Fractious Chester Planning Commission elects chair on a coin flip

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Chester Planning Commission met on Monday night for the first time since the town’s Select Board removed one member and appointed two more. What that appeared to create was two factions with differing views of zoning and the tie-breaking vote in the hands of a newcomer to the panel.

Commission newcomer Hugh Quinn broke the tie in electing a new chair at his first meeting

The meeting’s short agenda — which included the annual reorganization and general discussions of what the group would work on next — was revised to allow time for each member a chance to talk about his or her philosophy of zoning. That’s when the fissures began to appear.

Hugh Quinn, who was just appointed to his three-year term on March 17, noted that he does not have a lot of history with the board, but that in preparation for the meeting, he read the unified development bylaws now in effect and those that the commission is working on.

“(Chester) should be a place that people want to come and live,” said Quinn, citing the quality of education, affordable housing and other things that would attract people to a town. “It would be good to attract people who have a sense of the common good in addition to their own good,” said Quinn, adding that he believes that plans should be developed to achieve a specific goal or to mitigate a known or probable risk and that the commission should not be looking out into the future for possible things to address. Quinn also said he would like to see the zoning application process streamlined.

Barre Pinske said he joined the commission because it needed members, likening it to joining a sandlot football game that didn’t have enough players. “I don’t have an agenda,” said Pinske, adding that he wanted to do what was best for the community. Pinske said he’d like to see if there are things that should be done – “putting out the biggest fire first” and focusing on things that make people’s lives better.

Peter Hudkins, who was recently removed from the chair by the rest of the group, spoke of practicality.

Former chair Peter Hudkins, left, nominated Cathy Hasbrouck, right, to chair the commission

“Things have to reasonable and be able to be applied,” said Hudkins. “It needs to be agile, not locked down … good internet is changing the people who are here and the outlook that they have. Bylaws need to be transparent … not a set of handcuffs.”

Having been raised in south Florida, Tim Roper said he has seen a paradise experiencing the dangers of poor planning and ruined by rampant development. Roper said this has happened before, in Cape Cod and the coast of Maine and once it’s done, it’s too late to enact zoning bylaws.

“We have a responsibility to do what’s needed and do what’s right for the benefit of our town,” said Roper, who added that the recent influx of new residents puts the town at a crossroads. “Change is continuing and accelerating,” said Roper and permit applications are coming in.

Cathy Hasbrouck, was also appointed on March 17 and who has served as recording secretary to the commission and as assistant and now interim Zoning Administrator, said that she would like to see “more of Chester” in the bylaws. “There’s a huge amount of energy and creativity that has not been tapped. I think we bit off more than we thought and it’s fairly impossible to fairly evaluate something that large,” said Hasbrouck, referring to the proposed bylaws.

She thought the best plan was to break down the large bylaws document into smaller pieces that would be easier to explain and suggested bringing Chester’s energy to it.  And she noted that she felt blessed to have moved to Chester. “I think it’s a wonderful place.”

When it came time to elect a new chairperson for the five-member board, Hudkins nominated Hasbrouck while Pinske nominated Roper and the lines were drawn.

Speaking on behalf of his nominee, Hudkins said there is “a whole lot more detail” in the bylaws and “tax implications that will cost the town.” Hudkins felt that the commission should take one small part – have a meeting, have everyone understand it and move on. Chester, he said, “is never going to be a Woodstock and we shouldn’t” have bylaws that are that restrictive, said Hudkins. He added that he believes Hasbrouck understands that.

With everyone else declining to serve, Barre Pinske was elected vice chair

Pinske said they have talked about that before, adding, “We have a person (Hasbrouck) who is nominated for chair who drank the Peter Kool-aid and we’re putting Hugh (Quinn) in a position … where he’s going to be the person who decides what we are doing here … I’m not happy about this.”

Quinn told the meeting that he has spent hours reading all the documents as well as news coverage of the process and he thinks that wholesale change is difficult and it might be better to take an incremental approach by looking at what’s really important, fixing it and moving on.

“Prior to being a member of the Planning Commission, I was reading the paper, there was obviously a lot of conflict, there was a lot of confusion,” said Quinn. “Whatever you guys were doing, it wasn’t working, maybe it’s time to try something different.

Roper praised Quinn’s effort but said that Quinn does not know all the background. “The change that’s being implemented was requested by our Select Board and our town manager. We were assigned the task of a complete rewrite of our zoning and development bylaws to be in alignment with our town plan and our village master plan.”

Roper continued, “There are state requirements that are not met in the current bylaws that must be met” and, until a year ago, things were going smoothly. Roper also said that the document was larger because there are more zoning districts. “Previously, there were only three zoning districts,” said Roper. No one challenged either statement although the state has fairly few zoning requirements (see below) and the bylaws currently in effect have 10 zoning districts.

Commission member Tim Roper said he did not see the increased length of the document as a problem. ‘I think it’s our friend.’

“I don’t see words as our enemy, I don’t see the size of the document as our enemy. I think it’s our friend,” said Roper, calling changing, cutting or discarding the proposed document “a big mistake and a disservice to the town and the property owners…”

Roper outlined his plan for moving the plan forward if elected chair. He also said the bylaws need an introduction to tell people what they mean and a table of contents and an index.

