OFFICE OF THE PLANNING COMMISSION
Town of Halifax, Vermont
PLANNING COMMISSION REGULAR MEETING
May 12, 2015
Call to Order
The meeting was called to order at 7:10 p.m. Planning Commission members Stephan Chait, Brian McNeice, and Bill Pusey were present; Sirean LaFlamme and Linda Lyon were unable to attend. Also present were John Bennett (Windham Regional Commission), Virginia Read (Ginny Read Realty, East Dover), Doug Grob, Deb Foster, Art Copeland, Lynda Copeland, Mary Horne, Gretchen Becker, Rusty Denison, David Brown, Maggie Bartenhagen, Susan Kelly, Nicholas Bartenhagen, Judi Kotanchik, Marilyn Allen, James Keithline, John Rossetti, Rick Gay, Janet Taylor, Herman Drost, Bonny Hall, Craig Stone, Paul Taylor, Anthony Blackett, Thomas Wagener (Land Surveyor, Guilford), Norman Fajans, Jerry Pratt, and Robbin Gabriel.
Changes and/or Additions to the Agenda
No changes were proposed. As Chairwoman Sirean LaFlamme was not present, Stephan Chait volunteered to chair the meeting.
Approval of Previous Meeting Minutes
Brian McNeice made a motion to approve the 4/28/15 special meeting minutes as written, with the stipulation that Gabriel verify the vote tally on the motion recommending the Selectboard consider forming a Halifax Conservation Commission. Bill Pusey seconded the motion, which passed 3-0.
Public Hearing—Zoning Bylaw Amendments
Chait opened by describing the Planning Commission’s current assignment of creating a full zoning regulation update. This project has been in progress for many months and is not yet complete. During their review, the Commission decided to extract two specific definitions in the regulations which generated a certain amount of controversy and present them as separate amendments to be voted on in special election after the required public hearings. Work on the full zoning regulation text will continue and, when complete, will be also be voted on by the town. One of the definitions to be considered—Earth and Mineral Extraction—is new; the other—Resource Industry—is undergoing revision.
Sue Kelly recommended that Chait read the resource industry definition first in its current form and then with the revised wording. Chait did so, as follows:
Resource Industry—An activity involved in the primary processing of agricultural or forestry products, including saw mills, but excluding those activities identified in the definition of Agricultural Use. Includes earth and mineral extraction.
Proposed amended definition
Resource Industry–An activity involved in the primary processing of agricultural and forestry products sourced on the parcel, excluding earth and mineral extraction. Examples of resource industries are saw mills; firewood processing; and production of pellets, shavings, and compost.
Mary Horne asked why these changes had been proposed. Is this to make the zoning regulations in accordance with the approved town plan? In response, Chait read the purpose as defined in the Planning Commission public hearing notice and reporting form:
Purpose–To clearly identify those activities which are and are not considered to be resource industries, and to thereby clarify the Conditional Use activities allowed in Village, Rural Residential, and Conservation Districts. The phrase “includes earth and mineral extraction” was, in the past, incorporated in the definition of Resource Industry for unknown reasons, and has been deleted as it is incompatible with the purpose of the Conservation District as stated in the town plan. The words “sourced on-site” have been included to allow the establishment of small agricultural or forestry production facilities as described, while preventing the possibility of large-scale commercial operations importing raw product from off-site for processing.
Chait noted a typographical error in the wording of this paragraph—“sourced on-site” should read “sourced on parcel.” He then read the new proposed definition for earth and mineral extraction, as follows:
Earth and Mineral Extraction–A use involving the removal of surface and subsurface materials, including soil, sand, gravel, stone, rock or organic substances other than vegetation, from a parcel of land. Customary extraction operations include sand and gravel pits, rock quarries, and accessory operations such as the crushing, screening, and temporary storage of materials excavated on the parcel.
While the term “earth and mineral extraction” is used in the existing zoning regulations, said Chait, it is not defined. This is an attempt to define it. Tonight’s gathering, he added, gives the public opportunity to ask questions and voice opinions about the proposed definition changes.
What, other than vegetation, is an organic substance? asked Nick Bartenhagen. Peat, offered McNeice.
Craig Stone, referring to the resource industry’s purpose statement of allowing small, but not large-scale, production facilities by restricting the source of materials used in processing to “on the parcel,” asked whether that affected only the Conservation District, or all districts. All, responded McNeice, Village, Rural Residential, and Conservation. What are you doing to me?, asked Stone. I have an existing small sawmill on Route 112. I think everyone in here has a different definition of small-, medium-, or large-scale operation, but if you’re telling me I can’t bring in any outside materials, you might as well shut me down. I cannot sustain my business off the four hundred acres my family owns. I’d be over-cutting or clear-cutting it. In choosing the phrasing of the amended Resource Industry definition, the Commission was searching for a way to maintain the character of the town, said Chait. He agreed that the Commission could not offer specific designations for small- and large-scale operations. We have to work on it further, he said. Maggie Bartenhagen had a query similar to Stone’s; the purpose statement for the Resource Industry revision refers in its first sentence to all three districts, she said, but then states that the “earth and mineral extraction” phrase has been deleted specifically to affect allowed conditional uses in the Conservation District.
