OFFICE OF THE SELECTBOARD
Town of Halifax, Vermont
SELECTBOARD PUBLIC HEARING MINUTES
September 22, 2015
This Selectboard public hearing on the Planning Commission’s proposed zoning regulation bylaw amendments opened at 7:00 p.m. in the Halifax School Multi-purpose Room. Selectboard members Lewis Sumner, Edee Edwards, and Douglas Grob were present; Leon Corse of Whitingham officiated as Moderator. Also present were Laura Gerdes, Stephan Chait, Joan Courser, Wayne Courser, Bettye Roberts, Janet Eldridge-Taylor, Susan Kelly, Paul Taylor, David Jones, Nicholas Bartenhagen, Marilyn Allen, Margaret Bartenhagen, Peter LaFogg, Jeffrey Duncan, Lisa Duncan, Norman Fajans, Bonnie Brown, Ross Barnett, Bonny Hall, James Keithline, Penfield Chester, Deborah Sumner, Homer (Chum) Sumner, Blanche Thayer, and Robbin Gabriel.
Selectboard Chair Lewis Sumner welcomed attendees and introduced Moderator Leon Corse, Board members Edee Edwards and Doug Grob, and secretary Gabriel, then turned the meeting over to Leon Corse. Corse, who has been moderating meetings in Whitingham for thirty years, remarked that his voters tell him he has done the job so long the only way he could get rid of it would be to move out of town or die. As he hasn’t chosen either option, he continues in the position. Corse read the text of the Notice and Reporting Form into the record. Briefly, the Reporting Form describes changes proposed for the existing Resource Industry definition, the removal of the phrase “includes earth and mineral extraction” from that definition, and the addition of a new definition for Earth and Mineral Extraction. Full text can be found at https://halifaxvermont.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/September-22-2015-Selectboard-Public-Hearing.pdf. (Note to the Reader: Several references are made in the text below to the current Town Plan as having been voted in or approved last March. The existing Town Plan was adopted by the voters on March 14, 2014.)
Corse asked whether anyone present had a conflict of interest relating to the matter at hand. Edee Edwards advised that, as a member of the Selectboard, she had attended a number of Planning Commission meetings during which these proposed amendments were considered. She did not attend the Planning Commission’s public hearing on the amendments. Corse then made note of an error in the text of the Notice as published in the Brattleboro Reformer. The words “sourced on the parcel,” which had been removed from the definition of Resource Industry following the Planning Commission’s public hearing, were erroneously included in the Reformer’s printed legal notice.
Corse invited remarks from Selectboard members. Hearing none, he asked for comment from the floor. Laura Gerdes asked why so many restrictions? Some of us own several acres of land, she said, if you’re saying we can’t do any excavating, or any gravel, or other uses we might possibly have on our land, why are we paying all these taxes on our property when we can’t do anything with it? No response was forthcoming. Margaret Bartenhagen commented that she thinks the proposed amendments are appropriate. They conform with the language of the Town Plan, she said. I think it’s excessive, said Joan Courser, and tying the hands of the people who pay the taxes in this town and the state. I think they’re going a little bit overboard. I disagree with the whole thing. When I purchased my property in 2001, commented Bettye Roberts, I had someone come in and excavate so I could use my driveway. Does this mean we can’t alter our property in any way? These definitions are about earth and mineral extraction and resource industry as specific, sizeable, on-going activities on a piece of property, answered Edwards. Obviously, people will still be able to build houses; it’s not the intention to restrict that in any way. Who will define intention?, asked Blanche Thayer. I think that intention doesn’t actually belong in what is written, replied Edwards, so what is written needs to be very clear in stating what should be a definition, and it should not have any intention. We’re only focused tonight on these two proposed changes, we’re not focused on other parts of the zoning which in fact cover things like building homes. Wayne Courser said he has been trying to find out how many Vermont towns do not have zoning regulations. I know a number of them don’t have zoning, he said, and when I talk to people it sounds as if everything is going fine. You can’t do everything you want to do, you have to go through Act 250; I sometimes wonder why we have zoning. I’m going to ask Ann Manwaring if she can find out how many towns don’t have it. I think (referring to the amendment proposal) they’re going too far, and I hope the people who have made up this plan are not pushing this to try to stop the rock quarry. I don’t like that.
