Editorial: Transparency, lots of public input make for a good zoning plan

By Cynthia Prairie
©2024 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Planning commissions in rural Vermont have tough jobs. They must balance the needs of residents with the state’s goals and regulations as well as current town plans, growth potential and visions for the future.

And then they must endure the barbs of angry landowners — many of them friends and neighbors — who haven’t attended meetings and therefore have had no input into their proposals.

Such is the situation that Londonderry has found itself in, where just last Monday more than 100 residents crowded the Select Board meeting to give an earful on their views on the Planning Commission’s process, the failure of the commission to inform the public and its end product: A 218-page zoning plan.

Land use is the one issue that no one talks about until they find out that a government entity is fiddling with it. “Find out” is the optimum phrase here because these appointed commissions at times  fail to inform the people they will anger the most.

It’s not that members necessarily mean to hide their actions. They may believe they have talked to all the necessary stakeholders because they talked to a lot of people, likely for hours.

They may believe that because their meetings are announced on the town website, that is enough notification for the entire town.  A notice on a website — especially one as jarring as Londonderry’s — is rarely sufficient. Posters, phone calls, postcards, press releases: They all need to be utilized.  Another problem is that Londonderry’s Planning Commission meets during the day, an inconvenience for many.

The Londonderry Planning Commission did not need to look far to find a town that made similar mistakes. More than three years ago, the Chester Planning Commission found itself in hot water after rewriting the town’s zoning bylaws, also with the aid of a pricey planning consultant who adhered very closely to state government suggestions. When it was near completion, the then-commission Chair Peter Hudkins, instead of presenting the bylaws in measured tones to the public,  blasted the end product, his fellow board members and the process.

It was a wake up call. The bylaws were criticized for inhibiting business growth in the town centers, limiting land use options in more rural areas and controlling work hours for those with home businesses — even those living in the hills. Many of the problems, the commission said, were certainly unintended.

They decided to revisit the document.

The town said goodbye to its paid consultant and said hello to a consultant from Ascutney Regional Planning Commission. The Select Board also changed the makeup of the commission. The new commission undertook a more open process that included highly publicized workshops on specific topics.

The document was then served up in smaller, more digestible pieces with more of the public involved. It’s just what Londonderry resident Amy Corwin suggested that the Derry Planning Commission do with its 218-page document.

It’s doubtful that we will ever see a “perfect” zoning plan that satisfies every landowner. But sometimes what landowners want first and foremost is a better, more inclusive process. And with that, Londonderry will be much closer to that perfect zoning plan.

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Filed Under: CommentaryOp-ed

About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Richard Dale says:

    I am on the Planning Commission in Londonderry and wish to add some additional data. The
    Planning Commission began the process of figuring out what we needed to do about Zoning once the town plan was accepted. The then town administrator who had been involve in prior town he worked in was our advisor. We held three widely advertised evening meetings ask citizens what issues they might have with zoning. We held evening meetings with the Conservation Commission and especially the DRB. We consulted with the Windham Regional Commission and with the Town Forester and both fire department and the Rescue squad. It was clear by Jan. 2019 that a total rewrite was needed. Three organizations bid and were interviewed. During 2019 thru March 2020, meetings did occur in the evening and then the world went into lockdown. We meet by Zoom and continued working and posted the links on the town website and advertised on Facebook what we were doing and set up an interactive ability to comment and discuss concerns. In Oct. 2022 three information meetings which we advertised on posters, Facebook notices indicating that we were close to 98% being done and that it was vital that people take a look especially at interactive maps where people could specifically type in their address or their business and look at how this total new zoning desigated zones might affect them. They were each attended by over 85 citizens both online and in person. The technology allowed remote viewer to ask questions and offer comments. We went back to work and got rid of the very unpopular conservation protection zone and corrected some individual complaints related to their property. Our consultant requested daytime meetings which we reported during the televised Selectboard meetings. We advertised widely a scheduled Feb. 2024 hearing which was well attended. By then, we had the entire proposed bylaw read twice and he made suggestion. By then we had a new zoning administrator who had actually made suggested changes and by then several members of the DRB reread and comment lest any enforcement issues. Because of the February hearing we made over eighty changes to the map and bylaws and scheduled another hearing for April 17 after inviting the Selectboard to read the document on April 12. Two came. Only one person came and asked that his road be returned to a rural designation. Since we had considered his request and voted on it at five previous meetings.

    It is my belief that we failed to alert the public lacks a complete assessment. Finally at all of the above public forums held in the evening, we stated that unintended errors might have been made and suggested several scenarios as to how they could be corrected including revisions by the Selectboard. A great number of complaints read individual sections and failed to notice that every provision could be appealed to the DRB. For instance, there is a part of the bylaw that says that a recreational vehicle can not be continuously be occupied for more than ten days. What the people did not read was that occupying it for more than ten days without moving it makes a home with its own rules, but a person could continue to live in it by getting a permit. Zoning bylaws are complicated. In the fury of the moment, there was a great deal said that is not so draconian. The Selectboard meeting was out of control as well.