If this change were adopted, asked Sue Kelly, wouldn’t Craig Stone’s already-existing sawmill be grandfathered? If I needed to modernize the mill, said Stone, I would have to apply. Nick Bartenhagen suggested asking for legal advice on the wording of the amended definition. Chait agreed a final version could be reviewed by legal counsel, but said first what is clearly a problem with the phrasing should be cleaned up. John Bennett advised that both resource industry and earth and mineral extraction would be allowed as conditional uses in the Village and Residential Districts but earth and mineral extraction would not be allowed in the Conservation District.
Deb Foster said she would like to support the effort to make the Town Plan and Zoning Regulations compatible, especially as that effort applies to the Conservation District. I think the proposed changes are clear as they relate to earth and mineral extraction, responded Chait, but the “sourced on parcel” aspect of the proposed revision to the Resource Industry definition needs clarification. As I understand it, if this latter applies to all districts it presents a problem for Craig Stone, but if it applies only to the Conservation District it is not an issue. As long as the boundaries of the Conservation District don’t change, said Stone. The prohibition of earth and mineral extraction in the Conservation District seems reasonable, stated Judi Kotanchik. What if someone wanted to put some other kind of plant or business there, would that be allowed? This query led to conversation about the lack of a commercial district in the town. We conducted a town survey a few years ago, said Bill Pusey, soliciting citizen opinion on the establishment of a commercial district. We could use small industries in a properly zoned area in town; they would help the tax base. But we got a 65-70% negative response to our survey; people did not want any commercially zoned property. McNeice read off allowable conditional uses in the Conservation District: Cluster housing, bed and breakfast, veterinary clinic/commercial animals/kennel, limited outdoor recreation, resource industry, and certain uses defined by state statute. Maggie Bartenhagen pointed out that this list, which is from the currently existing zoning regulations, includes resource industry.
Doug Grob also wanted a clear understanding of small, medium, and large operations. I may not be against the proposed revision, he said, but first the Commission needs to come up with a distinct concept of what is big and what is small. I agree with Craig Stone, added Grob. He has a sawmill; if he needs to hire two or three guys he should be able to. And he needs to bring in materials. We need to clarify the ambiguities created by the term “sourced on parcel,” said Chait, and also define large and small operations and answer the question of what applies in which district. Jerry Pratt, making a statement for the Denison family, who owns a large tract of land in the conservation area, said he believes a bylaw created for one section of town should apply across the board. Otherwise, it is pointing in the direction of the minority. If you single out a landowner and tell him his land can’t be used the way his neighbor’s can be used, it doesn’t seem fair, said Pratt. We do not live in the Conservation District, said Bonnie Hall, but we use the area constantly, for hiking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing. So this process does have an effect on people who don’t live there. Norman Fajans, who does live in the Conservation District, said he chose property there because of the restrictions on development in that district. Speaking of the Denison family, Herman Drost mentioned that they, like the Stones, have owned a large piece of property in this town for generations and have paid a considerable amount of taxes over many years. Drost believes that if the town is going to restrict what they can do with their property, the town should also consider ways to compensate for that. They’ve been here longer than anyone in this room, Drost added; if anything, they should be grandfathered like the Stones are grandfathered. Deb Foster mentioned serving on a Planning Commission in another community, and said bylaws and regulations are formulated to protect the health, safety, and quality of life of the whole community, rather than individuals. The town introduced a Town Plan in the 1970s, said Marilyn Allen, to help regulate the town’s growth pattern. I support current use residents, she said; they get a lower tax rate and I’m willing to pay to help that out because I support forestry. Zoning assists the Town Plan; it is important to keep that conversation going. David Brown spoke in favor of the proposed change in general and thanked the Commission for working to clarify the ambiguities in the wording.
Maggie Bartenhagen returned to the subject of small, medium, and large businesses, saying it was important to provide definitions for those descriptions. Remember, said Lynda Copeland, it is possible for one person to start an Internet business and employ hundreds of people with no regulation. Pusey drew a laugh when he remarked that wouldn’t be a problem—we don’t have Internet, he said. Jack Rossetti recommended revisiting the concept of a commercial district. We had thought to establish a commercial area on Route 112, said Pusey, but the idea was rejected. We should have a conversation about what we might specifically want, said Marilyn Allen. What would a commercial district look like? Craig Stone recalled earlier surveys on the topic of a commercial district. Those questionnaires were sent to all voters and all property owners, he said, but we ran into a conundrum over how to combine a desire for scenic routes along the Green and North Rivers with the proposed establishment of a commercial area along the length of Route 112. James Keithline owns property across the river from the Conservation District. Half the value of my property, he said, comes from the fact that it looks out over conservation land. We have a strong sense of community in this town, said Sue Kelly. It’s not just my land I care about, it is the character of the town.
