know best how much parking is or isn’t needed for their projects. Secondly, it has been said that the public needs to be weaned from its dependence on cars.
The first rationale is an undisguised laissez-faire assertion that does not even wink at the public interest. Developers “know best” how much parking is “needed” in exactly the same way they know how high their buildings should be, how close to the road, how much area they should cover, how many trees they should cut down, how many swamps they should drain, how much animal habitat they should extinguish, and how much storm water run-off they should create.
The second rationale welcomes the public disservice that will be the inevitable result of the laissez-faire position because it is ostensibly for our own good. We will all ride bikes (for about seven months each year) because we won’t be able to park; hence, everyone will be healthier and the environment will be saved. Yay. But I am aware of no existing plan, proposal, or possibility for creating a system of public transportation serving South Burlington that is sufficiently extensive and efficient to mitigate the effect of a forced reduction in the use of cars. Until that system exists, the Planning Commission’s proposal will create only public hardship.
We have grown accustomed to being presented with two bad choices at the ideological extremes. Here, we have a quirky variation: customary ideological opponents settling on the same bad choice for divergent but equally bad reasons.
Under the current land development regulations, elaborate tables set out the required minimum number of parking spaces based on a variety of standards according to the particular category of commercial use (e.g., square footage, number of employees, number of seats, number of rooms, etc.). These tables, like most public regulations that address complex issues, must draw lines somewhere, but the lines are necessarily a little arbitrary; they need to be applied flexibly on a case-by-case basis or they defeat their purpose. For this reason, the land development regulations give the development review board discretion to waive up to 25 percent of the applicable parking requirement “if it determines that a specific proposal is adequately served by existing or proposed parking facilities” as well as the discretion to “modify” the requirements of the tables “if it determines that overlapping use of parking spaces or other unique characteristic cause the requirement to be unnecessarily stringent.” Land development regulations section 13.01 (N) (2) and (3).
In practice, most commercial developments that come before the development review board include requests for some relief from the parking tables, which is usually granted, at least in part. In all of these cases, the developers must come forward with an explanation of the particular circumstances. Most of the time, after some back and forth, the developers leave the table with what they have asked for; sometimes – rarely – they don’t. Sometimes they get most but less than all of the relief they request. In no case during my three-plus years on the development review board has a parking decision stopped a development from going forward.
I would support an expansion of the 25 percent discretion accorded to the development review board by the current Land Development Regulations. But to leave a developer no standard to meet in the first instance and no duty to make a persuasive argument for relief is bad policy. It is against the interests of the overwhelming majority of the residents of South Burlington and should be rejected by the city council if it is not reconsidered by the planning commission on its own.
Frank Kochman is a member of the South Burlington Development Review Board, but the views expressed here are his own.