By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC
While the main attraction at Wednesday’s Chester Select Board meeting looked to be the continuing struggle over the town’s Unified Development Bylaws, the events of the previous Monday’s Planning Commission meeting – in which commission member Tom Hildreth walked out resulting in a loss of the quorum and the end of the session – hung in the air.
Chester resident Frank Bidwell
asked if the town could find a way to move forward together. He told the gathering that he found the anger and intolerance disturbing – especially when people are shouted at for trying to give a “vision of the law.”
“They just don’t want to hear it,” said Bidwell. “What ever happened to compromise?”
Bidwell suggested approving the bylaws with the provision that no other permits are issued until the legal concerns with the process are addressed.
Former member Bill Lindsay told the board that additional delays send the message that the town is unfriendly to businesses.
Saying that he was invoking the “L word,” referring to the law and to legal hierarchy, Phil Perlah offered a compromise. He noted that state statute is at the top of the hierarchy with the Town Plan coming next followed by the bylaws. The bylaws must be consistent with the Town Plan, which must be consistent with state law. Perlah said that most districts are consistent with the Town Plan except R-120. He suggested adopting the bylaws with the exception of that district. Then the existing bylaws for that area – adopted in 2014 — would remain in force.
By 7:30, the wrangling over zoning districts standards was done and 21 minutes later the hearing had covered the remaining six articles of the UDBs with barely a comment. None of the small business owners present mentioned the changes to the sign ordinance, which grew from two and a half pages to 10.
The only substantial discussion outside of the conditional use article was around the question of what constituted a home business or home occupation under Article 3. Zoning Administrator Michael Normyle explained the differences between home occupations, which do not require a conditional use permit, and home businesses, which do. While a home occupation is carried on in a home or an accessory building by the occupants, a home business is carried on by family members and up to four “on-premise” employees and is subject to limits on hours, traffic, vehicles and other standards. According to Normyle, this would fit the plumber, electrician or other tradesman who uses home as a base for work that’s done elsewhere.
“Whether the UDBs are voted up or down,” said Kelly Arrison, “there is no change for the painters, plumbers and other businesses that are there now.”
As the hearing wound to a close, DRB members Amy O’Neil, a Ludlow resident who owns a business in Chester, questioned how long the process would take. Executive Assistant Julie Hance said that substantial changes would go back to the Planning Commission for review, then come back to the Select Board.
Board member Arne Jonynas saw two options: Adopt the bylaws or take them to a town vote.
Board member Ben Whalen said he saw the bylaws as a living document that would change in the coming years and made a motion to “move them forward.”
Board member Dan Cote suggested bullet points that the board would like to see addressed while an audience member shouted “Move it forward.”
Board chair John DeBenedetti said
that at the next meeting, the board would vote to adopt or send it back to the Planning Commission.
“Where are you going to send it back to?” asked Lindsay, pointing to the recent Planning Commission problem.
In the end, Whalen’s motion passed.
Board opts for openness
With the Unified Development Bylaws hearing closed, the board once again considered the procedure for interviewing and appointing candidates for public offices.
At issue was the question of how candidates for positions like the Planning Commission and Development Board of Review would be interviewed and appointed. In the past, the board has been inconsistent – interviewing some candidates but not others and holding closed door sessions for those who were interviewed.
An objection to doing interviews in open session was that the first candidate would be at a disadvantage since other candidates would hear the questions and have time to formulate answers. The idea of asking candidates to wait outside the meeting was raised.
At an earlier meeting, the board asked Town Manager David Pisha to bring back a revised draft of the procedure document to make all interviews public and to advertise all positions including those that have incumbents. But instead, the board was given a revised procedure that left intact the option of interviewing in executive session. In addition, Pisha’s revision added language calling a request for a candidate to wait outside during another candidate’s interview a violation of the spirit of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.
The Chester Telegraph, which has consistently called for town governments to operate in public whenever possible, pointed to the earlier inconsistencies and noted that leaving the closed meeting option makes it possible to continue being inconsistent.
Former state Rep. Kathy Pellett pointed to the state Judicial Nomination Board on which she has served as an example. Pellett said that the board does everything in the nomination of the state’s judges in private including voting and that the result of votes is only reported to the governor.
