Op-ed: A Q&A with Chester Planning Commission chair Cathy Hasbrouck

 

In early November of this year, Chester businessman Steve Mancuso, owner of Chester Electric and head of the nascent Chester Business Coalition**,  asked a series of questions of Cathy Hasbrouck, chair of the Chester Planning Commission, which is working on updating the town’s bylaws, to clarify recent activities and the general direction of the board.

This this their Question and Answer session, lightly edited for clarity:

Steve Mancuso: There’s been a reconfiguration of the board (the Chester Planning Commission) within this last year, with an interesting ‘subcommittee’ element appearing. Can you comment on this Cathy?

Cathy Hasbrouck: Generally, when bylaws are changed, one or two issues are addressed at a time. The changes are reviewed carefully and adopted. This is the method recommended by the state and the method Chester has always used in the past. The procedures in the adopted bylaws have been exercised for many years and we are reasonably sure they work. Once a town issues a permit, there is no provision in statute to allow the town to retract it. We get one chance to get it right.

The proposed bylaws are a complete rewrite. Great care must be taken when verifying them, as there is no track record of daily use to assure us they work properly. We are asking the five Planning Commission members plus the Zoning Administrator and someone from Regional Planning (the Mount Ascutney Regional Commission) to review an entire proposed bylaw in thorough detail. It is a lengthy project. It was thought a smaller committee could review sections in great detail and recommend the reviewed sections to the full board’s consideration. It was hoped this would be a quicker way to review the entire proposal. A four-member group consisting of two Planning Commission members, the zoning administrator and someone from Regional Planning could be more nimble.

The two Planning Commission members appointed to the subcommittee — Peter Hudkins and myself — were chosen for their qualifications and availability. I had personally observed and recorded the bylaw review process from its beginning in 2018. I had detailed knowledge of what had been discussed so far, and a compilation of the minutes from those meetings. Peter Hudkins has lived in Chester since the 1960s and been a member of several boards over the last 20 years, including a stint as the chair of the DRB (Development Review Board). He has an extensive understanding of Chester’s history and how town government works in Vermont. The combination of a smaller group and a great deal of expertise seems to be working out better.

Mancuso: This subcommittee produced a 6-point plan in late summer, which seems to focus on being business-friendly.

Hasbrouck: The subcommittee realized that they were making decisions based on which choice was thought to be business friendly. They wanted to be sure the full Planning Commission agreed on the meaning of the words business friendly. The document was written, presented to the full commission and approved. The subcommittee uses those principles in its work.

Mancuso: Recently, the idea of administrative review came to light. Can you comment on this?

Hasbrouck: Administrative review is a concept introduced to Chester in the proposed bylaws. In those bylaws, most uses, aside from single- and two-family homes (and their accessory uses), are required to obtain site plan approval before a permit may be issued. Minor site plans may be approved by the Zoning Administrator in the proposed bylaws. We have taken to calling this process administrative review. Larger towns and cities in Vermont use administrative review to speed up approvals for small projects and reduce the workload for the Development Review Board.

Mancuso: So, this administrative review is only applicable to V12 area (Village Green) at this time? This is School Street to Cobleigh Street: the (Village) Green area?

Hasbrouck: Yes, we are only looking at the Village Green between School and Cobleigh  at this time, as was recommended in the Village Master Plan. The area is unique in that it has been the hub of commerce in Chester for at least 150 years, more than 100 years before zoning was adopted. Nearly every parcel on the Green has been issued a permit for a retail store and a restaurant at one time or another. Permits run with the land and remain in force as long as the use is permitted in the district. Very few uses are new to the district. In the past six years there have been only three hearings for new conditional uses in parcels on the Green, though businesses have turned over many more times. Administrative review could be used in this district, perhaps with confirmation from the Development Review Board to help the property owner who wants to introduce a new use for the parcel.

Mancuso: What is your hope for administrative review to accomplish vs. having the entire DRB involved?

Hasbrouck: Administrative review can reduce the amount of time it takes to get a permit by several weeks over a full DRB hearing because it does not require published hearing notices and letters sent to abutters, as well as a findings document and a 30-day appeal period. The price of that speed is a lack of formal notice to abutters. Because the Green has been a commercial hub for so long, it could be said that anyone owning a parcel on the Green must accept that their neighbors will be conducting businesses on their property as a given. There would be no reason to appeal a permit for uses allowed in the district.

Mancuso: It’s understood a grant for Jason Rasmussen to participate is in the works. What would the Planning Commission like his focus to be?

Hasbrouck: First, I must correct your impression that the grant is for Jason Rasmussen. The town will issue a request for qualifications from people who would like to perform the work. The Mount Ascutney Regional Commission, where Jason is the senior planner, would be a strong contender. Chester will accept bids from anyone who would like to do the work, including Brandy Saxton, a planner who was hired to update the bylaws in 2018.A choice will be made after RFQs (requests for quotations) are presented, based on the bids’ merits.

The focus of that grant is housing. The housing data available to the Planning Commission is over 20 years old. It is clear to tenants and landlords both that housing is in short supply in Chester. The Planning Commission needs to know more about the shortage so they can identify programs that can create more housing and be sure the bylaws allow that housing to be created.

As chair of the Planning Commission, I want to add that I don’t like making decisions and plans without data to back it up and getting housing data is a complex process. I’m very grateful to have help with this.

Mancuso: Would this result in a line-by-line review of the bylaws applicable to V12?

Hasbrouck: The housing issue will result in a review of both the adopted and proposed bylaws to remove barriers to creating more housing. Any change to the bylaw requires a line-by-line review of the section changed.

Mancuso: Would this eventually be applicable to more than V12?

Hasbrouck: The review will not be limited to the V12 district. We have housing in nearly every district and will be sure that appropriate types of housing are allowed in all districts where housing is a reasonable use. We don’t want to encourage housing starts in the Gold River Industrial Park.

Mancuso: It’s generally accepted that some clarification of our proposed bylaws is needed. Would this be pursuant to it?

Hasbrouck: We all agreed in 2018 that our current adopted development bylaws need to be updated. The Planning Commission has decided to use the adopted bylaws as a framework for testing out some of the new ideas in the proposed bylaws. Adding them to the adopted bylaws is also a way to get the benefit of these new ideas in the proposal without having to wait for the entire proposal to be vetted. A consensus is emerging that the updates will be more successful if they are reviewed and adopted incrementally over time.

Mancuso: Is there a state statute that would back this up?

Hasbrouck: Section 4302 of Title 24 in the state statute sets out the purposes and goals for a town plan. Section 4410 states that development bylaws are the regulatory implementation of the town plan. Chester’s Town Plan was adopted in 2020 and certified by the Regional Planning Commission as making substantial progress toward attainment of the goals in Section 4302. Chester’s development bylaws now need to be updated to comply with state regulatory changes and come into closer alignment with the town plan. However, our town attorney assures us that Chester’s current development bylaws remain duly adopted, valid and enforceable.

**Mancuso is organizing a meeting of small business owners set for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 11 at the Pizza Stone on Pleasant Street in Chester. He hopes that the Chester Business Coalition will bring “small business owners and operators together to collaborate and bring the needs and desires of the business community to the leadership of Chester.”  This meeting will be “informal, open to all interested parties, and will gather as necessary to share information and ideas regarding actions and laws that impact our community.

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