OFFICE OF THE PLANNING COMMISSION
Town of Halifax, Vermont
PLANNING COMMISSION REGULAR MEETING MINUTES
December 13, 2016
Call to Order
The meeting was called to order at 7:07 p.m. Planning Commissioners Sirean LaFlamme, Turner Lewis, Bill Pusey, Kaitlin Stone, and Patricia Dow were present, as were Stephan Chait, Linda Lyon, Russell Denison, Jerry Pratt, Emily Blake (Deerfield Valley News), and Robbin Gabriel.
Changes and Additions to Agenda
Sirean LaFlamme announced several agenda additions: Minutes from several past meetings need approval, an email from Cara Cheyette, and copies of the Town’s 1971 zoning regulations and a draft of potential subdivision regulations were on the table for discussion.
Approval of Previous Meeting Minutes
LaFlamme made a motion to approve the 7/12/16 public hearing minutes as written. Bill Pusey seconded the motion, which passed, 3-0-2, with Turner Lewis and Patty Dow abstaining.
Turner Lewis made a motion to approve the 9/13/16 regular meeting minutes as written. Pusey seconded the motion, which passed, 4-0-1, with LaFlamme abstaining.
Pusey made a motion to approve the 10/11/16 regular meeting minutes as written. Lewis seconded the motion, which passed 4-0-1, with Kaitlin Stone abstaining.
Cara Cheyette, Email
LaFlamme read Cara Cheyette’s email to the secretary for the record, as follows:
“I had been planning to get to the meeting tonight but I don’t think I’m going to make it after all.
I wanted to make a formal request that the Planning Commission post, in “correspondence,” all of the written comments, via email, hand submissions, or letter, that it’s received about the zoning question the PC has been working on.
The planning commission made a real effort to invite written comments, including encouraging people who attended the last meeting to submit something in writing if at all possible. Those written submissions — the ones I offered at the last meeting included — should be available to anyone who visits the website to read the minutes, not just those who make a formal public records request, for two reasons:
First, without them being posted, no one would even know that there’s any reason to make a “public records request” to get them and second, where the planning commission explicitly requested these comments, no one should have to pay the fee to get a copy.”
LaFlamme noted that although the Commission had encouraged written comment from the public, they had only received four such submissions; the majority of those voicing opinions spoke in meeting. (See http://halifaxvt.com/committees/planning-commission/2012-planning-commission-meeting-minutes/2016-10-11-planning-commission-regular-meeting-minutes-draft/.) Patty Dow said copies of non-recorded documents are $0.l0 a page. Turner Lewis suggested a brief synopsis of the commentaries could be included in meeting minutes; anyone wishing to read the letters in their entirety could review them in the town office. We haven’t received a lot of requests for copies of these letters, said LaFlamme. She would like to avoid setting a precedent for posting Board correspondence online. People can read the meeting minutes on the web site, said Kaitlin Stone, and if they want to see the actual letters they can come here (to the Town Office). Sirean LaFlamme made a motion to have Gabriel include in the meeting minutes the information that the actual written comments are available for viewing in the Town Clerk’s office at no charge, and copies are available for $0.10 per page. Lewis seconded the motion, which passed, 5-0.
Three (not four as previously noted) letters have been received by the Planning Commission on zoning bylaw. Wayne Courser recommended eliminating the Conservation District, and reducing lot size to three, or five, acres. Michael Ferzoco wrote that he is not anti-business, but has objected in the past to business in the village, as he feels it impacts the neighbors. Cara Cheyette submitted a two-page letter detailing her reasons why zoning regulation revisions should not be undertaken until the town has a ruling on the quarry from the Environmental Court, and the town knows whether the new bylaws work or not. She also feels revisions should not be made without expert guidance.
Potential Subdivision Regulations
LaFlamme advised Commissioners to review the proposed subdivision regulations document which WRC’s John Bennett left with the Board at the close of the last revision process. Subdivision bylaw will be an item for discussion on the Planning Commission’s January agenda.
1971 Halifax Zoning Regulations
The Commission will also review copies of the town’s 1971 zoning bylaw to compare current bylaws with those put in place when Halifax first adopted zoning. Gabriel will scan and distribute copies of a map depicting the Conservation District when it was established in the late 1980s. The historical regulations will also be on the January agenda for discussion.
