Development Bylaws Part 3: Low noise limits, smaller signs among changes

This is the third in a series of articles on Chester’s proposed development bylaws, which include new zoning, subdivision and flood hazard mitigation regulations. To read the proposed bylaws click here and to see the town-wide zoning map click here. Read the first two articles in this series: Proposed Zoning Districts and Proposed Uses.

By Shawn Cunningham

While the zoning districts define minimum lot sizes, frontage and setbacks along with the overall character of the area and the uses for each district define the functions and services that can be carried on in that area, it’s the standards that say a certain building can be built, how certain activities may be carried on, how situations that don’t conform to the regulations should be handled, what constitutes too much noise and how many signs you can have, how big they can be and where you can put them.

General Use Standards

While most residents are not going to conduct extraction operations or set up a mobile home park on their piece of Chester, there’s plenty for the average homeowner to mull over in this section of the proposed bylaws.

The new noise proposal brought rumblings from the Chester Select Board on its first look at the bylaws and was one of the sections that was sent back to the planning commission for review.

The new proposal says that noise cannot exceed 60 decibels (normal conversation) from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. and cannot exceed 70 decibels (TV audio or the human voice at 10 feet) the rest of the time. These levels are measured at the property line and apply to all districts. There are “limited exceptions” for “occasional and customary” activities such as regular property maintenance involving lawnmowers and snowblowers.

The standard does not take into account many activities regularly carried on in rural settings including cutting firewood (a chainsaw runs at 120dB, ) wood chipping (107 dB,) milling wood and snowmobiling (both 100dB.) The select board asked if it was appropriate to put restrictions on the commercial and industrial zones and remove the restrictions from residents. The planning commission looked at the issues and decided to let the noise levels stand.

Sign regulations also fall under the general standards, and here most of the rules remain the same, although Home Occupation and Home Business uses will see proposed sign sizes cut in half for all new signs. All new signs would also have to have “no less than 75% of the surface of each sign” in “muted, harmonious color tones.”

The sign regulations will continue to mandate maximum sign sizes, although from a practical standpoint they may be considered backward in terms of effectiveness. Currently, and going forward in the proposed regulations, signs in the Village Center, Stone Village and residential commercial areas where the speed limit is 30 or under may be twice the size (24 sq. ft.) of those in other districts (12 sq. ft.) where the cars pass the signs at 50 mph or faster.

The standards section of the proposed bylaws addresses in much greater detail the questions that surround lots, buildings and uses that do not conform to the proposed regulations.

A non-conforming building might be one that’s closer to the street or its neighbors than setbacks would allow. A non-conforming use could be a restaurant that’s in a zoning district where that use is no longer permitted for a new business. If the new bylaws are adopted, property owners must adhere to the requirements – including timeframes – to preserve the use or the right to have the building in that place. For example, if a house that’s a few feet from the road was to burn, reconstruction of that house must begin within two years. In the case of the restaurant example above, the non-conforming use must be kept current. If the restaurant use is discontinued for two years or changed to a conforming use, the non-conforming use is lost.

In all cases, the degree of non-conformance can’t be increased. So for the house next to the road and close to its neighbors, the owner can’t add a porch that would violate the setbacks further. For the restaurant example, it could not lengthen its hours, increase the number of tables or add employees or expand the use in other ways.

There is, however a new twist in non-conforming uses that – curiously enough – is not listed in this section. Arising from the DRB’s rejection of a local business’s application to crush a pile of stone already on its site and sell it because retail sales were not allowed in that area, the planning commission created the Temporary Use as part of the Development Review Procedures. Under a temporary use permit, a property owner would be allowed to use property for something that is not listed as a use for that zoning district. The use would have to be reviewed by the DRB and the use would have to be discontinued after six months. The owner could, however, ask the DRB for two extensions of three months each. The allowance of a temporary non-conforming use would be at the discretion of the DRB and no bond for reversing the effects or restoring the area of the use.

Subdivision Standards

Whether it’s dividing a lot to give land to grandchildren or creating a housing development, subdividing comes with a host of issues like standards for roads, sidewalks, driveways, the design of utilities and other matters. These seem like they would only pertain to big subdivisions. But they need to be worked out for the small ones too so there are no complications about access and rights-of-way in the future. If you have any plans to divide land, read the section starting on Page 49.


There are more than 60 definitions at the end of the bylaws. To fully understand the text, it’s helpful to refer to them often.

How will they hold up in court?

Most of the buildings that will get built under these regulations will be fairly ordinary and won’t cause much fuss. Occasionally however, a project will come along that will require interpretation of the bylaws by a court.

Words like “may” or “should” or “are encouraged to” make them difficult to defend legally. On the other hand, words like “must” or “shall” or “will” make the laws stronger. The planning commission has gone a long way to making the language more concrete and legally defensible. Adding more definitions for descriptions like “the center of Chester” and “over-all New England architectural appearance” would make the regulations even more airtight.

The Chester Planning Commission will hold a public meeting to hear comments on the new bylaws at 7 p.m. on Monday May 19 on the second floor of Chester Town Hall, 556 Elm St. Unless the commission makes substantial changes to them, as a result of the meeting, the new bylaws will go to the Chester Select Board for public hearings before they can be adopted.

Next week: The scorecard on items that the Select Board sent back for review and we look at enforcement. One select board member has said “We don’t enforce.” What do you think about zoning and enforcement? Let us know. Got questions? We’ll look into them: Please put ZONING QUESTION in the subject line.

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