Proposed zoning changes to get public hearing Aug. 20

By Shawn Cunningham

After nearly two years of work, the Chester Planning Commission has released the proposed new zoning regulations ahead of  a Monday, Aug. 20 hearing when the public can ask questions and comment on major changes to the town’s land-use laws including new districts, minimum lot sizes, new setbacks, fewer conditional uses and other revisions. Click here for the new bylaws.

The “Unified Development Bylaws” combine, revise and replace the town’s existing regulations for zoning, subdivision of property and flood damage prevention. The process was undertaken with the help of Jason Rasmussen of the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission through a grant from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

“The main reason (for the change) was to put zoning, flood protection and subdivision all in one book,” said Planning Commission chairman Tom Bock. “It makes it simpler for an individual who wants to give some land to a child for a house or some other basic subdivision. People didn’t understand that they had to look at three different sets of regulations.

“Some of it was just housekeeping, a lot of small changes in state laws were incorporated in the regulations instead of being addenda.”

Said Rasmussen, “We looked at the town plan and the information we heard from the public along with the State Planning goals of protecting downtown areas and rural areas while not encouraging strip development and we pulled these changes out of those sources to make development rules clearer and easier to interpret.”

Conditional uses curtailed in all districts

The proposed 92-page bylaws include many changes to the existing regulations including the elimination or revision of several zoning districts and the establishment of new districts. There is some expansion in the number of permitted uses,  including the addition of accessory dwelling units in every district where residential uses are allowed. But there is also a sharp cutback in the number of conditional uses. Click here for the proposed zoning district map.

For example, the R-80 district will be eliminated under the new bylaws, to be replaced by the R-3 district. This means that in much of the town, the minimum lot size for a residential building will be 3 acres (or 130,680 sq. ft.) which represents a nearly 40% increase from R-80 (or 80,000 square feet, not quite 2 acres.) This will have little or no effect on existing lots but will mean that future subdivisions would call for larger parcels, if the new rules are ratified by the Select Board.

In addition to the accessory dwelling, the new bylaws add “accessory use” to the permitted uses but reduces the number of conditional uses in R80  from 27 to just five.

These changes occur in every district and many are the result of consolidation of several conditional uses into one. As an example, the “civic/institutional” category includes buildings and lands that are used for non-profit, religious or public use including religious buildings, libraries, hospitals, schools and other government-owned or operated structures. While such uses are currently available for R80 properties (the vast majority of the town’s acreage) they will not be if the bylaws are ratified.

“There are two schools of thought about conditional uses,” said SWCRP’s Rasmussen. “The first is to have an exhaustive list so it’s clear what can be done in a district. The second is more generic and general because you can never anticipate all of the uses.”

“The long list of conditional uses was developed in the 1970s when zoning began.” said Bock, “Some of them are outdated and don’t even exist anymore – like a tourist home. But whoever heard of a Pilates studio in 1975?”

The question of whether the new conditional use list is more restrictive or more flexible seems to depend on where you stand, or live.

Asked if a “commercial sawmill” that will not be listed as a conditional use under the new regulations (but is listed in the current regulations) could be permitted as a “home industry” and would be permitted on a lot that did not contain a residence, Rasmussen noted, “That’s a good question, and one that could come up … in the public hearing.”

As to the interpretation of more generic conditional uses, Bock said, “The new rules give more authority to the DRB to decide what uses are appropriate.”

“The new rules give more authority to the DRB to decide what uses are appropriate.”
Tom Bock
Planning Commission chair

This would, however, put an additional burden on the DRB to rule very carefully, since inconsistent interpretation of generic conditional use standards could open the town to lawsuits.

The question of land value in light of new zoning regulations and the effect on assessments is also open to interpretation. Whether one district could find itself enhanced or diminished by the changes could be the subject of claims for assessment changes. Bock thought this issue would work itself out in time, saying, “The primary driver for assessments is the market. I don’t think (the zoning changes) will have any effect.”

Gone from the new zoning regulations is the Mining & Mineral Processing district. The Conservation 80 district also has been eliminated, replaced with a larger Conservation-Residential district that has a minimum lot size of 5 acres. The Commercial district has been replaced by a “Commercial/Industrial” district. Two other new districts are the Village Center (map  below on right) and the Stone Village district.

The proposed village center designations. Click to enlarge.

The proposed village center designations. Click to enlarge.

Also new in the development bylaws are specifically delineated performance standards. In the past, such standards only applied to conditional use permits and were vague or undefined. Under the new regulations, the performance standards which “… must be met and maintained by all uses in all districts…”  are specific and strict, limiting the noise level at the property line to normal speech except for normal maintenance such as lawn mowing and snow blowing. As written, this would seem to say that the use of chain saws, log splitters and power tools would violate the law in many lots.

With all the changes, one area that was left untouched was the question of the “character” of the center of Chester as mentioned in the zoning regulations. This uncertainty is at the crux of the dispute over the construction of a proposed 9,100-square-foot Dollar General store next to Main Street pizza house (formerly Zachary’s).*

Enforcement an issue or not?

Another question stemming from recent zoning cases is that of enforcement and if the town is putting enough resources into seeing that the existing regulations are observed.

Bock doesn’t think that enforcement is an issue. “Typically if someone adds a deck or another building,” said Bock, “the zoning administrator sends a letter requiring the owner to get a permit. We’ve never had a house built illegally. There have only been a few fines, and we haven’t had to tear down a building like they do in the city. In Massachusetts or Connecticut, they’ll tear a building down if it doesn’t have a permit.”

Still, with two Chester zoning cases before State Superior Court and the question of Jack’s Diner looming, the current town budget has no funding for enforcement and is 173% over its $3,000 budget for zoning and planning legal work.

The Aug. 20th hearing will be the first of three in the process toward ratifying new bylaws. After next Monday’s hearing, the Planning Commission has the option of revising the bylaws based on public suggestions or leaving them as drafted, before sending them on to the Select Board. Two more public hearings will take place on the new development bylaws in front of the Select Board and further revisions can be made before the Select Board votes whether or not to ratify.

“Significant comment by the public,” Rasmussen said, “would behoove all of us to take the document back and make sure we got it right.”

The Development Bylaws (Zoning and Subdivision Regulation) hearing is set for 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 20 on the second floor of Town Hall, 556 Elm St.

*The reporter of this article is also a member of Smart Growth Chester, which is opposing the Dollar General store.

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  1. John says:

    I am extremely concerned about giving additional authority to the Development Review Board, which is not an elected board and easily salted with people with a personal agenda. Make the DRB an elected board and that would change everything.