Proposed zoning bylaws raise questions of uses and costs

LAST WEEK: Huge changes possible in Chester’s proposed new bylaws

NEXT WEEK: Subdivision, lot sizes, setbacks, frontage and the “building envelope”

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Nothing characterizes the differences between the Unified Development Bylaws in force today and those being finalized by Chester’s Planning Commission better than their respective zoning maps.

And the effect of those changes on the greatest number of residents appears to be in what is currently the largest zoning district, Residential 3. The “3” refers to the minimum size of a new building lot, which in recent years was changed from 2 acres to 3.  We’ll look at the question of lot sizes, subdivision, setbacks and frontage in a future story.

The current map is predominately one shade of tan that denotes the Residential 3 district, which is well over half the town’s land area. The next largest portion is light green in the northwest corner, representing the Conservation Residential district. That’s followed in size by Residential 40,000 (square feet or roughly 1 acre) and a couple of “forest” areas.  The rest of the map contains a few small districts that make up the downtown area, Gassetts to the north and a district on Route 11 west that contains the former armory.

Note: The two maps below are in a larger format than The Telegraph normally puts on a page. They are large so readers can refer to them while reading rather than clicking back and forth from text to image. Click here for a very detailed pdf image that we put together from six maps available on the town website. This may take a few moments to load and there is a color key to the map in the lower right corner. Click here to go to the Planning Commission page at Chester’s town website where you’ll find the proposed bylaws, maps, the town plan and other materials


Like the current zoning map, the proposed map still has several small multicolored districts surrounding the downtown area, But unlike the old one, large portions of this map are laid out in thick green corridors that follow the roads and rivers.

Most allow a depth of about 1,000 feet on either side of the road before becoming a darker green. The darker the green, the higher the minimum lot size and the more restrictive the zoning. And that is in keeping with the State  of Vermont’s land use philosophy, which is about retaining and preserving the character of the rural area – and especially preserving “forest blocks” – while shifting the business activity into denser, more central areas – like the village.

Three from one

Within the current Residential 3 district (in tan), the proposed bylaws set out three new districts: Rural 3, Rural 6 and Rural 18. These are defined mainly based on their proximity to existing development, what type of road they are served by (paved, dirt, private, etc.) and their “intended” use.

In addition to the goals of protecting the rural character by maintaining open lands and agricultural uses, in Rural 3, the proposed bylaws also mention “thoughtfully siting and designing” new buildings “to fit into” the landscape. And it provides a page of design standards for conditional uses including some (like fuel stations) that currently are not allowed in those areas.

Rural 6 and 18 also have design standards for conditional uses but these only say that new buildings have to look like traditional buildings in the village or agricultural structures, be made of traditional materials and fit in with the natural environment including landscaping which may require a plan created by a licensed landscape architect. Among the conditional uses in Rural 18 is a single family home.

Uses tell the tale

Aside from lot sizes, the proposed mechanism for achieving the state’s “rural character” goal is the regulation of “uses” in areas where less development and change is desired and the opening up of uses where more development is wanted.

A “use” is an activity that a landowner can conduct on a property. A single family dwelling, retail sales and extraction and quarrying are examples of uses, and each district has a menu of allowed uses.

Allowed uses come in two classes: permitted and conditional. A permitted use – like agriculture – requires no permit but any building for a permitted use will require the landowner to get a building permit from the zoning administrator and observe setbacks and other dimensional rules. A conditional use, on the other hand, requires a more detailed review before the Development Review Board often including detailed drawings. And under the proposed bylaws, such a review could trigger a number of unrelated requirements. Keep this in mind for later in this series.

A lot on a paved section of road within the proposed Rural 3 district could have 26 permitted and 38 conditional uses while an adjoining lot on a dirt road in Rural 6 would be reduced to 16 permitted and 21 conditional uses. Rural 18, which is land that is 1,000 feet off a dirt or paved road, would have 10 permitted uses and 15 conditional uses, one of which would be a single-family home that could not be built without DRB approval. But all three rural districts can have museums, commercial outdoor recreation, campgrounds, equestrian facilities, event facilities, social clubs and inns. But something like a small engine repair or metal fabrication shop would not be allowed as the proposed bylaws are currently written.

All three rural districts could have — as conditional uses — specialty schools, which are defined as commercial establishments teaching single subjects like cooking, arts, crafts, dance, music, sports or fitness. At the same time, Rural 6 and 18 would not be allowed to have government facilities, public or private schools and religious institutions.

And finally, a cemetery would be prohibited in Rural 18, but not in Rural 3 and 6. Cemeteries also would be prohibited in Village 6, home to the historic Brookside Cemetery, for which expansion designs have been drawn.

Click here to see a use table that spells out what is allowed in each district of the proposed bylaws.

Predictable, but unknowable costs

A few years ago a Select Board member who lived in the village questioned the need for the town’s fleet of dump trucks to maintain far flung dirt roads.

Curious about this, The Telegraph did a quick project to see how much of Chester’s Grand List — representing the value of all property in Chester for taxation — was in the village and how much was rural. Using the Grand List and subtracting every resident and business that uses town water, we found that approximately 67 percent of the real property value in Chester is rural. About 27 percent was in the village and about 6 percent was exempt from taxes.

