Chester Planning Commission ousts its chair

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

By a vote of four to zero on Monday night, the Chester Planning Commission removed Peter Hudkins from his position as its chairman. The action was based on a presentation Hudkins made before the Select Board at its meeting last Wednesday in which commission members said he represented his own opinions rather than the decisions of the commission.

The special meeting, which was conducted via Zoom, lasted about 90 minutes and was tense and occasionally confrontational throughout.

‘I was your crazy old uncle last Wednesday,’ Peter Hudkins told the Chester Planning Commission at its special meeting on Monday. All photos by Shawn Cunningham

“Peter, you’ve lost all my trust in what you did on Wednesday night… you have just not been honest with us. I cannot follow leadership that I can’t trust to tell me the truth,” said commission member Tim Roper as he made a motion to remove Hudkins.

The other commission members — Naomi Johnson, Barre Pinske and Cheryl Joy Lipton — expressed similar sentiments during an extensive discussion of a list of statements Hudkins had made at the select board meeting. The list, prepared by Johnson and Roper, was organized into three categories: “false statements, misleading statements and statements that need review and further discussion.”

Chair’s presentation angers commission members

The commission’s problems came to light last week when the Chester Select Board requested brief progress reports from the Planning Commission and the Development Review Board.

Tim Roper moved to removed Hudkins from the chair saying ‘I cannot follow leadership that I can’t trust to tell me the truth’

For about two and a half years, the Planning Commission has been working on a new set of zoning regulations — the Unified Development Bylaws. Those bylaws cover zoning districts and land uses, subdivision standards and flood hazard regulations among many other topics and are supposed to be “in conformance” with the Town Plan that is updated and revised along a regular schedule. The most recent version of the plan was adopted by the Select Board in May 2020.

To bring those documents into agreement, the town hired planning consultant Brandy Saxton to compare the current bylaws, which were adopted in 2017, with the Town Plan, which was in the process of being revised, then to make suggestions on the direction in which to go.

In preparation for the presentation, according to the minutes of a Feb. 15 commission meeting, members discussed what documents should be sent to the select board and what would be part of the presentation. But Johnson said that at the Select Board meeting, Hudkins presented his own report that was prepared independently from the commission.

‘You did not read one word of what was presented by the (commission) to read. That was your job,’ said Barre Pinske

In a rambling presentation that night, Hudkins brought up a number items in the draft bylaws focusing heavily on new zoning districts designed to conserve large forest blocks and concentrate business activities more in the village area and characterizing  several effects of the changes as “some nasty details.”

Hudkins also pointed to large changes in the application process for zoning permits and in the functions and responsibility of the Development Review Board and the Zoning Administrator. Under the proposed plan, the latter would be able to approve a large number of permits for uses that are currently conditional without hearings or notification of abutters.

“The things I’ve just described are the majority opinion of the planning board,” said Hudkins. “I have some opinions about this … when you take this big jump you lose a lot of your conductivity around zoning.”

Hudkins also told the board that the bylaws – which have grown in the current draft from 139 pages to more than 240 – “lack clarity and transparency” and he complained that the process of drafting them lacks public input, especially since the Covid-91 pandemic.

“Wow,” said Select Board chair Arne Jonynas, reacting to the presentation, “I don’t know how to take this or where to go with it … something doesn’t sound right.”

“I think the presentation by Peter mischaracterized our work and I’m a little upset about it,” said Commission member Tim Roper during the meeting.

Hudkins asked the board to give the commission guidance on where to go before they start work again, but Jonynas pushed back, saying that this is the job of the Planning Commission to find agreement.

‘…happy to be removed from the chair’

I was your crazy old uncle last Wednesday,” Hudkins told the specially called Planning Commission meeting on Monday night, opening the discussion of his Select Board presentation. He went on to say that he has had questions during his two-year tenure on the commission (including one year as the chairman) and hoped that by challenging the commission’s work to date, the members would speak up and defend it.

Former chair Naomi Johnson told Hudkins he had violated the commission’s rules of procedure.

But members rejected Hudkins’ explanation, saying that he appeared at the meeting to forward his personal opinions when he should have been representing the board as a whole.

