September 30, 2014

Turnaround must be removed, town says

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Board rejects zoning appeals

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Development Review Board last week rebuffed residents who wanted to keep their front-yard turnaround and operate a small business out of their historic district home.

Forrest and Erika White appealed a ruling that accused them and their neighbors of violating an ordinance that forbids alterations to the “greenbelt,” the strip between U.S. 2 and homes in the historic district.

“It doesn’t seem quite fair,” said Erika White, noting that the existing turnaround, in place for more than a decade, had only been altered slightly yet still triggered the town’s enforcement action.

The board rejected the Whites’ appeal and also refused to override a decision by zoning administrator D.K. Johnston to deny a permit for a landscaping business the couple runs from their home at 7582 Williston Rd.

The board heard nearly an hour of testimony on the pair of appeals during its July 24 session, according to a recording of the meeting. Both Forrest and Erika White spoke, as did Johnston. A few neighboring residents and one nearby businessman also testified in support of the Whites.

On the turnaround issue, the Whites noted that under legal precedent zoning violations cannot be enforced after 15 years have passed. The turnaround was never permitted, but apparently existed without drawing the town’s attention since 1990, long before the Whites bought the home.

But Johnston argued that the alternations to the turnaround – he has said it is actually big enough to be called a parking lot – negated that de facto statute of limitations.
The Whites argued that the original turnaround was only enlarged slightly – 14 inches in one direction and 18 inches in the other – and so did not amount to a significant change and should keep its exempt status.

On the business issue, Johnston told the board he refused to issue a home occupation permit because it was not the “typical” type of business that would qualify for it.

The business is called Plant & Stone Landscaping. Forrest White told the board that he does stone masonry, which he said in fact is a type of craft that would qualify as a home occupation business under the ordinance.

Johnston warned that that overturning his ruling would set a bad precedent. He said there are other businesses that are in more blatant violation of the ordinance. He said three cases in Williston are “headed to court.”

Johnston suggested the Whites apply for a home business permit. That type of permit allows more intense use in residential areas. But it also involves a more stringent review process.

To qualify, the Whites would have to comply with conditions set by the board, which could include constructing a parking area behind their home, a costly proposition.

The board’s rationale for denying the appeals remains opaque. As it has in recent years, it cleared the room and met behind closed doors before making a decision.

The rulings regarding the Whites’ property came a month after the board denied a similar appeal regarding the turnaround – Johnston has said it is actually a parking lot – by their next-door neighbors, Scott and Miranda Roth.

The couples were ordered to restore a grass strip between their driveways and remove the turnaround within seven days or face $100-a-day fines.

The Whites’ said they have yet to decide whether to appeal the Development Review Board’s decision. They could demand a hearing by the state Environmental Court.

The couple seemed torn on what to do next. Forrest White said operating a business out of his home allows him to spend more time with his wife and their young child. But he said complying with elaborate permit conditions could cost him a bundle.

“Now I feel backed into a corner,” he said. “I could be forced to do this or move on.”

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