Sign dust-up highlights ongoing permitting problems in Chester

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Chester Select Board heard nearly an hour of public comment at its Wednesday, Dec. 7 meeting. This included a discussion of an issue that echoed questions of procedures not followed and unilateral action taken in a recent zoning controversy, in which a building was constructed with a permit but without due process, a situation the board seemingly has decided to ignore.

Michael Alon, owner of DaVallia Art and Accents, a home decor and jewelry store on the Green, came before the board to ask for permission to put 2-foot by 5-foot banners at each end of the Green to promote the “shop local” campaign being put on by Chester merchants in and around the Green.

Chairman John DeBenedetti told Alon that he thought the banners had gone up the previous week, to which  Alon explained that the effort by the merchants had come up at the last minute and he had spoken with Select Board member Dan Cote about getting permission.

Former board member Derek Suursoo notes that unilateral action takes away the public's right to comment. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Former board member Derek Suursoo notes that unilateral action takes away the public’s right to comment. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Cote said he had emailed Town Manager David Pisha about the matter and Pisha told the board that he did not give Alon permission for the signs.

“Who did?” asked DeBenedetti.

“I did,” replied Cote.

DeBenedetti told Cote that board members don’t act unilaterally and expressed his concerns about the historic nature of the Green. Resident Derek Suursoo agreed, telling Cote, “When you make unilateral decisions you take away someone’s right to comment.”

Board members Ben Whalen and Arne Jonynas expressed support for the effort but said there is a process for such things and since the discussion was not warned, the board could not take any action. Pisha told The Telegraph on Tuesday that he did not add the issue to the agenda because he thought it was done and therefore a moot point.

Board member Heather Chase asked if there was something that the board could do to work through the issue.

“I have no suggestions,” said DeBenedetti. “Tell me where you want to go.”

Alon pointed to the banners put up for the Fall Festival in September, but DeBenedetti countered that the Chester Rotary had come to the board for permission while the merchants had not.

However, the  Rotary had not.  The SAPA-TV recording of that meeting indicates that the sign issue was never broached and, in an interview on Monday with The Telegraph, Rotary member Malcolm Summers said that he had phoned Town Manager David Pisha to get permission for the signs and was told to speak with Zoning Administrator Michael Normyle who handles sign permits.

According to Summers, Normyle told him, “ ‘I can’t give you permission, but I can’t actually stop you.’ So I went ahead, had the signs made at Vermont Ts and put them up.”

DeBenedetti suggested that Alon find some private land along Main Street across from the Green to put up the banners. The signs have since been taken down.

Making Chester snowmobile friendly


Zoning Administrator Michael Normyle, left, fills the board in on the situation with gas sales for snowmobiles raised by Barre Pinske, right.

While Barre Pinske said he was not speaking on behalf of Stone Hearth Tavern owner Sheldon Ghetler, he noted that Ghetler’s idea of providing a place where snowmobilers could buy gas was a good one that would bolster Chester’s economy by making it more visitor friendly.

Normyle explained to the board that Ghetler had approached both the Planning Commission and the Development Review Board about the issue but had not returned with information that was requested. Cote said it would be great if Normyle reached out to Ghetler to see what could be done. Pisha suggested that Ghetler contact Bob Flint of Springfield Regional Development Corp. to get help with a business plan to make a professional presentation.

Pinske also thanked the board for increasing the number of members of the master planning steering committee from seven to 11 thus allowing him and several others to serve.

Chester resident Gary King told the board he wanted to give a shoutout to the Chester Recreation Department for a great job with the many projects it undertook this year. King made special note of the disc golf course that he and other volunteers constructed and the new ice skating rink at the Pinnacle.

But Dick Jewett of the Chester Snowmobile Club then told the board that he thought the new rink was in a bad location since it would be an obstacle for sledders coming down the hill. Jewett said he was afraid that kids could run into the rink and noted that the Chester Snowmobile Club groomed that slope in the past, but since that made it faster for “sliders” who could run into the rink, the club would not be grooming that portion anymore.

The board also took up the question of expanding the number of members on the Planning Commission from five to seven or nine as allowed by statute. A number of residents have expressed an interest in serving on that board. In a memo to the board, Pisha advocated for keeping the number at five as he said it has been for 50 years. At the meeting, Pisha said that Tom Bock, who has served on the planning commission for a number of years and is stepping down at the end of December to take his seat as a representative in the legislature in Monpelier, told him that there have been attempts to expand the board in the past, but those died out for lack of participation.

