Residents express concerns about development during hearing on proposed bylaws

By Cynthia Prairie

A handful of Chester residents testified last Wednesday before the Select Board on changes they would like to see to the proposed Unified Development Bylaws, which for the first time will include zoning and subdivision regulations and flooding protection within one document.

For the public hearing, Select Board member Tom Bock moved to the audience as a member of the Planning Commission, which drew up the bylaws.

In a letter to the Select Board, Paul Dexter, co-owner of the Henry Farm Inn, addressed a change in minimum lot size from 80,000 square feet – or slightly less than 2 acres – to 130,680 square feet – or 3 acres. That change would occur in most of Chester although not within the downtown area.

“The increase will make it more difficult for residents (typically seniors) to subdivide and sell an existing larger lot while retaining a smaller lot to live on,” he wrote, adding “For property tax purposes, a homestead is defined as a house and 2 acres, and a homestead receives favorable tax treatment, designed to let people hold on to their home.”

During the hearing, Julie Hance, executive assistant to the town manager, said that the Planning Commission believed that it would be more difficult to get septic on smaller lots.

Calling the proposed bylaws “a very good step forward,” Chester resident Shawn Cunningham* suggested that some of the language be changed to be more “concrete and unambiguous” and therefore “more defensible” if a court challenge would take place. “To encourage” a party to act “is completely indefensible” Cunningham said. He cites 2.4 E(c) of the bylaws where it says, “VT Route 103 South: new buildings and modifications to existing buildings are encouraged to extend the historic pattern of higher density, mixed use village development,” which, Cunningham said, has no teeth in it.

Richard Farnsworth said he was just concerned with the overall direction town development was taking, with “dollar stores, solar farms, the biomass plant … it doesn’t seem to be what people around here want, doesn’t seem to be heading in the right direction.”

Development along the town’s ridge lines was a concern for Claudio Veliz, a local architect. He questioned why the issue wasn’t addressed in the bylaws. Bock answered that “people (in community forums) felt it wasn’t necessary or it wasn’t appropriate… that it was too harsh a law to put on their fellow neighbors.”

A document from a January 2009 community forum — the last of a series of four — suggests that restricting ridge line development received a 4 out of 6 on a priority scale, with 6 being the highest priority and 1 being the lowest. You can read a PDF of that document here.

More public comment expected

The Select Board will allow one hour for public comment on specified portions of the bylaws during its public meetings. The specified portions will be announced in the Select Board agendas, which The Chester Telegraph publishes on Friday afternoons prior to the meetings. The meetings are held on the first and third Wednesday of each month. The next meeting is May 1st, when the public is invited to address Section 1 (statutory authority for making the laws) & Section 2 (Zoning Districts and District Standards) of the proposed zoning districts. You can find the latest proposal here.

Hance said that while the Town Plan – a separate document used to influence the bylaws – must be updated every five years, there is no requirement to change the zoning ordinances at given intervals. She added that the Select Board doesn’t have a timeline on making changes and voting on the bylaws. Once the Select Board is finished with the process and if it seeks substantial changes, it will send the bylaws back to the Planning Commission, which will then put those changes in writing.

Hance also said that the last time changes were made in the town’s subdivision regulations was in 1982. (The new changes begin on Page 47 of the document.)

* Shawn Cunningham is the husband of the reporter on this article.

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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.

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