“We trust you,” Pellett told the board.
Whalen moved that the board interview the current crop of Planning and DRB candidates in executive session, then finish crafting the current procedure in the future. Whalen was concerned that the board would not be able to forbid public comment and participation during the interview. No one seconded the motion and it was noted that the chair has the power to set the conditions for public comment during the meeting.
DRB chair Carla Westine told the board that they needn’t rush since that panel has four of its five members plus alternates. In the past, DeBenedetti had questioned the need to appoint anyone to the Planning Commission quickly since it had four members and thus a quorum. In light of Monday’s developments however, that reluctance left the commission gutted.
In the end, the board asked Hance to revise the procedure to make initial interviews open with the option to have follow up interviews in private. The board also asked Hance to remove the “violation” wording and make asking candidates to step out during interviews part of the procedure.
At the beginning of the regular Select Board meeting, Pisha told the board that with the lack of a quorum on the Planning Commission, there could be no nomination for the position of zoning administrator. Pisha said that town attorney Jim Carroll had said that the interim appointment should take place “at this meeting.” The board closed the meeting by appointing Normyle to the interim position until the Planning Commission can make a recommendation.
Overlays and controversy
In a memo to the board, Pisha said that a discussion that an unnamed Select Board member had with Kelly Arrison, a Chester resident who is running for Select Board, about looking into training on the use of zoning overlays in planning was improper.
Pisha later clarified that while other boards allow members to do outside research, this was out of line with the way the current Select Board chair has been handling things.
Arrison had contacted Jason Rasmussen of the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission to ask if training on zoning overlays could be arranged if a Select Board or a Planning Commission member were to ask for it. Arrison noted in his email to Rasmussen that speakers at Select Board and Planning Commission meetings had suggested that overlays could be a way of finding compromise in the UDB discussions.
Pisha thought Arrison’s proposal suggested holding a private training session at town expense.
Jonynas said he could agree with Arrison’s intentions, and was sure they were positive, but it came across as a behind-the-scene move and that he was more concerned that a board member would be acting individually.
DRB chair Westine said she found Arrison’s actions “discouraging and disappointing” and thought that it was a violation of the town’s conflict of interest policy.
Chester resident Marilyn Mahusky said that a conflict of interest would have to have pecuniary gain at its heart and that Arrison’s proposal was intended to bring people together.
Bidwell asked the board if a law had been broken and if not, “what’s the issue?”
DeBenedetti said that the issue was something happening without the consent of the board and that while the intent was commendable, such things should go through the town manager who then disseminates the information to the board.
“Intentions are great, but there has to be a process,” said Chester resident Mary Jane Miles.
Reached for comment on Monday, March 6, Rasmussen said that he had had one phone conversation with Arrison who followed that up with an email on Thursday, Feb. 23. At that point Rasmussen said he called Hance and Planning Commission chair Naomi Johnson to let them know about the contacts.
Rasmussen told The Telegraph that both Hance and Johnson agreed that any actual request for services should come through the town but he did not recall their expressing that the actions were improper. On Tuesday, Feb. 28, Rasmussen replied to Arrison with ideas on how to do training on zoning overlays, sending copies to Hance and Johnson.
On the same day, Pisha sent the emails with a cover memo and updated agenda for the next evening’s meeting to Chase, Cote, Jonynas and Whalen.
Asked on Monday if he had contacted Arrison to ask about his actions or about the Select Board and Planning Commission members with whom he had spoken, Pisha said he had not. “Julie got the emails and when I saw it I called John (DeBenedetti) and he said ‘I want that on the agenda,’ ” Pisha told The Telegraph.
Pinske bids farewell to DeBenedetti
Noting that this would be John DeBenedetti’s last meeting on the Select Board, Pinske thanked the outgoing chairman for his work over the years. “I haven’t agreed with you on hardly anything,” said Pinske, “but I appreciate your service to the town.”
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About the Author: Shawn Cunningham has written a number of subjects -- from food and wine to film, history, politics, zoning and development -- for the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, Museum News, The Westsider, The Chelsea/Clinton News, Menckeniana, Films in Review and the East Village Eye.