As Chait prepared to close the public hearing portion of the meeting, Jerry Pratt asked about the next step in the amendment process. John Bennett explained the Planning Commission would—based on information obtained during tonight’s hearing—consider changes to the amendment, and then either hold another public hearing themselves or pass the amendment to the Selectboard for a public hearing. Once the proposal passes through Selectboard hands a special election will be held to allow voters to weigh in by Australian ballot. Each of these events will be properly warned by public notice.
Subdivision Permit Request—J.I.F. Investment Co., Inc.
The Planning Commission has received a subdivision permit application for the property at 449 Thurber Road. The proposed division would create two lots, one 120-acre lot with an existing single family residence, and one 93-acre undeveloped lot. Thomas Wagener, Land Surveyor, was present to answer any questions the Commissioners might have about the application. Wagener offered some detail on state requirements for wastewater permits as they pertain to subdivisions. The current wastewater permit names the Ray brothers as landowners, while the application identifies the landowner as J.I.F. Investment. Another state permit will be forthcoming before the Planning Commission’s next meeting, he said. Michael McGillion, of Fisher & Fisher Law, is representing the applicants and Chait wondered there might be a potential conflict of interest, as Robert Fisher of that firm is the Halifax town attorney. Virginia Read, Realtor, explained that it was J.I.F. Investment’s intention to sell the 120-acre parcel with dwelling, which would be occupied, and retain the 93-acre parcel. J.I.F. has a contract with a buyer for the house and 120 acres and is ready to close on the sale pending subdivision approval. McNeice said he had heard about an active quarry on the property. Wagener said that during the special circumstances surrounding Hurricane Irene materials were drawn from that quarry, but there is no Act 250 permit and the quarry is not in use now. Rick Gay asked if there were a way to expedite the subdivision permit request, to avoid the loss of the sale. In the old days I could have signed this myself, he said, it is fairly straightforward. A lengthy discussion ensued; Ginny Read, having previously talked with Sirean LaFlamme, was under the impression that after tonight’s meeting there would be only a 15-day waiting period before the permit process was final. Gabriel explained the subdivision process required a public hearing, warned 15 days in advance, with notice to abutters. Thereafter, the Planning Commission has 45 days in which to write and publish a Findings of Fact and Decision. If the application is approved, there is then a 15-day waiting period during which appeals can be filed. Wagener has had experience in other towns with a more simplified process in which an application can be approved administratively without notification to abutters. Bennett noted that without a specific provision in the bylaw, the permitting process required a warned public hearing, and any interested person can appeal a decision of the Board. Pusey advised the necessity of following the town’s subdivision regulations. The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing for this subdivision on June 9th. McNeice requested the applicants indicate the position of the quarry on the site map before the hearing is held.
Update of Zoning Regulations with John Bennett
Summarizing the evening’s earlier discussion of the proposed bylaw amendments, Bennett said the Commission should revisit both the small/large operation issue and the use of “sourced on parcel” in the resource industry definition; the wording has town-wide repercussions and should be clarified. He has been attempting to learn how other towns handle such situations but thus far has not gotten definitive answers. Take a step back, he said, and think about how to achieve your objectives without hindering operations such as Craig Stone’s mill. McNeice suggested including Resource Industry in all three districts while removing the phrase “sourced on the parcel.” Bennett complimented Chait for successfully chairing the amendment hearing; he will forward a set of instructions related to hearings which may prove useful in the future.
While grant funding for the zoning update ends in May, Bennett told the Board, we have time in June in which to assemble the close-out materials that are a state requirement to satisfy the grant. Bennett distributed sections 5 and 6 of the revised regulations, examples of subdivision regulations from other towns, and other printed matter with information on waivers provisions, use variance, and state authorized circumstances for holding up processing under a zoning permit. The Commission agreed to move their May 26th special meeting start time to 6:00 p.m., to provide additional time for them to work with Bennett on the balance of the update. Bennett will email the revised definitions section in advance of the May 26th meeting. Regarding flood regulations, he advised that as the state has not produced any definitive new model language, the town’s existing regulations could be amended to incorporate the necessary references to river corridors.
Bennett and the Commission examined a few small revision details from Section 4 of the zoning regulations, and then reviewed changes in the draft of Sections 5 and 6. Aside from a number of small modifications clarifying internal citations, proposed changes include a provision (under Section 501) allowing half-acre sand or gravel pits on farms for private use only, not for sale or trade, and a maximum of three recreational vehicles allowed on a property for use as temporary, seasonal living quarters for non-paying guests.
Hearing of Visitors
McNeice made a motion to adjourn the meeting. Pusey seconded the motion, which passed 3-0. The meeting was adjourned at 10:14 p.m.
Interim Planning Commission Secretary