Every year, we go to town meeting thinking that taxes are too high, said Chum Sumner. It’s a natural evolution of things that if a town doesn’t grow, it dies. If the grand list stays the same, while every year it costs more to run the town and the school, taxes go up and up. Eventually you reach the point where people can’t pay their taxes. But then, the town as a whole, with the zoning we have, really doesn’t want any business in our town. Cottage industry, which a previous Selectboard member thought was going to be great, doesn’t increase the tax base, said Sumner. If you happen to be a carpenter building cabinets in your garage, that garage is still valued the same as if you were housing your vehicle there. If you happen to own a piece of property that is part of the corridor for aesthetic beauty, or conservation property, I think that should be owned by the town, not by an individual who has to pay taxes. If the town wants to designate a piece of property as pristine, or for use as hiking trails or cross-country skiing, then let the town own it and turn it into a park. I really don’t think it is fair for someone to pay taxes when they really can’t do anything on their land. The land is only worth anything the day you sell it, and then you don’t own it anymore. Up until then, it’s a liability, not an asset.
I’d like to know where some of these ideas came from, said Laura Gerdes. I know there are people against the rock quarry; I assume that’s where a lot of these ideas came from. But what happened to the gravel? I know years ago—and I assume this is still true—many people got gravel off their property. What is wrong with taking gravel, or other resources you might have on your land, and being able to sell them? Gerdes also said tonight’s meeting was not very well publicized. I read the paper for notices, she added, and I did see it there (in the Reformer), but only once. I did not see it in the Deerfield Valley News, and I don’t get to the Town Offices or the Post Office.
David Jones, identifying himself as a taxpayer, said he felt it important to have rules of acceptable behavior we can all agree upon. Rules prevent actions by individuals that might have a negative impact on other people, he stated. As a society we have the right to make those judgments and set the rules for how we act. In this case, setting a rule that we are not going to have mineral or extractive industries in our town is a good choice. Such industries are going to have negative impacts on those of us who aren’t property owners who want to do those things, and on property values. It will create noise, drive wildlife away, and increase the cost of town operations. These are negative impacts. I don’t want them. I think we’re within our rights to set limits and rules on how to act as a community. Many of us who decided to live here, live here in part because there aren’t such industries (as earth and mineral extraction). My only concern is that this effects only the Conservation district. I would have to go back to the Town Plan to find out what is allowable in the Rural Residential District, because I think this limitation should apply across the board. Then why do we own land? What’s the purpose if we can’t do anything with it?, responded Laura Gerdes. We bought our land years ago. It seems newcomers come in and think we can’t have any noise, we can’t have any traffic. What about years ago, when we had lumbering, and all kinds of business going on? Why do you think everything is negative in town? As Jones started to reply, Edwards requested comments be directed to the stage. I draw a clear distinction between agriculture and forestry which are sustainable, and mineral or extractive industries which by definition are not sustainable, said Jones.
What is being proposed here is actually very narrow and specific, said Sue Kelly. Agricultural and forestry activities remain unchanged. This specifically addresses the matters of earth and mineral extraction, and only in the Conservation District. The Town Plan already declares that policy, and the zoning needs to endorse that. The zoning is the means by which the goals of the community are realized, and that’s what we are—a community deciding things together. Marilyn Allen said she had learned Halifax had adopted zoning quite early on—in the 1970s—and that zoning was quite forward-looking. She went on to speak of the manner in which residents work together when need arises, and believes that solidarity is expressed in the town’s zoning, which provides rules that help us get along. It’s possible to do very different things with the land, she continued. This activity (earth and mineral extraction) is extreme. Most quarrying in Vermont happens along paved roads. If you look into it, you see what it does to our fiscal life, what it does to the quality of our lives. People can still settle in the Conservation District, they just can’t settle as closely as in the Village; you can lumber, you can do a lot of different things in the Conservation District and still stay within the plan to protect this part of the town and its wild and irreplaceable resources. This town has some of the best woodland in the state. We voted in the Town Plan last March, and we get to vote on these changes.
