Planning Board Wants Complete Re-Write of Zoning Ordinance

In discussing the results of a Zoning Ordinance audit completed with the Arnett Development Group, the Planning Board agreed a complete re-write of the zoning ordinance is needed.

“There has been no re-write of the Zoning Ordinance since 1963, when the Town first adopted zoning,” Chairman Art Rugg said during the board’s Nov. 12 meeting. “I find it difficult to follow and the board has in some cases had to do some interpretation. This is something the board needs.”

Land use expert Jonathan Edwards, with whom the town subcontracted to review the Zoning Ordinance, presented the board with a synopsis of both his positive findings and areas of concern.

One of the more significant findings Edwards pointed out was that the Town’s “Overlay District criteria and methods of determining uses and standards are difficult to comprehend – an issue that has resulted in an over-reliance on the variance process.”

Edwards said his review focused on the more general issues of the ordinance, noting there have been 429 amendments since it was adopted.

“You could argue because of that number of amendments, some small and some pretty large, the ordinance has become a bit cobbled together,” he said. “There are redundancies resulting from stitching the ordinance together; and it hasn’t stood up to all state law changes, which could be bad if someone makes objection to some decision.”

Edwards noted the Town’s Zoning Ordinance does have many useful provisions that he thinks should be continued, such as the beginnings of a useful combination of review and permitting procedures, particularly with respect to getting Conditional Use permitting and Site Plan Review to work in tandem.

“If pursued, this direction can foster beneficial clarity, flexibility, certainty, and promptness to the development review process,” Edwards wrote in his report.

“We think based on what we’re seeing here, it’s pretty evident we need to do a re-write of the Zoning Ordinance. We the planning staff and our consultants feel there is a need to do it sooner than later,” said Planner Cynthia May, who told the board she thinks the re-write could be completed by next summer if the Town passes a warrant article to fund the process. “If we start July 2015, I think that’s a reasonable goal.”

Mike Speltz, a member of the Conservation Commission, told the board the audit review takes the Town a giant step forward in implementing the Master Plan.

“About one-third of the Master Plan recommendations are addressed in this zoning audit,” he said. “I think you should task (May) with an 18-month implementation plan.”

“A year to me sounds optimistic, and there are reasons behind the ordinance that have to be part of the process of rewriting,” member Lynn Wiles said. “If there’s something we want to act on right away, maybe we should consider that. In terms of rewriting, it can be quick; but understanding the consequences is important because we have seen some of those unintended consequences and the impact they have on the Town. I think the sooner we can act the better.”

“It think it’s a good idea to update the plan so it coincides with the Master Plan and doesn’t conflict with state law,” member Al Sypek agreed, asking May for a chronology of the rewrite process.

“It’s a long road,” May said, explaining the board will need to get more input.

Moving forward, May said the next step would be to invite developers and those who use the ordinance to the table to share the findings of the audit and determine if it’s consistent with what they have found in their own experience.

Once the Planning Board adopts the audit and sends it to the Town Council, recommending an overhaul of the zoning ordinance, the Council would need to put out a Request for Proposals and solicit a consultant team to work with town staff and officials to complete the rewrite, which May estimates will cost about $120,000. May said the “going-rate” is $200,000 to $250,000.

“My recommendation would be to have the board have one meeting every month dedicated to this once we get to point where there’s some substance, rather than have a subcommittee, because I think the Planning Board should have a role in this. I think it should be a committee product rather than a subcommittee,” May said.

The Planning Board scheduled a workshop on Dec. 10 to discuss the zoning ordinance re-write further, and agreed opportunities where the ordinance can be reasonably reworked to address immediate concerns should be considered.

“We need to go through it carefully,” Rugg agreed. “This is just a start.”

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