Chester commission disabled as member quits after walking out on meeting

By Cynthia Prairie
©2017-Telegraph Publishing LLC

Chester Planning Commission member Tom Hildreth walked out of the panel’s Monday Feb. 27 meeting, declaring to the remaining two members “you don’t have a quorum,” as he packed up to leave. The following day he turned in his resignation to Town Hall. His action leaves just two members of five and technically guts the board, which sets the town’s zoning regulations.

Tom Hildreth speaks to the Select Board in this 2015 Telegraph file photo.

The board was listening to public comment on two candidates for the three-year term of town zoning administrator — incumbent Michael Normyle and Jay Jurkoic. Both are Ludlow residents. The board was to nominate an administrator for the Select Board to consider later in March.

In February, the Select Board had decided that whenever an appointed position is up for renewal, the incumbent would need to reapply and the post would be advertised.

At last Monday’s meeting, the board consisted of  chair Naomi Johnson, Claudio Veliz and Hildreth. In February, member Randall Wiggin informally asked not to be considered for re-appointment and has not been at the last two meetings. A fifth member has not been named since Tom Bock’s election as representative to the State Legislature. A number of people have thrown their hats in the ring to sit on the Planning Board, but the Select Board has not named anyone as it hammers out a process for doing so.

As the commission began discussing the zoning administrator post, Johnson suggested not taking public comment. But Veliz said that hearing from the public would be acceptable but the public should not be involved in the interviews nor would the public have a say in who the commission recommended.

Concerns about zoning administrator aired

Then resident Marilyn Mahusky told the commission that she was concerned about not hearing public comment on such a vital position in the community. Johnson agreed to allow Mahusky to speak then, prior to interviewing the two candidates.  “I have two concerns about the current zoning administrator,” Mahusky said.  “I think Michael is a very nice guy. I don’t know what his qualifications are because I was not involved in that prior (hiring) process. I think that he reaches out to members of the community and genuinely tries to meet people’s needs. However, in the instance of the Elm Street situation, I think Michael violated the law. …

“My concern is that the statute is very clear and the Vermont Supreme Court is very clear that the zoning administrator does not have flexibility in defining zoning regulations and the regulations are required to be applied literally. When the zoning administrator granted a building permit to the property on Elm Street, he did not have the authority to do that. … The building that was built down there is approved for storage. And storage is not a  conditional use in that district at this time.

“It doesn’t say on the face of the application that the intent was to put in a dog kennel, but that is the intent of the property owners and Mr. Normyle was aware of that.”

Mahusky added that in an email to Town Manager David Pisha, Normyle wrote that his decision to issue the permit was “in keeping with the spirit of the law.” But she said that “keeping with the spirit of the law is not the same thing as the literal application of the law. So I’m concerned with a loosey-goosey application of the law …”

Hildreth: This isn’t right

At that point, Hildreth interrupted, “This isn’t right, this isn’t right. I’m going to leave. If you have no quorum you have no meeting as far as I’m concerned. I’m not going to listen to this.” And he began to pack up.

Normyle piped up, saying, “I’m not offended by what she is saying.” And he asked Hildreth to reconsider his decision to leave. Indeed, Normyle has admitted to erring in the Elm Street case. In a Feb. 14 letter to Pisha and the Planning Commission, in which he was reapplying for the position, Normyle wrote, “My tenure has not been without mistakes, and I will go on record again apologizing for the most recent error I made with respect to the Elm St. property.” He apparently was referring to at least two times in which he issued building permits prematurely — Jack’s Diner on Main Street and, on Elm Street, the Stewart property that is now home to a new building that is intended to be a dog kennel.

Johnson also asked Hildreth to remain for the interviews, then asked Mahusky to wrap up her comments in 30 seconds.

Mahusky finished her remarks asking the panel to be aware of the “legitimate legal concern” that, if the panel was to hire Normyle again,  it understand what that his obligations are “under the law.”

As Hildreth rose to leave the meeting, audience member Frank Bidwell told commission members they should not be angry at anyone for coming before it and speaking their mind. “I have heard this at Select Board meetings and I am hearing it now. You are shooting the messenger. If the messenger is wrong, tell them they are wrong. If they are right, why are you mad?”

Before leaving, Johnson said that the Select Board was “well aware” of the issues, having “received several reports.” She reiterated that the “Planning Commission’s role is to make a recommendation to the Select Board and the Planning Commission has not had that opportunity.”

Attempts to reach Tom Hildreth by phone and email were unsuccessful.

In an interview Sunday, Veliz said he is waiting to hear from the town office on what the next steps are. Beyond the interviews and the nomination, Veliz said that there is nothing urgent on the commission’s agenda, although the Town Plan needs to be moved along.

He added, “It’s unhelpful for the community, considering the turmoil that the community is suffering from at the moment. We need our institutions to be solid sources of references. The (situation) suggests that partisanship is polluting the machinery of government.”

This article was reported from audio tape of the Planning Commission meeting and interviews.

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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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  1. Chris Curran says:

    What the heck are we doing with out-of-towners on our boards? Employees are OK, but our boards should only be made up of Chester residents. We don’t need out-of-towners telling us what to do.

  2. Cynthia Prairie says:

    To Arlene Mutshler and Chris Walker:

    There may be some confusion about the post of zoning administrator. That post is a part-time paid position that supports the Development Review Board and the Planning Commission as well as town regulations. That person is not a member of either body and has no voting role. Michael Normyle is the current zoning administrator and another gentleman also applied for the post. Both are from Ludlow.

    While some boards in Chester have to be composed of town residents, the DRB and the CPC do not, and at this point each has one member from out of town.

    I hope this helps.

  3. Arlene Mutschler says:

    Really? Can’t you people start behaving like adults? Instead of ‘good ole boys” and make the town your priority instead of you egos? This why Vermont small towns have no credibility in the outside real world. So the building on Elm Street sits idle. And they are not allowed to open their business because of your issues? And how did two people who live in Ludlow get on the Chester board? Really? Embarrassing.

  4. Cynthia Prairie says:

    No. Remaining on the Planning Commission are Claudio Veliz of Chester and Naomi Johnson of North Springfield. On the Development Review Board is one Ludlow resident: Amy O’Neil.

  5. Chris Walker says:

    So the two people left on Chester’s zoning board are Ludlow residents?