Chester planning panel kicks off zoning rewrite with first public workshop

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2002 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In preparation for a new re-write of the town’s zoning regulations — known as the Unified Development Bylaws — the Chester Planning Commission held the first of several workshops with consultant Jason Rasmussen Monday night.

Mount Ascutney Regional Commission Executive Director Jason Rasmussen leading the workshop discussion. <small>Photos by Shawn Cunningham</small>

Mount Ascutney Regional Commission Executive Director Jason Rasmussen leading the workshop discussion. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Rasmussen is the executive director of the Mount Ascutney Regional Commission, which won the bid for consulting services that are being paid for through a state grant.

In the 2022 grant cycle, Chester asked for and was awarded $16,500 to “modernize the Town’s Unified Development Bylaws to implement the Town Plan and Village Center Master Plan, addressing housing needs and supporting village revitalization.” While past planning commissions have done such work over the course of years, the grant requires a bit more swiftness with deadlines of Feb. 1, 2023 for a mid-project report to be submitted,  Jan. 31, 2024 for completion of the project with all funds spent and a final report and the products of the work due one month later, on Feb. 29.

In his presentation, Rasmussen said that the first component of the grant was education outreach around the topic of zoning as he explained that Vermont is a “Dillon’s Rule” state in which the powers of towns – including zoning – are received from the legislature. He noted that towns do not have to create town plans, but if they do, they must contain certain elements and be consistent with state planning rules.  Then in turn, the development bylaws — which consist of zoning regulations, subdivision regulations and flood hazard regulations — need to conform to the town plan.

Smart Growth Principles

Rasmussen said that the ways to implement the town plan can be regulatory — such as using zoning — or non-regulatory, like providing infrastructure, that forwards the goals of the plan. He also touched briefly on the Fair Housing Act that bans discrimination in the rental, sale and financing of housing.

One of the state’s planning goals, according to Rasmussen, is that development should be in accordance with “smart growth principles,” which includes “historic patterns of compact village centers surrounded by  rural countryside,” among others.

Rasmussen said that economic growth would strengthen and revitalize the village while honoring the history of the town’s working landscape. This would maintain the “special charm” of the town although the commission can look at economic growth in other areas that would align with the town plan.

Pointing to a contractor’s yard containing materials like crushed stone and large equipment, Rasmussen said those enterprises don’t belong in a village center. Still, he noted, that smart growth principles are key themes that run through the existing town plan. But the sense of  the village being given advantages over the rest of the town colored the rest of the evening.

Steve Mancuso, an electrical contractor, said that the focus on development in the village disadvantages those in rural areas

Steve Mancuso, an electrical contractor, said that the focus on development in the village disadvantages those in rural areas

“I think the town plan should consider that economic prosperity is for the entire town, not just the village,” said electrical contractor Steve Mancuso, who asked why restrict development to areas with town infrastructure like water and sewer, “A used car lot can go anywhere. Why not?”

Commission chair Hugh Quinn said he thought it was to avoid busy roads like Route 103 south becoming a “strip mall development.”

“I seems to me that 103 would be brilliant to develop – not seedy porn stores.  All along 103 is a brilliant opportunity for businesses, retail maybe,” said Gwen Mancuso.

Other documents to inform the commission’s work

Rasmussen pointed to two documents that the commission can look to for help in working on bylaw revisions. Enabling Better Places: A Zoning Guide for Vermont Neighborhoods came out of a partnership with Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, the Congress for New Urbanism, Vermont’s 11 regional planning commissions,  the AARP, the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board and the Vermont Association of Realtors. The idea was to provide municipalities with bylaws options to enable more housing that’s affordable in “walkable, inclusive, and age-friendly neighborhoods.” These changes are meant to address the state’s shortage of housing thus supporting business that can’t attract workers because of that shortage.

Enabling Better Places

The changes include dimensional rules like setbacks and lot sizes, parking rule changes, housing types that allow for denser use of village center real estate, expansion of accessory dwelling and streamlining the permit process for many businesses, but also for housing other than single family homes.

That led to a discussion of the lack of affordable housing for workers being a reason that the town and businesses can’t grow. Commission member Cathy Hasbrouck said that Garrison Smith isn’t able to open the restaurant he envisioned for the former Jiffy Mart building on Depot Street for lack of people to work there.

The second document is the Village Center Master Plan (see link in first paragraph), which Rasmussen reviewed and described as having a lot of good ideas – many non-regulatory – to foster a “a sustainable, vibrant Village Center. Many of the ideas were projects that would improve the experience of the village center such as the pocket park at the end of School Street, the Depot Street sidewalk improvement project between Bargfrede Road and Town Hall and the wayfinding sign project which was recently funded through a grant from the State of Vermont.

Rasmussen also looked at the 2018 zoning audit that resulted in a major rewrite of the bylaws, which was shelved amid criticism, some upheaval on the commission and a new chair began refocusing the panel’s work.

Select Board chair Arne Jonynas said there is a lot of room for interpretation in the town plan

Select Board chair Arne Jonynas said there is a lot of room for interpretation in the town plan

Rasmussen noted that there are still good observations in the zoning audit including that the zoning map is not consistent with the Chester Town Plan or the Future Land Use map and that the audit should still be looked at as part of the bylaws modernization.

Select Board Chair Arne Jonynas observed that the “Town Plan is aspirational at best” and how you interpret that in zoning will make a big difference in the future.

“There’s a lot of room for interpretation,” said Jonynas.

Calling him a “solid consultant” commission member Peter Hudkins praised Rasmussen saying he had worked with him a number of times.

Commission member Peter Hudkins, center, called Rasmussen a 'solid consultant'

Commission member Peter Hudkins, center, called Rasmussen a ‘solid consultant’

As the workshop came to a close, former commission member Cheryl Joy Lipton noted that “…change is going to happen, but we can put things into place to make sure that the changes aren’t things we don’t like and don’t want.”

The workshop was intended to be part of a regular commission meeting, but its agenda did not make it on to the town’s website as required by the Open Meeting Law. But the workshop had been publicized and a handful of residents came out for it, so Quinn announced that the meeting would not be convened and the members would not discuss any business before the panel. He then turned the evening over to Rasmussen.

There will be two or three more workshops as the commission gets down to work, but those have not been scheduled yet. The next regular meeting of the Planning Commission is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Monday Aug. 1 at Town Hall, 556 Elm St.

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  1. Gwen Mancuso says:

    Thanks to Shawn Cunningham for the quote, and to Jason Rasmussen for the workshop.

    I’d like to be very clear that I entirely agree with Hugh Quinn’s position that concrete jungle strip malls are extremely unwelcome.

    Strip development, on the other hand, is worth discussing in areas like the Rt 103 graveyard between Chester and Ludlow.

    Barre Pinsky also noted that when we are talking about development, we are including the arts, also entirely agreed.

    Pretty good for the first workshop. The Planning Commission is listening: please come to these workshops and be heard.