Bonny Hall said when they moved here fourteen years ago, and were looking for property to purchase, they learned Guilford did not have zoning, which they considered a negative. For us, she said, zoning is protection for the people who own the property. I think people bought in the Conservation District because it was the Conservation District. Zoning is a good thing; I think we should have it. Bonnie Brown said she had researched the history of land use regulation and found reference to turn-of-the-century nuisance doctrine, which she illustrated with a story of a pig farm moving in next door. Without zoning, she said, an adjacent property owner would have no control over the effects of such an operation. Zoning provides restriction of and protection from certain types of growth, Brown continued. The current amendment proposals will reassure those who moved to the area of the Conservation District for the commodity of peace and quiet that those qualities will be preserved, now and in the future.
Deborah Sumner asked how many acres the Conservation District contained, and how much of that acreage was owned by Denison Lumber. Probably about a third of the town, Lewis Sumner estimated in response to the first question; so maybe 8,000 to 10,000 acres. What if (Denison) can’t do anything with the land, asked Deborah Sumner, so he turns it over to the Land Trust. You’ve lost your forest, you’ve lost your tax base. This started a general conversation on the floor about the workings and tax implications of land trusts and current use; the specifics were inaudible to those on stage. Both Edwards and Corse asked participants to speak up and address their comments to the Selectboard. Penfield Chester said the Current Use is a state-run program affecting agriculture and forestry, and is different from a private land trust. I think the Denison land is in Current Use, she added. There could be a number of “what if” scenarios, said Paul Taylor. The zoning provides structure and reduces the ambiguity of the “what ifs.” Norman Fajans stated there is land in the town in land trusts; as far as he knows that land is not exempt from taxation. He mentioned a 400-acre parcel and a 92+/- acre parcel on which development rights have been deeded to the Vermont Land Trust. Fajans said he believes these parcels are not tax-exempt. Isn’t tax-exempt land recorded in the Town Report?, he asked. I don’t believe so, replied Lewis Sumner; that information is in the Grand List. There was further speculation about tax exemption or reduction on land enrolled in the Current Use program and/or in a land trust. If none of you object to my speaking, said Moderator Corse, I can clarify; I’m involved in both processes. On being encouraged to explain, Corse said he has about 300 acres on which the development rights have been sold to the Vermont Land Trust. That does not effect the taxes. This is a controversial issue, because there are those who think acreage in the Land Trust is under even more restrictions than acreage in Current Use, so it should get a tax break. Current Use does effect the taxes; that acreage is eligible for tax reduction.
I walked in late, said Ross Barnett, why are we having a special meeting tonight, given that zoning will come up at Town Meeting? Edwards explained that the Planning Commission had received a grant to revise the full zoning regulations. This particular section of the Plan was seen as very unclear because it did not have mutually exclusive categories, both in the definitions section and in the section that outlines the usage in the different town districts. This particular section has taken a lot of energy and generated much discussion town; the hope is that clarifying this section on its own would allow the town to move forward and look at the rest of the zoning changes without this one thing holding up the entire work. Marilyn Allen described the process by which a town plan is developed and then revised periodically. Our Town Plan was revised and approved last year, she said, and now the second part of the process is to update the zoning to bring it into agreement with the Town Plan. It’s an ongoing process, she said, it doesn’t just happen when there’s a problem. But that’s what’s happening now, Barnett commented. Allen disagreed, restating the continuing nature of the process.
