Chester voters keep new auto uses in Residential-Commercial zones

The ReferendumBy Shawn Cunningham
©2014 – Telegraph Publishing LLC
A 3-to-1 majority of Chester voters who turned out to cast ballots at town hall on Tuesday voted against leaving a 40-year-old prohibition on automotive uses in the town’s new zoning bylaws.

The 160 to 460 vote was colored by a number of issues including a proposed move of one local business to a parcel in the district in question and its related public relations campaign and the owner of that parcel’s recent lease of the property to the Springfield Justice Center for transitional housing of furloughed prisoners from the Springfield prison. On the previous evening, a meeting was held at Town Hall to attempt to disseminate information on the issue.

Select board members, from left, John DeBenedetti, Tom Bock, Derek Suursoo and Arne Jonynas listen to public comment and questions on the referendum. Chester Telegraph photo.

Select board members, from left, John DeBenedetti, Tom Bock, Derek Suursoo and Arne Jonynas listen to public comment and questions on the referendum during Monday’s informational meeting. Chester Telegraph photos. Click to enlarge.

With members of the Select Board and Planning Commission and about 50 members of the public attending, town moderator Bill Dakin explained that the purpose of Monday night’s meeting was for voters to gain information and make comments on the article to be voted in a special election on Tuesday, Nov. 18.

That article, brought by a petition signed by 148 Chester voters, called for one change in the recently adopted Unified Development Bylaws, which replace zoning regulations that were first enacted by a town vote in 1975 and amended periodically throughout the years.

Auto service station owner Roy Spaulding speaks directly with architect Claudio Veliz.

Auto service station owner Roy Spaulding speaks directly with architect Claudio Veliz during Monday’s meeting.

Resident John Penney asked who had brought the petition and why. Claudio Veliz, a local architect, explained that he and several others had been concerned that the changes in the 40-year-old zoning law were “hasty and benefit only a few people” noting that the zoning map was more of “a checkerboard of adjustments of localized situations,” not a 30- to 50-year plan. “A ‘yes’ vote,” said Veliz, “puts on the brakes to work out a strategy.”

Select Board member and Planning Commission chair Tom Bock said, “Strategy is not part of zoning. The town plan is the long-term strategy,” and that the commission will craft a new plan next year.

Select Board member Bill Lindsay said that at one time Chester had many more gas stations as well as a drug store. But, he added that a local drug store can’t compete with Rite Aid. While he did not explore the economics of the pharmacy or the fuel business, he cautioned against being “negative about every proposal that comes to Chester.”

Town moderator Bill Dakin re-addresses ground rules for the information meeting on Monday.

Town moderator Bill Dakin re-addresses ground rules for the information meeting on Monday.

Roy Spaulding, owner of an auto service business in Gassetts, said it was “really hard to imagine how this (voting no) would result in strip development” and cited Woodstock and Grafton as places that have downtown gas stations that have not resulted in a strip mall. A check on Tuesday shows that Woodstock has a substantial zoning code including a single district (Commercial Light Industrial) that has a conditional use for filling stations and auto uses. That is on the outskirts of the Woodstock Village. Downtown filling stations and garages appear to be grandfathered in. Grafton has a combination garage and gas station in a very old building that is leased to operators by the Windham Foundation, which takes a substantial role in regulating development in the absence of a zoning code.

Spaulding asked Veliz to give examples of where a new gas station resulted in strip development. Veliz responded that the evidence is everywhere. And while he did not give specific examples, he asserted that multi-story, mixed-use development benefits a town more by bringing in more tax revenue than single-use low rise development. Spaulding countered that The Green is strip development while Veliz noted that strip development is characterized by single story buildings while The Green has multi storied structures.

During Tuesday's vote, children from Green Mountain Union Middle School raised fun and funds for a trip to Washington, D.C., by selling baked goods.

During Tuesday’s vote, children from Green Mountain Union Middle School raised fun and funds for a trip to Washington, D.C., by selling baked goods.

Planning commission member Tom Hildreth said that the area around The Green was dense because it dates to the “horse and buggy days” and that’s hard to compare to the development of a generation later. Noting the state of Vermont’s recommendation for high-density, multi-story development, Hildreth said he was concerned. “It doesn’t work, it doesn’t fit into modern business plans,” said Hildreth. “We need to abandon the concept (of high density, multi-story development) as part of multi-use.”

As he often does at meetings, local business owner Barre Pinske began his comment with humor. “Don’t Tase me Jeff,” joked Pinske to Chester Police officer Jeff Holden. Pinske went on to say he was concerned that the new uses in the bylaws could make the area where Routes 11 and 103 run together on Main Street another Clinton Street in Springfield, which is filled with lots of single-use buildings and wide expanses of parking lots, making pedestrian traffic difficult.

Justices of the Peace flooded Chester Town Hall as voting ended Tuesday night and made quick work of the count, some not even bothering to take off their winter coats and ear muffs.

Justices of the Peace flooded Chester Town Hall as voting ended Tuesday night and made quick work of the count, some not even bothering to take off their winter coats and ear muffs.

“We’re a team going into a game,” said Pinske. “The game plan is very important.” Pinske outlined the goals of planning and development as “keeping our kids here, getting people and businesses to move here and keeping businesses here.” “If we are a team, we have to decide how to win,” said Pinske. “Sometimes our leaders are wrong.”

David Leibtag characterized himself as a small business person who no-one in town would know. He explained that he is a software developer from Silicon Valley whose customers are all over the world – but mainly in Europe. He noted that he could live anywhere he wants to and spent three years deciding where he would go. He decided to come to Chester for its beauty. Liebtag noted that the combination of an attractive town and world-class fiber optic internet connections could draw more like him.

After slightly more than an hour of discussion — where in just a few instances moderator Dakin had to chide audience members and Select Board member Derek Suursoo on their tone or caution them to address the whole hall and not just a single person — the meeting was adjourned.

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