To the editor: In zoning laws, do words confuse or clarify?

Does adding more words to Chester’s Development Bylaws bring onerous regulation to our citizens and business owners? No, it doesn’t. But how can that be? If the document is longer, doesn’t it include more regulations? I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Since there are no pictures in the Unified Development Bylaws, we must use words to create clarity. Those words are our friends and are very much needed here.

A better question might be, “Do we want clarity in our UDBs?” Yes, we do if we want a clear, fair and efficient process to manage ongoing and future development in our town. Paraphrasing veterans of Chester’s Development Review Board when they addressed the Planning Commission at the start of our work to rewrite our UDBs, “We don’t want any gray areas left in the UDBs because that puts the Development Review Board in a very difficult position. It bogs down our process and adds legal costs for applicants and for the town when decisions are appealed due to a lack of clarity.”

Imagine you’re someone who wants a permit to use your property in some way that’s different from how it’s used now. That could be opening a business, or building a new shed, barn, garage, or accessory dwelling unit. Or maybe you want to subdivide your piece of Chester into two or more lots so you can sell one. In any of these scenarios you’ll go see the town’s Zoning Administrator for a permit. The ZA will reference the UDBs to see if your proposed usage is, a) a permitted use, in which case you’ll be issued a permit without further question, b) a conditional use, meaning that your proposed usage can be permitted if certain criteria are met and none of your neighbors raise legitimate objections, or c) it’s not listed as either a permitted or a conditional use.

In the second example, your request is sent to the DRB for them to go through their defined process of ensuring that your usage is not going to be out of character with the neighborhood and not going to create noise, traffic, parking or environmental issues that are detrimental to your neighbors and thus to our beautiful town. In a case where conditional uses are listed in the UDBs, the Development Review Board is able address the permitting requirements, move forward with clarity and ultimately make a decision regarding your request by getting feedback from neighbors and by using the guiding language within the UDBs.

But imagine a case where what you want to do isn’t mentioned anywhere in the UDBs. How could the process work then? Imagine being a citizen volunteer on the DRB who has to try to figure out what to do without having anything to guide your decision. What happens? Who gets to decide if it’s a go or a no-go? How could they decide in a way that’s fair, and consistent in maintaining the look, feel and quality of life we value so highly here in Chester? Maybe sitting members of the DRB like you and want to give you what you’re asking for. Or maybe they dislike you and because of that they’re inclined to deny your request. Is that fair to you? Is it fair to your neighbors? Is it fair to our town? Does that provide a thoughtful path forward for the future of Chester? Might it lead to expensive appeals working their way through the Vermont courts system?

This is why the proposed UDBs include the lists of permitted and conditional uses that Peter Hudkins somehow sees as being bad for our town. What do you think is better for the long-term health of Chester, clarity or ambiguity? I think most folks prefer a clear and consistent approach, which is why all those pesky words are included in the proposed bylaws. Don’t let one or two people’s off-base, emotional attacks against a fair and equitable process confuse you about what’s best for Chester. When it comes to municipal planning, clarity wins the day.

Tim Roper
Chester Planning Commission

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