Members agreed that their first priority was to find a replacement for Bock. Chase asked that the appointment decision be put on the agenda for the Jan. 4 meeting and it was agreed that the town would advertise for candidates in addition to those who have already expressed their interest. There will be interviews of the candidates and DeBenedetti asked if those needed to be held in executive session. Vermont’s Open Meeting Law says that the board may go into an executive session for the appointment of a public officer but it is not required and any vote on such an appointment must be conducted in public.

With one more meeting left before a budget must be set in early January, the board continued its department by department review, this time looking at Public Works, Planning, Lister and Administration which includes the town’s insurance coverages. As in years past, the question of 100 percent coverage of medical expenses for town employees was considered along with the jump in workers comp and property and casualty insurance premiums.

Pisha said that the town has changed its health insurance coverage every year and had not experienced the kind of increases that others have.

Public Works Superintendent Graham Kennedy defended the purchase of a tractor with a high powered turbine blower to clean ditches, noting that Act 64 , which regulates water runoff and therefore many aspects of road maintenance, mandates lining ditches with stone, making them far more difficult to maintain.

The board approved the annual request on behalf of the Chester Snowmobile Club to use portions of town highways (including Marc’s Drive, and Smokeshire, Blue Hill, Ethan Allen, Nudist Camp, Williams and Cemetery roads) to link portions of the VAST trails.

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  1. Barre Pinske says:

    SAPA-TV has the last Chester Select Board meeting online you can see for your self how difficult a time the board has in figuring out how to create an avenue to place signs on The Green.

    I reviewed the state’s rules for zoning enforcement officers and on Page 8 it clearly states towns can create rules that allow the ZA to work unilaterally in some cases. I don’t want to cast stones but there sure seems to be some serious problems getting things done. I don’t think there is a clear understanding of the rules and “rules” and “budgets” are always reasons why things get done or not.

    If a sign on The Green cannot be easily handled, I wonder what else is really going on. We have a group of people in charge of millions of dollars and influencing our future and they can’t clearly solve a simple problem.

    Let’s not kid ourselves. A lot of things are happening out of personal choices. I hope our town starts to take these things much more seriously> The rough rural economy has put us in a much different position. We need to be much smarter about how we do things than we did in the past.

  2. Sharon Baker says:

    It is unfortunate the Shop Chester Vermont banners on The Green have created such a stir. We put this idea together so quickly in late November and it’s apparent that some things went forward without the needed permission.

    However, in a way, the added attention to several evenings of extended hours of operation could end up being a good thing.

    The positive response has been building over the past several weeks.

    Each business owner in Chester appreciates your patronage and support. If you have a business in Chester and would like to be part of this continuing effort please let us know.
    We have a Facebook page: Shop Chester Vermont.
    Merry Christmas Everyone and Happy New Year!

  3. Lew Watters says:

    It would appear there is an inconsistency in applying a ruling. I would hope that the town recognizes this, and in the interest of the merchants, allows the banners to stand ASAP.
    Are we not in the season of Christmas?
    Where are the wise men bearing gifts?

  4. Barre Pinske says:

    I asked how we can amend the bylaw or add to it at town hall. I was informed this matter is a zoning issue and has to be written into our zoning bylaws. I have made a suggestion to Select Board member Dan Cote and Zoning Administrator Michael Normyle that we add the right to issue a permit for signs on the Green to be allowed by the town manager and engage in the process to make the rule change as soon as possible.

    The current rules to place a sign on the town Green state the public would need to be warned and then the permit voted on by the Select Board, a process taking at least three weeks and the time of office staff and the board. I have suggested wordage to the ordinance that says informational signs regarding events can be considered for approval and approved by the town manager as long as they are not political in nature or considered offensive in some way.

    I think this is a simple solution and hope it gets done quickly with community support. I feel very strongly we should not be afraid to add or modify rules to make our lives easier and more prosperous with acute consideration for all citizens.

  5. Michele Bargfrede says:

    In reference to the signs on the green, this is typical of the town. In one breath they say they want to help business grow in Chester. In the next, they do all the can to make a simple thing so difficult. As business owners we never feel support from the town. Everything is a headache. The merchants and business people of Chester are the soul of the town’s economy. It’s time this town sees the light!