The limitations in lot sizes and the loss of uses will tend to reduce the value of existing lots. Landowners would be within their rights to ask for a reduction in their assessments based on such losses and that could mean some reduction in the Grand List, not to mention the amount of work that would be needed to handle a number of such requests.

Whatever losses in the Grand List would have to be offset by increases in tax rates. During the Feb. 17 Select Board meeting, then commission chair Peter Hudkins said the consequences of such a loss would mean the village areas would be “subsidizing” the rural areas, but a reduction in the Grand List would affect all taxpayers.

Some members of the Planning Commission have said that the economic and tax implications are not part of their work. But the prime directive in designing the bylaws is to make them conform to the Town Plan and, according to the Vermont statutes governing the preparation of the plan, when altering the designation of any land area the planning commission must consider

(1) The probable impact on the surrounding area, including the effect of any resulting increase in traffic, and the probable impact on the overall pattern of land use.

(2) The long-term cost or benefit to the municipality, based upon consideration of the probable impact on:

  • (A) the municipal tax base; and
  • (B) the need for public facilities.



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  1. Tim Roper says:

    I’m surprised to see this speculative and assumptive paragraph included: “The limitations in lot sizes and the loss of uses will tend to reduce the value of existing lots. Landowners would be within their rights to ask for a reduction in their assessments based on such losses and that could mean some reduction in the Grand List, not to mention the amount of work that would be needed to handle a number of such requests.”

    I don’t think those are factual statements. Think about those areas in more developed towns which have the largest lot sizes. They become more highly valued properties due to their rural nature, quiet surroundings and the increased privacy they provide. The legal ability to subdivide a piece of land is not a tangible asset in and of itself. Nor is subdivision of a piece of land a given, just because zoning allows for it. Very little of the proposed R-18 area lends itself to subdivision at all due to the terrain, lack of accessibility and the fact that the vast majority of those properties are enrolled in the Current Use Program, which carries significant financial penalties when withdrawing any land from the program.

    Let’s please be careful and a little more thoughtful about what conclusions we assume with regard to the creation of zoning bylaws which are more closely aligned with our existing Town Plan. Change, while challenging for some, is certainly not always a bad thing and is often desirable. The work being done by the Planning Commission is an attempt to balance many different factors which together, create the look, feel and quality of life within our beautiful town. I believe we are doing a good job with creating that balance and that future news stories on this topic will laud the vision and hard work being done by this group.

    One last thing that I will repeat as often as needed; this is not a final document and as such, there are still some inconsistencies and contradictions which are yet to be addressed. It’s helpful to have those things pointed out so we can reference our existing list and add those which are not yet included there. Please join our regular meetings if you have input, questions or concerns. There will be public workshops this summer followed by public hearings before the Planning Commission finalizes the document and sends it to our Select Board for their approval. The Select Board will convene additional public hearings to further vet the document with Chester’s residents and property owners. I invite you to participate in of all of that.

  2. Barre Pinske says:

    As a planning board member I think it’s great we are getting more eyeballs looking through the bylaws.

    They say no one on a board shows up without an agenda. If I have one it’s trying to do the best I can for the citizenship that feels they do not have a voice. That being said on paper some things may seem odd and or may not make sense without deeper digging.

    When we had our consultant working with us it was quite a learning experience for me. I believe we are doing many things to make things better for our town including making processes easier by adding more permitted uses in proper areas for them. With respect to the rural areas which are generating a lot of discussion I believe we have found a nice balance with respect to usable land and conservation.

    I think we were very creative in making sure land along the better roads was available for business, subdivision and rural development.

    We are unique much our land is mountainous, contains rivers, flood plains and wetlands it’s not prime flat ground. Also a huge amount of the proposed R18 is in current use so it’s already in a non development contract with reduced taxes. If that land were to be developed there is a hefty fee. Also, we all need to keep in mind Act 250 can effect development projects over 10 acres that’s a costly hurdle. I’m amazed at how much the State can influence our decision making through statutes and mandates.

    Ultimately zoning is put in place to help us all be good neighbors and good stewards of the land. No one wants to see people’s rights taken away or hardship put on people. The whole country has zoning I lived in Ma home occupation does not exist in many places there in Vt it’s part of the culture and available everywhere.

    We have it good in a lot of ways and more words does not mean things are going to be worse. We don’t have much new development but new zoning means a new project will have proper set backs, a parking plan, have to deal with traffic and run off etc. none of that is bad.

    It’s easy to see when you try to park in an odd lot some place or there is ice on a road on a down hill corner the result of development with out planning and that’s the nuts and bolts of it. I’m an artist I’m not big on rules this is an interesting experience and like a sculpture something we can shape. I think it would be cool for us to have some of the best zoning for a small town in the whole country. Lets work together to make that happen.

  3. Scott MacDonald says:

    These changes affecting taxation, is part of what the commission needs to consider. They are responsible for how these changes affect the people in our town, and refining will affect property value, and taxes.

    People move here in good faith, based on the conditions at the time, and changing them in ways that devalue their property, or increase their taxes is absolutely something that they need to not only be aware of, but consider in their plans. They are changing more than just colors and lines on a map. This changes the value of property.