Chester board hears comment on zoning regs; will interview appointments in public

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the Chester Select Board opened what could be a long series of hearings on proposed changes to the Unified Development Bylaws, with more than 40 residents in attendance.

Chester resident Philip Perlah reads a letter citing his objections to the bylaws into the record. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

The bylaws are the combination of zoning regulations, flood hazard regulations and subdivision standards.

They were adopted (without an updated sign regulation) in September 2014, but when it became clear there were a number of errors and other problems with the bylaws, the Planning Commission, which developed the UDBs initially, began working on corrections along with a new sign ordinance.

The Planning Commission process was characterized by the reduction of a large number of uses in all districts over the objections of a number of residents. At the time, commission chair Tom Bock said the idea was to give the DRB more latitude in deciding what is appropriate for any given district. Then in 2015 and 2016, as the commission worked on the corrections, it added a number of uses to most districts.

Amy Mosher hands the board a copy of her testimony.

Several residents objected to the additions, among them resident Philip Perlah, who read a letter into the record. Amy Mosher told the board that, by statute, the commission was obliged to report the rationale behind all of the changes and how they conform to the Town Plan and the land use map. She asserted that the report was incomplete and inaccurate and therefore in violation of the state law.

Zoning Administrator Michael Normyle defended the report saying that it wasn’t expected that all the changes would appear there. “It’s not perfect, ” said Normyle. “The lion’s share of the changes are there. It’s a good general document.”

Resident Marilyn Mahusky told the board that she had gone to many planning meetings where individual owners requested uses for their businesses. “That’s not what planning is,” said Mahusky, calling it “spot zoning” and adding that the law does not allow that. Mahusky called for “zoning overlays” that create a special district within a zoning district.

Barre Pinske uses a Patriots metaphor to ask the board to move the bylaws forward.

Select Board chair John DeBenedetti noted that research would need to be done on whether there was a violation of statute.

Barre Pinske declared his metaphor for the night to be the Patriots saying that Bill Belichick is not getting input into his game plan from the fans and that “we’ve got people in charge” of planning and urged the Select Board to approve the bylaws.

Gail Stewart asks the board to approve the bylaws including the kennel use.

Gail Stewart told the board that she and her husband Jerry were there to support the bylaws and plead for “animal kennel” as a use in the Commercial Industrial District. In September of last year, Normyle gave the Stewarts a building permit for a 1,200-square-foot building on Elm Street for a use that does not exist for that property, a storage facility.

The Stewarts went ahead and built the building, she said, because of tight ordering and building schedules that made it necessary. The Stewarts hope to open a dog kennel on the property.

Randy Miles said that the document is far from perfect, but that he supports it. He noted that there used to be mills in the center of Chester, but such uses have been pushed out to the edges of town. Miles said that firewood processing – a new use for several districts – was necessary to his landscape supply business, which sits on Route 103 South at Sylvan Road.

In the past, when there were hearings to adopt previous iterations of the bylaws, members of the Planning Commission  would present the document and talk about their decisions. Only one member, Claudio Veliz,  attended the hearing. The board will reconvene this hearing on Chapter 2 on Wednesday, Feb. 15.

Interviews to be conducted in open

The board stepped back from a recommendation that it should interview candidates for a number of town boards and offices in executive session, then it went farther. The interview procedure put forward by Town Manager David Pisha would also have made it a policy to reappoint incumbents without review of performance or consideration of other candidates, but the board nixed that as well.

The question of appointments to the town’s Planning Commission and Development Review Board have been up in the air for months as chair DeBenedetti insisted that the appointments wait until a conflict of interest policy was complete. At DeBenedetti’s urging, that policy included language that prohibited a member of the Planning Commission from being appointed to the DRB and vice versa. It also banned members of the Select Board from serving on either of those panels.

With the conflict of interest policy completed and adopted in the fall, the board put aside the appointments to work on the annual budget. At a Jan. 4 meeting, the board decided it would finalize the process at its Jan. 18 meeting and interview the candidates the following evening. But members got hung up on the problem of candidates late on the schedule gaining an advantage by hearing the questions asked in the earlier interviews. DeBenedetti insisted that if meetings were open, the board could not ask candidates to sit elsewhere until their turn to be interviewed. This led to the cancellation of the scheduled interviews, a consultation with the town attorney and Pisha’s recommendation. (In the meantime, a Telegraph editorial urged the board to hold the interviews in the open.)

Last Wednesday, board member Dan Cote kicked off the discussion saying that he felt the process should be done in the open and that candidates can sit outside the meeting. “That relieves all kinds of questions and concerns from all angles,” said Cote.

Board member Heather Chase said she had received numerous phone calls from people who prefer to have the interviews in open sessions.

“I don’t mind either way,” she said adding, “but I want consistency, to just do it one way.”

The board discussed a number of questions including how to handle re-appointments, forming questions and how the zoning administrator is chosen and evaluated. The members then returned to the idea of executive session.

“I would not participate in a closed season,” said Cote.

With more discussion, the board asked Pisha and executive assistant Julie Hance to re-craft the document to make all interviews public and to advertise and interview for all positions including those that have incumbents.

In response to the delay, Philip Perlah, a DRB member and applicant for an open seat on the Planning Commission who had waited more than six months for an interview, has told the town that since he applied before the prohibition on serving on both boards was instituted, it should not apply to him.

In other action

Lillian Willis describes the work of the historic buildings committee.

Lillian Willis gave the board a presentation about a committee formed among interested residents to help the town prioritize work to preserve historic buildings owned by the town. Willis said the the impetus for the committee was the positive reaction to the restoration of the Hearse House by Chester Townscape. After describing the role the committee plans to fill, Willis said she did not want to go forward without a nod from the board.

Several members praised the idea, but no motion was made or vote taken.

  • Under old business, Pisha told the board that Attorney Jim Goss of Rutland had filed a motion to alter the Act 250 permit that allowed the construction of a water tank on 139 acres of land off Route 103, but severely limited the town’s ability to extract gravel from the same land. Pisha said that there had been no answer on the motion from the district environmental commission, and in answer to a question from Mahusky, he said that Goss charges $290 an hour but he didn’t think he had put much time into the motion. Pisha also said that appealing to the Environmental Court would be more expensive and that would be a decision for the board.
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