OFFICE OF THE PLANNING COMMISSION
Town of Halifax, Vermont
PLANNING COMMISSION REGULAR MEETING MINUTES
October 11, 2016
Call to Order
The meeting was called to order at 7:08 p.m. Planning Commission members Sirean LaFlamme, Turner Lewis, and Patty Dow were present; Bill Pusey arrived shortly after the meeting opened. Kaitlin Stone was unable to attend. Douglas Parkhurst, Marilou Parkhurst, Ray Combs, Janet Taylor, Stephan Chait, Linda Lyon, Russell Denison, Jerry Pratt, Lewis Sumner, Wayne Courser, Edee Edwards, Lesley Pollitt, David King, Laura Gerdes, Susan Kelly, Cara Cheyette, Norman Fajans, Emily Blake (Deerfield Valley News), Mitchell Green, Homer (Chum) Sumner, and Robbin Gabriel were also in attendance.
Changes and Additions to Agenda
Discussion—Public Commentary on Zoning Regulations
Sirean LaFlamme advised that the Planning Commission had requested public input on the town’s zoning regulations. We have received a few (written communications), she said. LaFlamme then invited comments from the floor, after reminding those present to sign in and state their names prior to speaking.
Wayne Courser: Courser brought up several points. This is a small town, he said. It’s not just for retirees, it’s for all of us. If someone wants to give their children a small chunk of land on which to build a house, it seems you can’t do that in the Conservation District. In the 1990s the zoning regulations were fairly simple; most of us could understand them. I can’t understand today’s regulations very well. Courser also questioned the wisdom of having one minimum acreage requirement on one side of a road and a different requirement on the other side (i.e., 15 acre minimum on Conservation District land and 3 acre minimum in Rural Residential).
Mitchell Green: I have a few ideas, said Green, but don’t have them all tonight. Green would like to see a buffer zone reinstated around the Conservation District; at one point such a buffer zone existed. He also suggested a 10-acre minimum lot size requirement in that district, rather than the current 15 acres. LaFlamme told Green that this information-gathering process would be ongoing, not restricted to tonight’s meeting. She also suggested that people put their concerns and suggestions in writing and submit them to the Planning Commission in advance of the next meeting. We will not meet in November, she added, as our regular date falls on voting day.
David King: Was the current version of the zoning regulations approved by the Selectboard, or by town vote, asked King. He was told the regulations were accepted by Australian ballot vote at the March 2016 Town Meeting. King said he had read a news article stating the zoning regulations were 58 pages long, including 30 pages of definitions. In a town with less than 500 voters, 58 pages of zoning regulations that need a lawyer to understand doesn’t make any sense to me. Secondly, King continued, there is a perception people got appointed and established the zoning rules to stop the quarry. I don’t know the people; I’m sure they had good intentions. But that perception is out there, and has to be dealt with.
Cara Cheyette: Responding to King, Cheyette said there were four pages of definitions in the 58-page zoning regulation document. She had several points to make, and provided Commissioners with a written document, a more detailed account of the summary which follows. Cheyette said the Planning Commission should wait for an Environmental Court ruling on the Zoning Board’s Denison quarry conditional use permit denial. That ruling will give the Planning Commission guidance in crafting possible future amendments to the existing zoning laws. The Commission should wait to see how the present bylaws work before attempting to make changes, and should solicit expert advice if revisions were undertaken. Cheyette stated that while she understood objections to bylaw length and complexity, the zoning regulations were not designed to be read cover-to-cover. Rather, they should be used to locate and learn about a specific area of interest. Regulations can provide freedom and opportunity, she concluded, pointing out that because Halifax does not have subdivision bylaws it is a one-acre town for Act 250 purposes.
Don’t be afraid everything is going to change in a month, said LaFlamme. Any revision will be a long process. What we wanted here, added Bill Pusey, is the input of many people. We are glad you all came, and we’d like a lot more input. We would like to make this all for everybody; we’re not here for ourselves, or for one little group.
Norman Fajans: The current zoning was worked on over several years, said Fajans. The revisions were approved by town vote, and the petition to repeal was voted down. He compared the situation to a past attempt to increase the size of the Selectboard, a question that was presented to voters and rejected several years in a row. Fajans believes the Planning Commission’s next step should be to craft a set of subdivision regulations for the town, rather than revisiting the zoning bylaws.
