Select Board hears concerns on raising lot sizes in Chester; sets tax rate; OKs Whiting grant; discusses Open Meetings Law

By Shawn Cunningham
©The Chester Telegraph – 2014

A very small crowd showed up for the Wednesday, July 2 Chester Select Board meeting even though the topics to be discussed – zoning and tax rates – are often hot button issues.

Chester resident Paul Dexter questions the proposal to raise the subdivision size of property to 3 acres from 2. Photos by Cynthia Prairie

Chester resident Paul Dexter questions the proposal to raise the subdivision size of property to 3 acres from 2. Photos by Cynthia Prairie

While the adoption of new tax rates is more or less proforma, the zoning bylaws agenda item was to be a warned public meeting required by law to inform the public of the changes in zoning and to elicit public comment. Some of those attending the meeting asserted that having zoning bylaws hearing as the seventh item on the agenda that included an executive session as No. 3 might have contributed to the low turnout.

The only paid advertisement for the hearing appeared in the Vermont Journal earlier on the day of the hearing. According to assistant to the town manager Julie Hance, made a two week ad buy with the Journal, but was unaware that the advertisement had not shown up in the June 25th issue.

Chairman John DeBenedetti set a limit of 45 minutes on the zoning segment of the meeting and board member Tom Bock – who serves as chairman of the commission — moved from the board table to the audience. (No other members of the five-member Planning Commission were present.) The Select Board then made a page-by-page review of the changes made by the Planning Commission since it first reviewed the bylaws and sent them back to the commission at its Sept. 4, 2013 meeting.

Among the areas that the board asked the commission to look at were a reduction of conditional uses in all zoning districts, increased lot size in R80, regulation of ridgeline development and stringent new noise limits. With the exception of adding some conditional uses to several zones, no changes were made in these areas.

“In a tough economy, some people need to sell some of their land.
… I don’t see any reason for this (raising the minimum lot size).
I think it’s bad policy.”

Paul Dexter
Chester resident

Chester resident Paul Dexter asserted that the change from R80, with a minimum lot size of 80,000 square feet, to R3 with a minimum lot size of 130,680 square feet — or 3 acres — was not a good idea. Dexter, who is the zoning administrator for Londonderry and Weston, noted that R80 encompasses most of the town’s land and that making subdividing much more difficult or impossible for the largest segment of the town would have adverse economic effects. “In a tough economy,” said Dexter, “some people need to sell some of their land.”

Dexter also noted that the maximum that Vermont allows for a “house site” in calculating property taxes is 2 acres. The new 3-acre subdivision standard would mean requiring residents to take on a higher tax burden that could be avoided by dividing in 2-acre increments.

Originally, the larger lot sizes were being justified by more stringent septic regulations – reckoning that a house needed a 3-acre lot to have sufficient space for a septic system. Dexter pointed out that since the state has taken over the regulation of septic systems, it is not a matter of acreage, but whether a lot of any size will take a system.

Bock, addressing the Select Board, said that while septic systems were part of the calculation, this change stemmed from town planning workshops held in 2008 in which people “your constituents,” thought that larger lots were more desirable. Bock then noted that Green Mountain Turnpike, where Dexter lives, would be a less desirable neighborhood if landowners could cut up lots into 80,000 square foot parcels as is currently the law.

But Dexter replied, “I don’t see any reason for this. I think it’s bad policy.”

The Zoning Bylaws hearing was adjourned to 6:00 pm on Wednesday July 16th in line with audience requests that it be at the beginning of a meeting or a separate meeting.  Hance said that while it was not necessary to warn the resumption of an adjourned meeting, she would do so in this case.

Discussing issues on Wednesday, July 2 were, from left, town manager David Pisha, Select Board chair John DeBenedetti, and board members Tom Bock, Derek Suursoo, Bill Lindsey and Arne Jonynas. Click photo to enlarge.

Discussing issues on Wednesday, July 2 were, from left, town manager David Pisha, Select Board chair John DeBenedetti, and board members Tom Bock, Derek Suursoo, Bill Lindsey and Arne Jonynas. Click photo to enlarge.

Tax rates increase

DeBenedetti read a statement on the budget and the tax rates necessary to cover the expenses of the town and its schools. For 2014, the tax rates – per $100 of assessed value – are as follows: Municipal Rate $.6307, Local Arrangement $.0052, Non-Resident Education $1.4753, Resident Education $1.3898.

This makes the overall Non-Resident rate $2.1112  (up from $1.9506 in 2013) while the overall Resident rate will be $2.0257 (up from $1.8341 in 2013.) The board expressed its frustration with the education tax numbers that are generated by the state of Vermont. “Up to here,” said member Derek Suursoo motioning toward his neck. Board member Arne Jonynas expressed dismay that while town and school boards work hard to hold the line on expense increases, the state comes back with an education rate that’s well above those.

The board said that nobody understood the formula that is used to calculate the state education rate and that a state official who had agreed to explain it had retired. Town manager David Pisha said that the town has made calls to find a replacement. “We’ve talked about this before,” said Suursoo, “let’s just do it.”

Library grant accepted; Open Meetings requirement still confuses

In other matters, the Select Board approved accepting the USDA Rural Development grant and loan for repairs to the Whiting Library. Two weeks ago, the USDA announced that the town had been awarded a grant of $41,900 and a loan of $57,900 for a total of $99,800 toward the $119,800 cost of making repairs and restoration of the 122 year old Whiting Library building.

A commitment to accepting the USDA money and doing the project was Article 5 on the Town Meeting agenda last March, but before those attending could vote on it, board chair DeBenedetti moved to amend the article to give the Select Board control over whether the funds would be accepted. This gave the board the option – if the grant was not fully funded – of rejecting it or contracting for less work than laid out in the grant proposal. With the fully funded grant, the board took up a motion to accept the grant/loan combination, thanking Hance for  writing the proposal. Hance said that the work would be going out to bid soon.

  • In its executive session the board interviewed Phil Perlah for the Development Review Board position that was left vacant by the death of Heidi Ladd. Returning from the session, the board approved the appointment to fill the term through June of 2016.
  • At the beginning of the meeting, the board spent several minutes questioning illegible names on visitors list from June 18. This was also an issue with the visitors list from the June 4 meeting. That list was then compared with the voter checklist and town grandlist to no avail. The board took up the tabled minutes from that meeting and approved them.
  • Continuing the discussion from the Wednesday, June 18 meeting concerning the state’s new Open Meetings Laws, the board announced the retirement of board secretary Georgia Ethier and the appointment of Hance in her place.

While Ethier put together minutes from SAPA-TV’s DVD, which would be available on the Friday or Monday following the Select Board meeting,  Hance will attend the meetings and take notes, then transcribe the notes to post the minutes on the town website within five days as now required by state law. But Hance has said she would only take on the job if the Select Board were less verbose. Recent meetings have gone past midnight.

“We need to control our windiness,” observed Suursoo.

But DeBenedetti reiterated the claim that if a town board (See: New Open Meetings laws stumps some on board) does not meet the legal requirement that it post meeting minutes on its website within five days, “you have to take down your website … that’s how drastic it is. ” However, once again, The Chester Telegraph has determined that that is not the case. Steve Jeffrey, executive director for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said in an interview Tuesday that while the requirement to post minutes on the website within five days is law, it was only the advice of VLCT that if a body could not comply to take its website down. At this point, there are no penalties for failing to comply, but they will go into effect in July 2015 but shutting a website down is not one of the penalties.

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