After reorganization fracas, planning panel looks forward

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Two weeks after a contentious reorganization meeting, which saw the chair elected by a coin flip and the nomination of a vice chair as “a joke,” the Chester Planning Commission was back together on Monday night but seeming more restrained in front of a guest – Jason Rasmussen, planning director for the Mount Ascutney Regional Commission.

Jason Rasmussen of the Mount Ascutney Regional Commission gave the board his thoughts on their work and on the state statute that authorizes planning and zoning.

Rasmussen was there (via Zoom) to answer some basic questions about what Vermont’s municipal statutes expect from proposed town zoning regulations that the commission has been toiling over for two and a half years and to give some perspective on the work done to date. He started by responding to commission chair Cathy Hasbrouck’s questions about towns that have replaced all their zoning and the meaning of the statutes that lay out municipal planning and zoning and specifically 24 VSA 4302.

Rasmussen told the commission that other towns have indeed “comprehensively rewritten their bylaws,” that it can be complex, take a long time and cost a lot of money.

“Honestly, often I suggest not to do it,” said Rasmussen. “That’s not a reason not to do it,” he said, “but it is taking on an awful lot … anytime you open it up and redo the entire thing, there’s a lot more risk for goofing something up. Other towns have done it with a mixed success rate.”

Commission member Tim Roper asked Rasmussen if he knew of towns that had done a rewrite, spent a lot of time on it, then decided not to go forward with it. Rasmussen said he couldn’t think of any, but that he has not been involved with many comprehensive rewrites.

In explaining the “section 4302 thing,” Rasmussen noted that Vermont is a Dillon’s Rule state, meaning that a municipality’s authority comes from the legislature, which says what towns are “enabled to do.” There are also home rule states like Massachusetts, where municipalities have more autonomy.

Rasmussen said that in Vermont, planning and zoning are optional and there are towns that don’t have either. But if a town opts to create a town plan, that plan must have certain elements, such as chapters on topics like energy and economic development. And those must show measured progress in moving toward conformance with goals set out in state law. These include things like encouraging downtown development, discouraging strip development along highways and preserving existing blocks of forest land.

Board member Tim Roper said he keeps coming back to the paragraph that spells out the state goals. ‘We need to carry this as far as we can.’

But, Rasmussen added, “There’s recognition in 4302 that not every goal is applicable to every town. It’s the place where you’re supposed to be thinking about setting out what the town of Chester wants. To implement the town plan there are regulatory steps — bylaws being one of those, but there are also non-regulatory implementation steps and your plan might call for a combination of those … it’s … a town’s choice.”

Rasmussen described some of the broad state goals in 4302, which includes revitalized downtowns, strong, diverse economies, good access to education systems, affordable housing and preservation of agricultural land. With those and other goals in mind, he said, it’s up to the town to decide where it wants to go and how it’s going to get there, which includes zoning.

Roper said he keeps coming back to paragraph (b) of 4203 which uses mandatory language for the planning process including those goals. “My feeling is that the draft bylaws that have been created, not finished … does all those things … including considering the citizens and the quality of life. That’s why it’s such a big document.

Roper said that language is a clear indication to him that “we need to carry this as far as we can.”

“Subsection (b) says just what you say it does,” replied Rasmussen, but he also explained – several times – that towns can move toward the goals in their own ways over time using a number of implementation methods including zoning.  He also cautioned that towns shouldn’t do things that go against the goals without having a good reason and an explanation.

Discussion followed on current use and other ways of approaching the goals apart from regulatory means. There was also discussion of using density to allow for creative ways of permitting development without minimum lot sizes. The goal of that would be to keep larger tract of land together rather than subdivided.

Rasmussen said he thought the residential vs. non-residential minimum lot sizes in the rural districts – especially Rural 18 would be difficult to understand for the average person.

“It’s a little bit of a mind bend,” said Rasmussen.

Roper explained that while you could carve out 3 acres from an 18 acre lot the remaining 15 would then be unavailable for development.

“And how do you manage that…we never got to that point,” said Roper.

“There’s not often right and wrong, it’s just different way of getting to an end result,” said Rasmussen in summing up. “If you have good reasons for (a regulation like defining R18 as 1,000 ft off the road) that’s fine. I like to keep it simple. I like to try to keep language so that the average citizen can read it and understand it. It just seemed a little complicated.”

The division over dividing the bylaws

At the beginning of the meeting Hasbrouck read a couple of public comments, one of which went to the heart of an issue that has vexed the commission of late and came up again at the end of the meeting. Chester resident Kate Lunde asked if the bylaws could be broken up into smaller pieces for residents to grasp more easily. She also asked for a side-by-side comparison with the current zoning bylaws.

Lunde wrote that the length and complexity of the proposed bylaws make them too intimidating for people to participate in a review.

Commission member Barre Pinske said he did not think it was the board’s job to ensure that every resident of Chester ‘understand every aspect of the zoning’

Board member Barre Pinske however, said, “I have a lot of care for people in the community understanding the bylaws as much as possible … but we’re also supposed to do a job that gets reviewed by the Select Board so having 3,200 people in a community really understand every aspect of the zoning is probably not a requirement of the board. Our job is really to do our job and with a certain amount of time to do it.”

Pinske said there has to be a certain level of trust in people appointed to the commission and that their work has to be approved by the select board before it can become law.

Roper agreed saying that he hoped that Pinske’s comment would not be taken out of context. He also questioned how many people have read and fully understand the current bylaws.

“No one is trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes or create something they don’t understand,” said Pinske, noting how much went into the bylaws. “If somebody wants to volunteer to try to make sense out of it or make comparisons…I don’t necessarily think that has to be our job, we have enough to do.”

At the end of the meeting, Hasbrouck said that she thought the best path was breaking the proposed bylaws into parts and moving them toward approval.

Commission chair Cathy Hasbrouck, right, said that if citizens don’t understand the bylaws ‘we need to take out our erasers and sharpen our pencils to think this through better’ Telegraph file photo

“I have a lot of faith in the people of Chester and I want to make it possible for them to feel like they understand what’s going on and, if we can’t, we need to take out our erasers and sharpen our pencils to think this through better,” said Hasbrouck. “I’m not in favor of creating something that’s so complicated you have to get specialists to read it … for me it seems like the most successful path would be to break it down into smaller pieces.”

Roper said he did not think the proposed bylaws were not understandable by a lay person and “characterizing it like that does a disservice to the work we’ve done over the past two and a half years and also to the citizens of the town.”

Hasbrouck said she is hearing from people saying they are spending tens of hours trying to understand it.

“So it’s our job to make it more understandable,” said Roper. “Jason has said this, there’s a lot of good stuff in this document … we’ve put a lot of hours into getting it to this point. I think it’s up to us to make it understandable and I think we can do that.”

He said he was vehemently opposed to going through the approval process district by district.

Board member Peter Hudkins said he favored taking good ideas from the proposed bylaws and incorporating them into the current bylaws for a smoother transition. “It’s not like we have a killer timetable.”

The commission will meet again on May 3 to look again for the best way to move the proposed bylaws forward.

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