Is the present discussion due to a citizens’ petition, asked Edee Edwards. No, responded LaFlamme, it is in response to a letter from the Selectboard. So there is no regulatory reason why you have to look at this again, said Edwards. We are a small town, and we are being responsive to all community members, LaFlamme answered. We want to hear what everyone has to say.
Russell Denison: Denison displayed for those gathered a square, polished schist stone box with lid, which will eventually contain his and his wife’s remains in the West Leyden cemetery. After three failed attempts to mortgage his Florida home, Denison has put the residence on the market and is in the process of moving back to Halifax, where his family has owned property for three generations before him. Denison sees a connection between increasing land use regulations and the UN’s Agenda 21, an action plan promoting sustainable development first made public in 1992. He predicts an upcoming loss of private land ownership, elimination of private transportation, and population resettlement into urban communities, and believes resistance to his quarry project stems in part from UN program promoters at higher government levels.
Lesley Pollitt: Pollitt said she appreciated Commissioners’ willingness to listen to everyone’s concerns. She is in favor of postponing consideration of regulation changes until concrete problems become evident, and would like the Board to develop subdivision regulations for the town.
Edee Edwards: Referring to her experience on the Halifax Selectboard during Irene, Edwards said zoning bylaws should be a continually evolving document, in which the concept of resiliency is emphasized. We need to be smarter about where we’re building; where does it make sense to build. Dirt roads don’t last very well during a tropical storm. We have roads and bridges, that the town owns, that go to one house. Everybody pays for that; is that the best use of resources? While there was only a 22-vote spread in each of this year’s zoning-related votes, she continued, 22 people is a substantial number in a community of our size. Edwards feels subdivision regulations should be pursued. She also questioned the process—the limitations imposed on a speaker “where my back is to two-thirds of the people, and you’re all [the Planning Commission] sort of up there as if you were judges.” Edward said her participation in a recent facilitation workshop made her aware of the need to engage, to talk to each other. She suggested obtaining the services of a facilitator, perhaps from the Vermont Council on Rural Development, to assist in the process. Finally, addressing the perception that people were appointed for or against a particular position, Edwards said as she recalled when positions were open there was often only one applicant.
Laura Gerdes: I think the zoning really traps us as landowners, said Gerdes. If I had rock or gravel on my land I wouldn’t be able to do anything with it. The majority of townspeople don’t want large landowners to do anything with their land; they want that land available for recreation, for cross-country skiing. We (large landowners) pay taxes on that land, but we can’t do much with it. Gerdes also reminded the meeting that an earlier attempt to create a commercial district on Route 112 had failed. If someone wanted to open a store on 112, they couldn’t do it, she added.
A general discussion of commercial zoning followed. Bill Pusey spoke of a survey the Planning Commission had sent out when a commercial district on Route 112 was being considered. The response was negative, and people did not come forth with ideas for alternatives. I was surprised, said Pusey. Linda Lyon said commercial endeavors are permissible in Village and Rural Residential Districts under present bylaws. (Note: Retail uses are listed under conditional uses in both districts.) I remember that survey, she said. I was confused by it and didn’t send it in. I didn’t want to speak for the people who live on 112; if I lived there maybe I wouldn’t want a motel or a gas station. Maybe we need to revisit that and clarify it. The survey happened a couple of years ago, said LaFlamme, and we posted notice of every meeting. The meager return did not justify the mailing costs. If we have commercial, why is the quarry having such a problem getting a permit? asked Gerdes. Because it is in the Conservation District, responded LaFlamme. Norm Fajans, who was on the Planning Commission at the time the survey went out, said that one can do just about anything in the Village and Rural Residential Districts. You can have a bed and breakfast, an office, personal service, or a wildlife refuge, said Chum Sumner, reading from the zoning bylaws. Other than that, it’s all conditional use.
Chum Sumner: I’m not going to say I’d like to do away with all zoning, said Sumner. But I would like to see zoning toned down enough so that the town could grow. There are fewer kids in the school system every year, which is true across the state, because people can’t afford to live in Vermont and raise a family. In Halifax it can be difficult to build a new home because of acreage and other requirements, including Act 250. Any town that does not have their grand list grow is going to die, because eventually you cannot afford your taxes, he concluded.
