Chester begins zoning audit

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2018 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

The Chester Planning Commission gets a presentation on a zoning audit by Brandy Sexton of PlaceSense. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

As it continues to work on the required update of the Town Plan, the Chester Planning Commission is also embarking – with the help of planning consultant Brandy Sexton – on an audit of Chester’s zoning regulations. The first steps in the work were unveiled at a commission meeting on Monday night.

Vermont statutes mandate that “regulatory tools” that include Chester’s Unified Development Bylaws, must “be in conformance” with the municipal plan. That is to say that it “makes progress toward attaining, or at least does not interfere with, the goals and policies contained in the municipal plan.”

This includes providing for proposed future land uses, densities and intensities of development as well as any specific proposals for community facilities, or other proposed actions in the municipal plan.

In the protracted rewriting of zoning bylaws that took place in 2016 and 2017, several people pointed to disconnects between the zoning bylaws and the Town Plan and land use map. The idea of a zoning audit was proposed to look at these conformance issues and to see if the 1970s era zoning regulations could be modernized to improve the town’s economy while preserving its aesthetics.

As a first step, Sexton produced a comparative analysis of the the Town Plan and Development Bylaws. The 11-inch x 17-inch  document, which runs to 13 pages, looks daunting, but Sexton was able to walk the commission (plus two members of the Development Review Board and three of the Select Board) through the document’s 26 sections. They looked at issues like land use, housing, energy, economic development, energy, transportation and resources.

Sexton takes questions from the commission.

In one column, Sexton notes that a portion of the Town Plan, in the next how that piece is handled by the zoning bylaws and in a third, an assessment detailing how well zoning supports the plan.

The discussion of the analysis ranged from the light residential density in downtown Chester through a discouraging approval process for businesses and a lack of measures to prevent sprawl and preserve historic structures.

Sexton explained that approvals could be streamlined by deciding on a scale (size, number of employees, etc.) that would be a permitted use and only require a site plan review while larger forms of the same business would require a conditional use permit. “Site plan review concerns itself with things like traffic flow within the site, lighting and landscaping, while a conditional use review asks if this is an appropriate use for the site by looking at things like adverse impacts on neighbors, environmental concerns and traffic generation,” she said.

Planning Commission member Barre Pinske asked about zoning by neighborhood, suggesting that the Depot Street portion of Rt. 103, where he lives and works, could be an arts district without conditional use reviews and with less stringent signage rules. “Could there be crazy, arty signage in one area but not in the others?” asked Pinske.

Sexton said towns have different districts with different standards for things like lighting and that signage could be similar.

“Eight or nine districts is not unusual in many towns,” said Sexton.

Sexton’s next step is a “deeper dive” into the zoning districts and zoning maps and she will return with recommendations and examples of some of her observations that several commission members requested.

The Planning Commission normally meets the first and third Monday of each month, but due to the Town Meeting on Monday, March 5, the commission decided to have its next meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 8 at Town Hall, 556 Elm St.

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  1. Barre Pinske says:

    I am extremely pleased with the efforts of our executive secretary Julie Hance in getting us expert help to deal with our zoning challenges. Brandy offered much insight, knowledge and solutions and there’s more to come.

    As a member of the planning board I recognize my job is to represent the best interests of everyone and I can only do that with your input. I hope members of our community will join us in this process and help us steer our town toward the future. With your help we have the ability to make our town what people really want it to be and have it work for all of us in the best way possible.

    We are a small town but have distinct challenges with three unique villages, a small industrial area and large amount rural area. I would like to see ideas proposed, discussed, written up, reviewed, finalized and agreed upon all at the planning level. If you have concerns bring them to us for debate it’s our job to get this right.

    It is my opinion what is proposed in the final document should not be debated in front of the Select board, as it was last year, their approval should be more of a formality. It’s not their job to figure this stuff out it’s ours. Again, please get involved now while the work is being done.