Is a DRB a good move for the town? The News hears from both sides
As the Selectboard prepares to vote on whether to replace the town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment/Planning Commission structure with a development review board, Charlotters this weekend were still hotly debating the merits of the proposed move.
A development review board (DRB), like a zoning board of adjustment (ZBA), is an enforcement process model for ensuring the town’s Land Use Regulations (LURs) are applied in day-to-day decisions that come before the town. The town’s zoning regulations are contained in the LURs, which are approved by the town’s citizens.
The LURs are the same whether a DRB or ZBA applies them.
The question of whether to move to a DRB structure took on new urgency on Oct. 18 when, near the end of the Special Selectboard meeting, Selectman Matt Krasnow read a motion, plucked from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, to immediately form a DRB.
Vice-Chair Frank Tenney and Selectman Lewis Mudge objected to the motion, which had not been warned, and asked for additional time to review it. The motion was tabled until the next regular meeting on Oct. 25.
Those on both sides of the issue have said the proposed switch to a DRB is a result of the town’s growing frustration with development application outcomes.
Less clear to those who oppose the change is how a DRB would improve the current process.
“I think people are getting frustrated with [developments] that got through the application process but were either appealed in environmental court, or the applicant is operating in violation of approval,” Tenney told The News. “Some citizens believe as long as the project is good, the town should ‘just let it go through.’ We’ve had three applications recently that people had a lot of opinions and feelings about.”
During public comments at the meeting, town officials and residents argued passionately through blue surgical masks about the pros and cons of moving to a DRB model. Some speakers participated via Zoom.
“It’s a very complicated change, and I don’t think Charlotte is suited for the structure [of a DRB],” Planning Commission Member Bill Stuono said. “Our town is very unique, and it’s ideally suited for a ZBA/PC structure.”
Planning Commission Member Kyra Wegman agreed.
“If we are genuinely interested in preserving Charlotte and our farmland and open space [by] concentrating development efforts in the village centers, I think that’s a worthy goal,” she said.
But Wegman noted that several projects that recently came before the planning commission were “bursting at the seams of their building envelopes,” and “in conflict with the rural character of the town.”
Wegman said while she wished there was a doctor’s office on Ferry Road, “I don’t think that doctor’s office needs to be 4000 square feet.”
“We can’t dig infinite wells to match the number of houses that developers wish to build,” she cautioned. “Individually, all these projects seem like a great idea, but as an aggregate over many years, I can see it really changing the character of the town.”
Wegman’s comments echoed a fear among some Charlotters that moving to a DRB structure will mean accelerated development and less rigorous application of land use regulations.
But resident and former PC chair Peter Joslin said such fears are unfounded, and the move to a DRB will simply allow the planning commission to focus solely on planning.
“Nothing in the land use regulations or the town plan is changing,” Joslin said. “All of the guidance, all of the rules that are in place now about subdivisions—site plan review, setbacks— none of that is changing. Development is going to be guided by the same land use regulations that have been in place for quite some time.”
Joslin stepped down from the planning commission on Oct. 15 after serving for more than 17 years. In his resignation letter, published by The News on October 13, Joslin said he supported the move to a DRB.
“Unfortunately, most of the discussion of the pros and cons of a DRB versus a PC/ZBA have been lost in the weeds instead of looking at the big picture,” Joslin wrote. “Necessary for any community to grow, remain vibrant, healthy and diverse requires continued review of where we have been, where we are, and, most importantly, where we are going.”
The question of where Charlotte is going is at the core of the DRB/ZBA debate. Residents are increasingly polarized in their view of the future for the town, with some favoring more development while others seek to guard the town’s largely rural landscape.
“I don’t know why a DRB is necessary,” Tenney said. “If the current ZBA/PC applies the regulations properly and if the staff follows them, the only difference in the process would be a joint hearing if a project requires conditional use and site plan [review].”
Tenney also expressed concern about the fate of the zoning and planning staff who were hired only months ago.
“What happens to them?” Tenney asked. “We just went through the Gallagher and Flynn HR (human resources) process to redo everybody’s job description and pay rate. For staff, this is a direct change in office roles.”
The zoning office and ZBA have endured significant disruption this year, starting with the resignation of former zoning administrator and zoning assistant Daniel Morgan in January. Current Zoning Administrator Wendy Pelletier was hired in May, and Planning and Zoning Assistant Rebecca Kaplan came on in early August.
Last spring, four members of the ZBA resigned, including then-ZBA Chair Tenney and Vice-Chair Bennett, leaving current ZBA Chair Lane Morrison as the board’s sole member. New members were appointed in May, some of whom had little or no experience with land use regulations.