“Even though two days before meeting we discussed what would be provided to the Select Board and he did not let us know that he had prepared anything, in fact he told us he was unable to prepare something,” said Johnson who added that Hudkins knew that she and recording secretary Cathy Hasbrouck were preparing reports and did not say the he was also preparing a presentation independently.

“That was against our rules of procedure for the Planning Commission,” said Johnson.

Johnson also asserted that the vast majority of the concerns Hudkins had discussed with the Select Board were issues he had never discussed with the Planning Commission.

“I have a right to my opinion, absolutely,” said Hudkins. “And there are times when I don’t represent this board and can speak at the Select Board on my opinion.”

“That wasn’t it,” Roper interjected.

Cheryl Joy Lipton told Hudkins he was supposed to represent the whole commission, not ‘to hash out the issues you don’t believe in.’

Lipton told Hudkins he was supposed to represent the commission as a whole to the Select Board, “not to give your opinion. It wasn’t to hash out the issues you don’t believe in.”

“You did not read one word of what was presented by the board to read. That was your job,” said Pinske.

The commission then went through a list of more than a dozen of Hudkins’ statements, with Johnson pointing to more than half of them categorized as either “false” or “misleading.” Some of these – especially those having to do with the number of acres needed to subdivide in a rural district – were technical and not easily understood and, at several points, commission members agreed that subjects that Hudkins pointed to were not clear in the draft and needed further work.

Roper said that he was also upset that the bylaws had been talked about on Wednesday as if they were complete when the document is just a draft and some of it hasn’t even been discussed by the commission yet.

Hudkins noted that “almost nothing (of the current bylaws) was left unchanged,” but said that that the regional planning commission had told Saxton not to change everything in the bylaws.

Regional Planning’s Jason Rasmussen told The Telegraph his organization did not take part in the process Telegraph file photo

In an interview with The Telegraph on Monday morning Jason Rasmussen, Director of Planning for the Mount Ascutney Regional Commission or MARC (formerly the Southern Windsor Regional Planning Commission) said that MARC supports the process but did not play a roll in the work and “had no role at all with Brandy Saxton.”

That said, Rasmussen noted that sometimes wholesale changes to bylaws are absolutely needed but that everyone should proceed with caution. With regard to issues of density and forest fragmentation, he pointed to 24 VSA 4382 which mandates town plans saying the it’s a new requirement for such plans to address those issues.

“We would be happy to take a look at things,” said Rasmussen, “we exist to serve towns.”

As the commission voted to unseat Hudkins from the chairmanship, he said he spends 10 to 13 hours preparing for each meeting.

“I don’t get paid for it, what I see in details you guys don’t,” said Hudkins. “I’m more than happy to be removed from the chair. That’s fine with me because I don’t have to do the homework anymore.”

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  1. Mary Jane Miles says:

    I was not present for either meeting but I do want to say that I am not in agreement with making it harder to subdivide our land, requiring 36 acres and definitely not in agreement with the Development review board having their say on changes of my homestead along with a lot of the issues it appears from my readings that Mr. Hudkins brought up and that I have heard in discussion on Facebook. I agree he should speak for the board as is required for the position but my eyes and ears are now open to something happening that I was unaware of in possible changes to our bylaws and regulations. I caution our residents to pay attention these kinds of changes take away your rights on your property when more regulation is added. It also limits the town in its ability to grow and thrive. Please be diligent and pay attention and participate when your boards have meetings.

  2. G Donohue says:

    Glad there is someone questioning this plan. I attended the open house a while back when this was first unveiled and I expressed serious concern regarding the direction being taken. At that time the proposal was for 18 acre zoning for forested land to be subdivided. Now 36? Having worked with home owners who were impacted when town zoning went from 2 to 3 acres, changing the zoning to 6 acres seems extreme. It is healthy for a board to disagree and have open discussion especially regarding a plan that proposes such significant changes.

  3. First thank you, I must have misspoke as I thought I had said minority and that it was my opinion. The change in the details is clear when the by-laws go from 143 pages in the current by-laws to over 200. More regulation.

  4. kurt voight says:

    Why would the town/PC hire an outside consultant? I am on the Reading PC/ZBA and we have been helped by Jason Rasmussen and the staff at MARC during our zoning update and the ongoing current town plan update. Jason and the staff are excellent.

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