Maggie Bartenhagen, as the town’s representative to Windham Regional Commission, stated that tonight’s hearing is one of several hearings which are steps in the whole planning grant process for zoning revision. I wasn’t present for the revision process, she said, but this may be the area of greatest discrepancy; that may be why it is being presented separately. Blanche Thayer said she agreed with Ross Barnett. We have a crisis, we voted on this at Town Meeting, and now suddenly we’re coming up with new definitions. Nick Bartenhagen responded to that comment, saying the Town Plan takes precedence in describing what the townspeople want in each district. When there are significant differences in the Town Plan approved at Town Meeting, then it is the responsibility of the Planning Commission to assure the zoning regulations are compatible with the Town Plan. The Town Plan makes no reference to earth and mineral extraction in the Conservation District. Yet the zoning still includes earth and mineral extraction as an allowable use in the Conservation District. Edwards advised the grant for the zoning regulations update was from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development in the amount of $8,000. The Windham Regional Commission provided staffing and professional assistance throughout the revision work. The Planning Commission thought separating these definitions would be beneficial, she said. Do people feel that the wording is clear? Why aren’t we voting on all the zoning changes at once?, asked Ross Barnett. The Planning Commission felt moving this issue forward would allow the remainder of the zoning to be presented as less controversial, as a single thing. This issue seems to be at the forefront of the town’s mind, responded Edwards.
Do I understand that earth and mineral extraction was not in the zoning previously, asked Laura Gerdes. You’re just putting it in now? Nick Bartenhagen said he believes the town Plan was changed to not countenance earth and mineral extraction in the Conservation District. So why are we putting it in now?, asked Gerdes. I know there’s a problem with the rock quarry, but that hasn’t even been resolved yet, as far as I know. That proposed activity is the one that highlighted five words in the zoning that permitted the possibility of a rock quarry in the Conservation District, despite what the Town Plan approved, answered Marilyn Allen. That particular phrase (“includes earth and mineral extraction,” found in the present zoning regulations definition of Resource Industry), is kind of hard to track where it came from originally. It’s not clear the town ever voted on it; somehow it appeared in the zoning. Allen suggested this may have been wording inserted when someone thought the regulations too restrictive, but it was never voted on. We’re helping applicants and the town clarify what is possible in the districts, she said. This is just one small thing in the Conservation District. I think it’s important to say, added Nick Bartenhagen, that if people think this is an attempt to prevent Mr. Denison from having his quarry, that is a separate issue. If the town voted in March that this particular reading of the zoning is what they want, that would not prevent Mr. Denison from having his quarry, because he’s already placed his application before these proposed changes were made. It’s not an underhanded way of trying to prevent the quarry from occurring; it’s too late for that. It would just stop anyone else from doing the same thing on their own property, someone said, and another added, “in the Conservation District.” Returning to Edwards earlier question on clarity, David Jones said he thought the language was quite clear; we just have differences of opinion. If it was muddy before, said Barnett, then it can stay muddy until the next vote. I don’t understand why it should be pushed through. Will this have to be voted on at a special town meeting, asked Chum Sumner, or will it be voted on at Town Meeting in March? The Board hasn’t made a decision, replied Edwards. We’ll discuss that after this hearing. Chum Sumner outlined the situation as he understood it: We have a Town Plan, and we have zoning regulations that tell us what we can and can’t do. A previous Town Plan contained language which was removed from the Town Plan we voted on last March. Is that correct, he asked. The language, answered Marilyn Allen, is basically the same. Some changes were made to clarify the purpose of the Conservation District, but the main difference rests on a few words; the replacement of “should,” which is advisory, with “shall,” which is more clear. If the Selectboard decides we should have a special town meeting, will you then put it in the Brattleboro Reformer, and the Deerfield Valley News, and get the word out?, asked Sumner. Edwards said they would follow all the statutory requirements. We have to, said Lewis Sumner. There was further discussion of how many times a notice must be published, and Gabriel mentioned the required deadlines for posting in advance of a hearing sometimes meant the posting needed to be in the daily newspaper of record rather than the weekly paper. The notice is posted on the town website. Edwards asked how many people present were on Front Porch Forum, and got a few raised hands in response. Norman Fajans mentioned The Commons newspaper, a weekly which is distributed locally. Do they take legal notices, he asked. Couldn’t we designate an additional newspaper of record?
Bonnie Brown noted she had the sign-in sheet, if anyone needed to add their names. I heard a motion to adjourn, Leon Corse said, all in favor? The hearing closed to a chorus of “ayes.”
The hearing was adjourned at 8:10 p.m.