Stephan Chait: Chait said that when he was on the Planning Commission there were a number of subdivision requests from people whose children wished to built homes in town. I can’t think of one we turned down, he said; it’s a workable process. I don’t agree with people who say it’s far too onerous. There are established rules for creating a civilized society. Chait advocated waiting to see how the current bylaws work.
Why was a Conservation District originally created, asked Gerdes. Chait thought it proceeded from the Town Plan, but was told that zoning was initiated before a town plan existed. A 15-acre minimum (in the Conservation District) seems like a lot, said Gerdes. Cheyette recalled one factor in the creation of the Conservation District was a desire to preserve large tracts of land for hunting. What is the difference between having a commercial district and having commercial enterprises permitted in Rural Residential, she asked. LaFlamme said the process was more restrictive in Rural Residential, and Pusey cited the need for conditional use and possibly Act 250 permits. Cheyette suggested Halifax would be a good place for a Farmer’s Co-op. There are recommendations in the Town Plan related to economic development that the Planning Commission might want to look at, said Edwards.
Doug Parkhurst: In light of tonight’s comments and our experience with the quarry, zoning, appeals, and the court case, perhaps we should take another look at the Conservation District, said Parkhurst. Why did it come into being? Is it really something that’s needed? Would a rural residential designation in that area do just as much to preserve whatever was special about that area as it does in the rest of the town? This is something the Planning Commission could investigate immediately. Perhaps the Conservation District could be reduced, or eliminated entirely and replace with rural residential.
Ray Combs: Combs had a question about hunting in the Conservation District. LaFlamme said land could be posted—or not—in any of the districts, and even if an owner chose to post, he could still give permission to hunt. Later in the meeting, Combs said he had been hunting in Halifax for forty years, and had walked a lot of beautiful land, including the Denison and Gerdes acreage. I never see anyone else out there, he added; I don’t know why we need a conservation district.
Janet Taylor: Taylor said she had been here for seventeen years, and the Conservation District was a primary reason for her decision to live here.
Linda Lyon: In considering the Conservation District, Lyon recommended calling on Windham Regional Commission expertise to examine topography and waterways. Less development means the land can absorb more water; you have less run-off, road damage, and flooding.
LaFlamme noted that hiring expertise is great, but costly. When we were working with WRC we had a grant, she said; I don’t want my taxes to go up, either. That’s part of the cost of operating a town, said Edwards; it is equally important as funding the highway department, and there are grants available.
Marylou Parkhurst: One way to ease the tax burden is to bring in business, said Parkhurst. This town, and Vermont, has two things—rocks and trees. Trees are being harvested, but we have someone who wants to harvest rock, and can’t do it because it is in the Conservation District. Vermont is not business-friendly; they want everything to be for tourists, skiing, hiking. That’s fine, but it’s not releasing the tax burden. The main thing is to review that Conservation District, and get rid of it.
Denison said his land parcel was over 1200 acres. The portion for the proposed quarry is 12-14 acres, way out in the woods. Janet Taylor, quoting from the quarry’s conditional permit use application, said it would not be a significant source of tax revenue for the town. Do businesses in town pay higher taxes, asked Edwards. Patty Dow and several others discussed taxation in the town and concluded that while businesses pay the higher non-residential tax rate, there is no local direct tax on business use itself.
Jerry Pratt: As the meeting drew to a close, Pratt said he had heard strong opinions from both sides, and this type of conversation would make the process stronger. He advised those present to go home and think about the money aspect; many small Vermont towns are looking for ways to increase their tax base, and while second homes have met some of that need they are not the whole answer. You have to look at your resources, and what you can do for yourselves, he concluded.
LaFlamme thanked those present for their participation and invited them to the December meeting. Please put your suggestions in writing and send them to us, she said.
LaFlamme posed a theoretical question to the Board regarding permitting requirements for a yurt as a second living unit on a parcel of land. While the Planning Commission has not been asked to review an application of that nature, they would like to learn how other towns have handled the question of yurts.
Hearing of Visitors
Pusey made a motion to adjourn the meeting. Dow seconded the motion, which passed, 4-0. The meeting was adjourned at 8:47 p.m.
Interim Planning Commission Secretary