An Analysis: Part 4: Chester’s proposed bylaws need further changes, enforcement


This is the last in a series of articles about the proposed Unified Development Bylaws, which revise and combine zoning regulations, subdivision regulations and flood hazard standards. Proposed changes will affect many landowners. At 7 p.m. Monday, May 19, the Chester Planning Commission will meet at Chester Town Hall, 556 Elm St., to hear public comments on the bylaws. Read the proposed bylaws by clicking here.  See the zoning map here.

To read the series click:

Proposed zoning districts. Click map to enlarge. This is a large file and may take a few seconds to load.

Proposed zoning districts. Click map to enlarge. This is a large file and may take a few seconds to load.

News Analysis

By Shawn Cunningham

After a multi-meeting review of the new bylaws, the Chester Select Board asked the planning commission to go back to the drawing board and consider several suggestions made by select board members and the public. The planning commission held a number of hearings this past winter and here is a brief scorecard on how these suggestions fared. The suggestion is numbered, the action is below it in bold.

  1.  Revisit reduction of conditional uses in most zoning districts.
    The Planning Commission added Civic/Institutional use for R3 and Conservation/Residential and added a new A3 district for Armory area. No other changes were made.
  2.  Revisit changing the district from R80 (minimum lot size of 80,000 or 1.8 acres) to R3 (minimum lot size of 3 acres). R80 would allow for more subdivision of smaller lots.
    No changes were made by the Planning Commission.
  3. Consider regulating ridgeline development.
    No changes were made. The only mention of ridgelines are in General Standards for Planned Unit Developments.
  4. Revisit more stringent noise limits that only would allow for a noise level (at a property line) of a television or normal speech.
    No changes were made.
  5. Revisit language to make regulations less ambiguous and more concrete to increase enforcement and reduce suits.
    There is more definite language in the text, although a thorough review of the bylaws finds a number of examples (e.g., should instead of shall) in which changing would improve the legal defensibility of the bylaws.
  6. Revisit Planned Unit Development standards to avoid stigmatizing affordable dwelling units.
    No changes made.
  7. Revisit restrictions on sawmills in forestry districts and clarify forestry as it relates to agriculture.
    No change to definition, no reference to state agriculture statutes.

Enforcement — or lack thereof

It has been said that locks are for honest people. Locks define a boundary that the honest person will respect. Zoning codes are like locks. Most people will respect them as a statement of the will of the community and try to stay within them. But when someone goes outside the community standard, the zoning code is only as good as the resolve of the community to enforce them.

“We don’t enforce,” Select Board member Derek Suursoo admitted at a meeting to consider the new bylaws last September. But if a town has a reasonable zoning code, the key to seeing that the zoning regulations are applied fairly and firmly is in the hands of the Select Board through its budgeting function.

The administration of zoning in Chester – from a simple permit for building a woodshed to a major development with subdivisions — falls to zoning administrator Michael Normyle, who is budgeted to work one eight-hour day each week. Normyle handles the paper work for permits but is also responsible for zoning enforcement, which includes checking on reported violations, sending and following up on violation letters and working with the Development Review Board on permits requiring conditional use permits. Because Normyle does not usually have time to visit every building site to check that zoning standards like frontage, setbacks, lot coverage and building heights have been met, violations may be overlooked unless another party reports them.

The DRB often sets conditions on permits, and with the reduced number of conditional uses named in each district, the DRB will have more discretion for deciding what will be appropriate for that district. In many situations, the DRB could employ conditions to fine tune a proposed use under the new bylaws. For example, a retail store might get a permit with the condition that it would not display its merchandise outside the store. Unless such conditions were well-known to the general public and the public took the initiative to report them to the town, the store could flout the conditions of its permit and it is unlikely that the zoning administrator would have the time to check that the conditions continue to be met.

The lack of time on the part of the zoning administrator could explain – in part – the fact that in 2013 the town spent only $25.99 out of a budget of $4,000 for enforcement. As the planning commission — with input from the public — puts its final touches on these bylaws and prepares to send them back to the select board for consideration, perhaps the commission might consider making a recommendation for expanding the resources available for administration of the zoning regulations.

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