By Cynthia Prairie
Concerns about enlarged minimum property size, noise limits, property uses and the enforceability of zoning language drew about 30 Chester residents out on Monday night, Aug. 20, for the first of four public hearings to be held to take comment on proposed changes to the town’s zoning regulations.
The hearing was held by the Chester Planning Commission, which drew up the changes with the help of Jason Rasmussen of the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission. The planning panel will hold one more hearing, then turn over the proposed regulations – with any changes that it deems appropriate – to the Select Board, which will also hold two hearings seeking public comment. Click here for a copy of the proposed changes, known as the Unified Development Bylaws. Here’s the earlier Telegraph article on the changes.
The next Planning Commission public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17.
The Select Board will then vote on the changes, which will be in effect for five years. The new regulations will be used by the Development Review Board as it hears construction proposals.
Several in attendance questioned whether the new rules would allow for expanding a building to the rear or side if that building is already too close to the road, according to the zoning setbacks, but has been grandfathered in. Paul Dexter, who sat on the former Zoning Board of Adjustment, said it was his understanding that an owner could add to the nonconforming building “as long as it doesn’t increase the nonconformity.”
Michael Alon and Barre Pinske both called for allowing more interesting construction, even if it didn’t fit in with what is thought of as a traditional New England look. Pinske quoted himself speaking to town government on Cape Cod: “History should not stand in the way of history.”
Dexter wondered why the minimum lot size was changed from 2 acres (known as R-80) to 3 (R-3). Planning board member Naomi Johnson responded that among reasons, “With the smaller lot sizes, we found that where a person (who doesn’t have public sewer and water) puts their well can impact their neighbors.”
Dexter also questioned the changes in that zone that drops from 27 to five conditional ones. On the Zoning Board, Dexter recalled, “if someone wanted a kennel but animal hospital was on the (permitted use) list, there were at least some guidelines there.”
Rasmussen said, “We went from specific to generic. It’s hard to come up with that exhaustive list.” He added later that the philosophy was to be focused less on what the business was and more on its impact on the infrastructure and the neighbors.
Two members of Smart Growth Chester, which is fighting a proposed Dollar General store, also made suggestions. Shawn Cunningham* asked that the town define the phrase “over-all New England architectural appearance.” That phrase in the zoning regulations is supposed to help the DRB in deciding what is acceptable new architecture for conditional uses. Cunningham suggested that requiring two stories and parking on the side or in the rear rather than in front are consistent with the existing character of the “center” of Chester.
He also expressed concern that the noise level maximums could prevent certain businesses such as sawmills and recreation such as snowmobiling.
And Claudio Veliz questioned the use of indefinite words such as “should” or “may” as opposed to “shall” or “will” in legal language.
Veliz argued that the word “shall” in the zoning regulations has a legally binding meaning but that “should” or “may” are just suggestions and hold no sway in court. For example, “The following Special Criteria should be considered by the Development Review Board when considering an application for a conditional use permit…” Rasmussen agreed and Bock said that the board will go back to look at those references.
Dexter also suggested that home occupations not just include commercial and industrial, but professional, to encompass lawyers, CPAs and other small business professionals who work out of their home and may have employees.
Michael Normyle, the town’s zoning administrator, took the opportunity to issue a call for volunteers for the Development Review Board, which is down two members. Anyone interested may call Town Manager David Pisha at 802-875-2174 ext 106.
* Cunningham is married to the reporter of this article.
About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.