To the editor: Understanding zoning bylaws

On the last Saturday of February, I walked from Cobleigh Street to School Street distributing the text of the bylaw amendment for the proposed Village Green district to anyone who was interested. I was lucky enough to chat with several property and business owners.

Many people expressed concerned about the bylaws and I finished my walk with a lot to think about. I realized many people were unaware of how bylaws are intended to work in Vermont and, more importantly, it’s very difficult to figure them out simply by reading the bylaw document.

I need to quickly add that this is the normal way bylaws are written and it is not unique to Chester. When I suggested to an expert that Chester could add some kind of summary to explain the workings of the bylaws to the document, I was told an explanation did not really fit in the bylaw itself, because it’s a law, not an essay or a textbook. We need to find some other way to explain it.

There will be a public hearing for the Village Green bylaw amendment at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, March 21. Still thinking of the uneasiness expressed by the people I spoke to on February 26, we will begin the public hearing for the Village Green bylaw amendment with a brief discussion of the bylaw structure. I feel our citizens deserve some background to help them evaluate the changes we are proposing. If you have questions or comments, Zoom in to the hearing (or come to the Town Hall for cookies) and ask all the questions you want. The Planning Commission members and Preston Bristow, our Zoning Administrator, will do their best to answer your questions. Here is a taste of what they will cover:

Every explanation of bylaws should start with Barre Pinske’s statement that zoning bylaws help people be good neighbors. Bylaws outline the rights people have to use their land for their own benefit. Bylaws set boundaries on the impact those uses may have on their neighbors.
Every parcel of land has a principal use. Principal use means the main use of land or structures. It is distinguished from an accessory use, which is a use of land that is found on the same parcel as the principal use but is subordinate and incidental.

Someone who builds wooden furniture on commission for friends and neighbors in the garage or basement of their home is engaging in an accessory use. The principal use of the property would be residential. It’s possible to have more than one principal use on the same parcel of land. It is also possible to have multiple accessory uses.

There is an organic progression for a business in Vermont. By state statute, everyone is allowed to engage in a small amount of business activity in their home, whether they own or rent it. Someone making wooden furniture that they sell to a small clientele in their basement is engaging in a use called a home occupation. If the furniture business grows to where the members of the household can’t keep up with the orders, the business owner can ask for a home business permit from the zoning administrator. This will allow the business to continue operating at the permit holder’s residence and will allow the hiring of up to four full-time employees who do not live in the household. In this example, the home occupation and home business uses are accessory uses.

If the furniture business continues to grow beyond the capacity of the household and four non-household employees, the business would become the principal use for the parcel of land and a new permit would be needed.

By now I’ve used up my quota of your time and patience. To find out what kind of permit you’d need to expand the wooden furniture business, come to the hearing on March 21. We’re going to walk through some simulations in the new zoning district. Many thanks to the people who spoke to me that Saturday sharing their concerns and to people who Zoomed in to the Planning Commission meeting Monday night. Your feedback is helping us improve the bylaws and make them a true product of Chester.

Cathy Hasbrouck
Chair, Chester Planning Commission

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  1. Richard Koonz says:

    Many dictators use “Bylaws” to control citizens that are supposed to be living in a “FREE” country…

  2. Arlene Mutschler says:

    VERy interesting, Cathy! Thank you

  3. Thom Simmons says:

    Cathy, thank you for that thoughtful post. While the length of time that has been spent examining our zoning by-laws has been accompanied by a great deal of public questioning as to where we are headed, I sincerely hope that in the end this will all be a catalyst for implementing sound changes.

    When Zoning first became popular in the last century, it was designed to impose a ‘suburban’ dream: residential and commercial uses were separated, under the guise of protecting a certain quality of life. One of the results was business districts that became ghost-towns at night, as residential activity disappeared and workers went home. Residential neighborhoods lost access to local corner convenience markets. Add in commercial parking requirements and unhistorical setbacks, and the suburban, auto-dependent strip mall culture was born.

    When New England towns began adopting zoning by-laws, they relied heavily on these existing suburban plans as a template. Many towns in Vermont, to avoid the heavy hand of Act 250, adopted “something” so they would have zoning in place. In many cases, the “something” that was adopted was entirely at odds with traditional Vermont development patterns, which historically included mixed uses, low setbacks, and a strong culture of businesses in rural areas that served as both residences and active businesses. As the misfit nature of these by-laws became evident, the standard approach was to carve out exceptions, apply band-aids as required (Baba a Louis ring a bell?) and try to imagine and micromanage every potential development scenario…and by-laws grew in length and complexity exponentially.

    A section by section comparison & analysis of our by-laws against the objective reality of Chester’s pre-existing development patterns and ‘fabric’ is a welcome approach. I am hoping that, after what will be a lengthy process, a simplification of our by-laws to match “who we are,” matching historic patterns, will result.

    Thank you for all of your work, and that of the entire Planning Board, in tackling what is an arduous mission.