Revision of town bylaws nearly complete1/15/09

Jan. 15, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

The long road of re-writing the town’s bylaws is finally nearing completion.

Last week, the Planning Commission had one of its final meetings to determine the look and functionality of the bylaws, an effort that began more than a year ago. Planning Commission Chairman David Yandell said it’s been a “monumental task,” but well worth it.

“We had a great opportunity to bring the town bylaws to a standard you could always hope they would get to,” Yandell said.

Planning Director Ken Belliveau said the bylaws are some of the best he’s ever seen. He credits former Town Planner Lee Nellis with the project, which began when Nellis worked for the town. Nellis also wrote much of the language for the bylaws, even after he left Williston in August. Belliveau and Senior Planner Matt Boulanger have been putting on the finishing touches in recent months.

“Lee deserves a tremendous amount of credit,” Belliveau said. “It’s an amazing piece of work.”

Along the way, both the Planning Department and Commission have run into controversial topics, including signage laws and, most recently, density issues. One particular project, the Jeff Atwood subdivision off North Williston Road, has found itself the subject of the Commission’s work in recent weeks.

Density

Belliveau said Atwood, who has been attempting to build an eight-unit affordable housing subdivision, is concerned about how density changes in the new bylaws will affect his project. He has run into opposition from neighboring residents on Lefebvre Lane, who argue the subdivision would be too dense for the small space he has available.

Under language in the new bylaws, the Lefebvre Lane residents may be correct. The new language states a developer would get no credit for wetlands or steep slopes on the property — both features are on Atwood’s land — when determining the permitted density of homes he or she could build. In the old bylaws, the developer would get the credit.

Complicating matters for Atwood, he’ll be too late to get grandfathered in for his project, even though it has gone through the pre-application stage with the Development Review Board.

Belliveau said the new bylaws would reduce the amount of houses Atwood could build, although he was not sure by how many. He said the issue isn’t completely resolved and he expects more turnout at the Planning Commission’s meeting on Feb. 3.

Yandell said the discussions about density ordinances have been difficult to separate from the Lefebvre Lane discussions and he’s had to continually remind those attending meetings that the commission does not make decisions on certain projects.

“We can’t write the ordinance about a specific piece of property,” Yandell said.

Still, Yandell said the commission has heard valuable opinions on both sides that have helped in its decision making. He said that while the new language on wetland density would most likely affect Atwood’s project, the Commission had to take into account the impact on the town as a whole.

Sign laws relaxed

As Belliveau has said in the past, signage and enforcement is always a problem for Planning Departments. In a change from the past bylaws, the Planning Commission has proposed a temporary sign ordinance, but with stipulations. Businesses will be able to place temporary signs without a permit for up to 90 days out of the year. Tenants with 10 or more businesses in one building will be able to have two signs posted at two road frontages.

Belliveau said this was a way of recognizing businesses need signs to attract customers, but also a way of limiting too many signs all over town. Yandell agreed.

“It doesn’t mean wallpapering Taft Corners will be allowed,” Yandell said.

Belliveau said he believes the new ordinance is enforceable and that most businesses will comply. He also said there’s a wait-and-see approach going forth with the bylaw.

“We’re not going to settle the sign issue once and for all,” Belliveau said. “It’s always an ongoing issue. Whatever we craft now, we’ll just have to see how it goes.”

Next steps

The Planning Commission next meets on Tuesday, Feb. 3 at Town Hall with what should be its last time tweaking the new bylaws. Yandell said the bylaws would then be sent to the Selectboard for further public comment and review. Belliveau expects a Selectboard meeting on the topic in March.

If the Selectboard wants significant changes, the bylaws may be sent back to the Planning Commission. If the board approves them, then the bylaws would go into effect in April after being sent to the state.

Belliveau and Yandell agree while the process is near completion, there will probably be changes in language in years following approval of the bylaws.

“With the amount of change, I’m sure there will need to be some revisiting,” Yandell said.