Huge changes possible in Chester’s proposed new bylaws First in a series: Initial read finds longer, more complex document, inconsistencies

By Shawn Cunningham
© Telegraph Publishing LLC

On Monday night, the Chester Planning Commission got back to work on its total rewrite of the town’s Unified Development Bylaws with the intention of bringing them to the required public hearings this summer before sending them to the Select Board to consider.

Longtime member Naomi Johnson will be leaving the commission when her term ends this month

But based questions about the document and on recent events – including an internal rift that resulted in the removal of the commission’s chairman and the imminent departure of a key member – that’s looking like a pretty big lift.

The current bylaws incorporate zoning and subdivision regulations with flood hazard mitigation rules. The proposed new bylaws, which the commission has been working on for two and a half years, rose out of an audit of the town’s current bylaws to see if they were in conformance with Chester’s Town Plan. The result is a wholesale change in everything from format to zoning districts and uses to administrative procedure.

At Monday’s meeting, members agreed on the wording of a press release, which you can read here, that asks for public participation going forward and encouraging residents “to ask questions, gain clarity, voice any concerns and provide feedback…” But just reading the draft of the proposed bylaws will require a substantial time commitment.

Big changes, big book

A comparison of the font sizes of the two documents. The current bylaws are at the top with the proposed bylaws below.

The first thing one notices is the length of the new bylaws compared to those currently in place. The current bylaws run to 139 pages while the most recent version of the proposed bylaws is 245 pages long. But the two documents are set in different fonts and font sizes. If the proposed bylaws were set in the style of those currently in force, they would run well over 300 pages.

In addition to its greater length, the document is also more complicated, with a lot of cross-referencing between areas like the table that lists uses by district and the definitions of those uses. Unless the reader has a paper copy, going back and forth between sections can be cumbersome using the online version. (The current bylaws have a single definitions section in the back.)

The online version – or one downloaded to a personal computer – can be handy when searching for specific terms that may appear in several different areas of the document. Thus a potential applicant for a permit can do searches on terms that may apply to the desired use and find things like parking and landscaping regulations that may relate to his or her application.

New districts, new and inconsistent uses

The new bylaws redraw and rename the town’s zoning districts with the goal of concentrating business activity in the downtown areas and limiting growth in the more rural areas. Thus, the minimum lot sizes for building and subdividing along the dirt roads are going up while the allowable uses in those areas are diminished.

This is most true in the districts called Rural 6 and 18 which comprise the vast majority of the land area of Chester.  In these proposed districts, the minimum lot size for a residential lot is to be 3 acres and a non-residential lot will be 6 and 18 acres respectively and subdividing these lots would require larger tracts of land than it would today.

One of seven maps that can be found on the Planning Commission’s page on the Chester Town website

At the same time, if the new bylaws are approved, many of the uses that are currently allowed  would be subject to a conditional use permit (like a single-family dwelling) or prohibited altogether like most commercial and retail uses. The result may be a diminished value of the property leading to the appealing of the tax assessment.

But while a restaurant or a bar would be prohibited in Rural 6 and Rural 18, event facilities and social clubs would be conditional uses in both and a golf course or country club (with a clubhouse) would be a “permitted use” in Rural 6. However, the definitions of all of these uses include food and beverage service much the same as the prohibited bar or restaurant.

The inconsistencies are not limited to rural areas. For example, the Village 12 district includes the buildings on the south side of Main Street from School Street to Cobleigh. In other words the Green. And on page 26 the proposed bylaws say that an “inn” is permitted without noting that 137 pages further on the “inn” must “be located within a single-family dwelling and/or accessory building(s)…”

Effectively, that makes the venerable Fullerton Inn into a “non-conforming use,” which would mean that future alterations, expansions, improvements etc. might be difficult or even not be allowed because such work would expand the non-conformity.

Administrative process, public input diminished

One of the most striking features of the proposed bylaws is the movement away from conditional use permits for many of the uses that have been conditional in the past and toward permits issued by the Zoning Administrator, without a hearing and presumably without notice to adjoining properties.

For example, that golf course that would be permitted in Rural 6 does not appear to need any review other than that of the Zoning Administrator and a site plan approval by the DRB. And while the proposed bylaws have detailed definitions and standards for “home business” that requires a Rural 6 resident to obtain a conditional use permit, there are apparently no such “specific use standards” for a golf course/country club (including a clubhouse with food and beverage service,) which would apparently be able to get a permit with just one signature. Under current bylaws, the only uses for which  the Zoning Administrator can give permits are residential and farming.

The draft bylaws are silent on the question of notice to adjoining property owners for the many uses that were once in the  conditional use column but have been moved to permitted.

The proposed bylaws do give the town a backdoor to allow uses that are not allowed in the regulations, called “The Materially Similar Use.” That means “the Zoning Administrator may make a written determination that a proposed use not listed on the use table (see Section 2112) as permitted or conditional in any district is materially similar to a use listed as permitted or conditional in the applicable zoning district and that it should be allowed to the same extent and subject to the same standards as that listed permitted or conditional use…”

And this would put zoning into the realm of individual judgment calls.

In weeks to come

These are just a few of the situations uncovered in an initial reading of the proposed bylaws. Over the next few weeks The Telegraph will look at many aspects of the proposed new bylaws including their effects on various business sectors and zoning districts in Chester. We will also look at the ongoing drafting process and how residents can add their thoughts and opinions. Finally we will look at what is required of the process for adopting a new set of bylaws.

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