In July came more unrest when member Ronda Moore resigned after serving only three months. Her seat remained vacant until October 11, when the Selectboard appointed Eli Lesser-Goldsmith as the board’s newest member.
Stuono said he was “totally shocked” when at the end of the special meeting Selectboard Chair Jim Faulkner introduced a resolution “to immediately form a DRB and make the ZBA members, who are mostly brand new, the DRB members.”
But Joslin said he thinks ZBA members’ lack of experience is a non-issue.
“Yes, some of the members are new, but most of the folks at the planning commission have been at it for at least a couple of years,” Joslin said. “I think there’s plenty of talent to staff both the DRB and the planning commission.”
However, ZBA member Charles Russell, who said the board was in favor of the switch, said lack of experience among board members is a major concern for the town.
“I was on the Selectboard for 15 years, so I’ve appointed a lot of planning commission and ZBA members,” Russell said at the Oct. 18 meeting. “You appoint someone [and] they’re immediately on the board with not necessarily any experience of what they’re doing.”
Russell said inexperience among ZBA members and staff can result in confusion about “who’s making the decision” on applications.
“Are you depending on the staff member to write up the decision that you rubber-stamp, or do you expect the board members to understand the regulations as well?” Russell asked.
“These Land Use Regulations are really complex, really long, [and] it’s hard to be sure you found all the different sections of regulations that pertain to that application,” he said. “We’ve run into this already in our few months on the board. We get to the hearing and to the deliberation and realize there’s a section that we didn’t address.”
Russell said going forward the Selectboard should provide resources and training for DRB members to ensure they make “quality decisions.”
When Tenney asked why training could only be provided if the town moved to a DRB model, Russell said for “consistency” it would be better to train one board instead of two.
Stuono said although he is “not opposed” to a DRB, “it’s a transition that requires careful planning, and could end up being a disaster if it’s rushed through.”
He described the art of reaching a zoning or planning decision as “sort of a balancing act, because you always have competing interests.”
Implicit in those interests is the temptation to approve certain site plans before rigorously interpreting and applying Land Use Regulations, Tenney said.
“The Zoning Board needs to follow the [land use] rules, and there’s not a lot of give and take, or at least there shouldn’t be,” he said. “But when you’re doing a site plan review, you look more at designing, the screening, parking, traffic, lighting and so forth.”
By keeping the functions separate, as the current ZBA/PC system does, board members are less likely to be swayed by an especially appealing site plan, Tenney said.
Tenney also pointed out that issues surrounding the current application process are not the result of a ZBA/PC structure but because the town’s LURs need to be changed—an issue that will not be solved by moving to a DRB.
“The issues we have now with a ZBA/PC are going to remain the same until other parts of the process are changed,” Tenney said. “It’s not a PC/ZBA versus a DRB discussion, it’s a ‘change the regulations’ discussion.”
In other words, if Charlotters are frustrated with the town’s zoning decisions, they would be better served by changing the Land Use Regulations than by changing the system used to enforce them.
Stuono said those who hope a DRB will result in a more efficient application process will be disappointed if the Selectboard fails to appoint experienced board members whose decisions can stand up on appeal.
“When you present a decision [on an application], it has to be detail-oriented or it’s subject to an appeal,” Stuono said. “I abstained [from voting] on the health center decision because I felt there were still issues that we didn’t address properly, and I was afraid it was going to lead to an appeal. And it did.”
In a letter published by The News on Oct. 22, resident Stuart Bennett said the question of whether to switch to a DRB should be decided by town vote in March.
“Respect our judgment. Let us vote,” Bennett wrote.
But Town Administrator Dean Bloch said that according to state law, a town vote was not necessary.
“The statute gives the Selectboard, not town voters, the authority to make this decision,” Bloch said in an email.
Shelburne Town Manager and Charlotte resident Lee Krohn, who introduced himself at the Oct. 18 meeting as having “over 30 years of professional and volunteer planning and zoning experience,” said while most towns in Vermont have moved from a ZBA/PC to a DRB model, “that doesn’t mean it’s right for Charlotte.”
Any decision the town makes, he said, should be made “consciously”.
“Do it because it works for Charlotte, not just because we’re afraid to make the change,” Krohn said.
“It’s not really a question of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” he continued. “It’s a question of, if you were to reinvent the system, is the current process how you would structure it today?”
Krohn said he is not aware of any towns that made the switch to a DRB and then returned to the ZBA/PC model but did not elaborate on what improved for the towns once the change had been made.
The Selectboard is expected to make a motion to resolve the DRB issue at Monday’s regular meeting. The agenda for the meeting can be found here.