LaFlamme invited comments from the floor on zoning regulations. Stephan Chait asked about the relevance of the 1980s Conservation District map. Someone asked where the conservation district came from, and how long we had had it, answered LaFlamme. Chait then asked whether the correspondence received on zoning bylaw would be discussed at this meeting. Only one new letter has been received since our last meeting, LaFlamme responded. She then read that letter (from Wayne Courser) into the record, as follows:
“My thought for the Planning Board; if someone moves into the town of Halifax, they can live like the rest. We are not forcing anyone to come here, so let’s do away with the conservation district and maybe cut back the lot size to three or five acres. I have not heard of any problem with the sixty towns that have no zoning. I hope this board is using common sense, this is native intelligence.”
We’ve had the new regulations since March Town Meeting Day, said Linda Lyon. What has been your experience with them? LaFlamme said it has been very quiet. It usually is in winter, added Pusey. It sounds as though we don’t have any data yet, to know where the bylaws need improvement, Lyon continued.
Has the Commission reviewed the town plan to learn whether the zoning regulations are helping promote town plan goals, asked Jerry Pratt. Does the town plan have any room for growth? Designated areas? An industrial park? No, said Pusey; we did conduct a survey, and about 60% of responders did not want a commercial area. That was a bit mystifying, because it would help the tax base. LaFlamme thinks comparing the early regulations with the new regulations and those just preceding the recent revision will help create a picture of how things have changed.
Chait said he does not understand the problem. There seems to be some issue about lot size and setbacks, some issue—not well defined—about the Conservation District. It would be helpful to understand what’s not working in the regulations. There are complaints about length (of regulations), but remove the flood and telecommunications regulations and there aren’t so many pages. We have a process and a zoning administrator to help people understand the requirements for a building project; it’s been my experience that works pretty well. It’s not clear to me what’s not working, other than the fact that some people don’t like the fact there is any restriction whatsoever on their property. Chait recommended giving the laws a chance to work until specific problems can be identified. That’s what we’re doing, said LaFlamme. We’re not holding anything up, the new zoning is being implemented; we just want to hear opinions from everybody, not just one group or another.
Pratt spoke about the complexity of the regulations, especially the numerous references to state statute. You have to simplify it so the common individual can read with understanding. How many million-dollar homes are being built in this town? When Board members said they weren’t aware of any, Pratt said he knew of several. But, he added, they aren’t coming before the Board with applications because they know there is no winning if you do. When the rules are as complex as those you have now, people don’t even try.
It’s not just Halifax that has a problem, said Russ Denison, it’s the whole state of Vermont. Quoting from an article in Watchdog.org, he mentioned 50% tax on businesses, property taxes that are fifth highest in the nation, and businesses leaving Vermont for other, more business-friendly, states. Referring to the UN’s Agenda 21, he said there is also a push toward all public transportation and consolidating the population of several New England states in the lakes region of New Hampshire. I can see why big companies refuse to come here, Denison added. If I can’t get this quarry going, I won’t be able to pay my taxes.
Pusey, returning to Pratt’s earlier mention of state statutes, said much in zoning is dictated by the state. It started years ago, and has gotten more complex, and it’s not welcome in the business community at all. Pusey runs three businesses, and said he had three kitchen inspectors come in; two of them gave conflicting advice on what needed to be done, and another said, “Don’t plan on selling dinners,” as—for starters—Pusey would be required to install $30,000 worth of specialized equipment. Pusey told Pratt that with Christmas season upon us, it would probably be a few months before the Commissioners were ready to draw any conclusions about public opinion and the written material they would be reviewing. We may not try to rewrite anything, said LaFlamme. We want to learn how the regulations were developed.
There was further general discussion about the zoning regulations and town plan revision process, and some confusion about whether the Planning Commission had voted on the full revised zoning bylaw. It was finally agreed that after the revision process was completed the regulations were subject to a Planning Commission and then a Selectboard hearing, before going to town voters on a March 1st ballot. The Commission did not itself vote on the revisions, but did vote, 3-2, on the permit application for the Denison quarry. This latter vote took place prior to the town vote on the revised bylaw. Chait pointed out that the quarry application was voted on (by the Commission) under the old zoning regulations. Lyon characterized the revision process as professional and tolerant, with give-and-take, and no arguments. On every point, we came to agreement; that was a 5-0 project. LaFlamme disagreed with this assessment. Yes, there was give-and-take, and I went along, she said. But I did not approve all the content. Pusey concurred with this statement.
LaFlamme announced she would not seek reappointment to the Commission when her term ended in March 2017.
Hearing of Visitors
Lyon asked if Windham Regional Commission had approved the town plan. She was told yes, and said that the approval makes the town eligible for certain grants, perhaps related to energy efficiency and handicap access.
LaFlamme made motion to adjourn the meeting at 8:15 p.m. Pusey seconded the motion, which passed, 5-0.
Interim Planning Commission Secretary