Saying that the commission wants town participation, Pinske used the metaphor of fans second-guessing sports stars to say the the members    “The idea that  every person in Chester has to understand that is not the the idea. We are appointed people who that have the trust of the citizens  to do the best we can… ultimately it’s our decision.

In the end, the board voted three to two to elect Hasbrouck as commission chair. Quinn said he had decided between Roper and Hasbrouck on a coin flip. Roper seemed skeptical.

“I nominate Peter (Hudkins) vice chair,” said Pinske, “Let’s get the Koolaid pouring.”

Quinn and Roper declined nominations and Hasbrouck called the vote on the nomination of Hudkins. Pinske said that his nomination of Hudkins had been a joke. “If Peter’s vice-chair, I’m resigning right now.”

In the end, Hudkins withdrew and Pinske — the last person standing — was elected vice chair.

What is actually required in Vermont statute

One question that has come up repeatedly is what is required to be in the bylaws. Commission members have repeatedly referred to 24 VSA 4302 as laying out what the commission must do.

Regional Planning’s Jason Rasmussen listens to a question from the audience at a 2017 meeting in Chester.

“That’s squishy,” Jason Rasmussen, planning director for the Mount Ascutney Regional Commission, told The Telegraph recently. Rasmussen explained that the statute says that towns must have plans and if they have zoning, the zoning regulations are the vehicle for implementing the plan and therefore must conform to it. It also says that certain state goals should be considered and each town has a fair amount of leeway for how it responds to those prompts.

In other words, Rasmussen indicated, there is no yardstick to measure how well a town has moved toward state goals.

Late in the meeting, Hasbrouck brought this up, quoting an email from Town Manager Julie Hance that stated the verbal opinion of town attorney Jim Carroll.  Carroll noted that 24 VSA 4302 is used as a framework when writing the Town Plan, not the bylaws.  Hance wrote that according to Carroll, when writing the bylaws, the Planning Commission should be referring back to the adopted Town Plan.

Carroll also noted that 24 VSA 4302 is aspirational as it establishes a framework that is used when developing a Town Plan.  According to Hance, Carroll said, “There is tremendous leeway in how the Town Plan meets these goals.  And, it is important to note that 4302 acknowledges that some of these goals may not be attainable or applicable to every community. ”

Hance also wrote that Carroll noted that while these are the state’s goals, the development documents (Town Plan and Bylaws) need to meet the vision established by the town.

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  1. MJ Miles says:

    Shame on you Barry Pinske you nominated as a joke??? That is a true embarrassment. As a resident severe strict zoning is not the answer. I’m glad Mr. Roper is not the chair. Peter Hudkins may not have made the right decision to identify his position as a resident understanding that was not his role when speaking as the chair, but I do believe he has a more reasonable approach to zoning for Chester.

    I have seen the special interests of other members sideline Chester’s interests in the past and frankly we are Chester — not Cape Cod or the Maine coastline. Not even equal comparisons. I live here for its small town qualities that do not reconcile with those locations. Stop trying to compare us to that.

    Start trying to embrace what we have here, make it attractive to families and business alike so we can financially thrive as a community. We are not the rich and famous, we can’t afford to be that.

    Many of our residents just want to live here in our small borderline community and have some reasonable opportunities to use our land in a reasonable way. Maybe even grown our businesses to support our town’s services and grow our tax base.

    I once participated with business like minded residents and was so frustrated by how individuals ran the show that I just could not do it anymore. I hope the next group can be on top of this group and ensure that it not only does what it is supposed to but does what the VOTERS want.

  2. Cynthia Prairie says:

    Well, Tim, FYI, I never thought that comment was referring to you.

  3. Tim Roper says:

    Yes, it was a paraphrase. You’re correct, of course. The issue is the way that it was done mischaracterizes my statement to the point that it may give readers the impression that my tone was condescending. It was not. My intent is to always be as inclusive as prudence allows with considering varying points of view on a given topic. As such I take exception to being painted in such a light.

  4. Cynthia Prairie says:

    Shawn Cunningham did not misquote you. He paraphrased what you said concisely. We stand by the story.

    Cynthia Prairie
    The Chester Telegraph

  5. Tim Roper says:

    I’m not sure what’s being seen as condescending but maybe it’s the misquote attributed to me about the introduction. This is what I actually said:

    “I also want us to write an introductory overview of the new UDBs to allow for more clarity around what’s contained within the document as well as providing some explanation for the reasoning behind its content.

    “I think this is crucial to helping with adoption as well as providing an aid to anyone who’s considering the development of a new business or residential property within our town. Nothing like this currently exists and that leads to distrust from the public when they’re faced with so many chapters, paragraphs and words.”

  6. Donna Matthews says:

    Some pretty condescending and inappropriate language and attitudes! You’d be surprised how much “the people” understand.

  7. Arlene Mutschler says:

    Reading this? I know that “good ole boy ” politics is alive an well in Chester! We are doomed. The thinking that the people of Chester dont know what is going on or dont understand is insulting.