Rezoning fee prompts concerns

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard reacted skeptically last week to a proposed $1,500 fee for rezoning applications.

The fee is intended to defray the town’s cost of reviewing and processing such requests. A recent rezoning case consumed dozens of hours of staff time and required multiple meetings of the Planning Commission and the Selectboard to resolve.

“This doesn’t happen often in Williston, but when it does it imposes a major burden on the staff,” wrote Town Planner Lee Nellis in a memo to the Selectboard. He estimated that a consultant would have charged $4,000 to process the recent rezoning request.

At a Sept. 10 meeting, Selectboard member Ted Kenney raised concerns about the legality of the proposal.

“What I’m worried about is that it’s not just a neat thing that you have a right to petition your government,” he said. “What we are saying is we’re going to have a tax on it.”

Board member Judy Sassorossi also worried that the high fee could discourage people from seeking changes from their government.

“I would almost applaud residents who came forward,” she said. “The prohibitive nature is of concern to me.”

Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig said in an interview that he initially favored the fee. But after hearing Kenney’s remarks, he said he began to have doubts.

Still, he is concerned that rezoning cases eat up tremendous amounts of staff time and burden volunteer boards like the Planning Commission.

Rezoning is indeed an elaborate process. It requires public hearings before the Selectboard and the Planning Commission. Planning staff can spend dozens of hours researching the potential changes in land use and providing recommendations.

The fee proposal was prompted by a rezoning request filed last year by Bill Dunn, owner of Hillside East, a business park on Hurricane Lane in Williston. He asked to change zoning from residential to commercial for a 12-acre parcel adjacent to the business park to accommodate a larger facility for Qimonda, a technology company.

Both the Selectboard and Planning Commission eventually agreed to change zoning, but Qimonda ended up moving to another facility in South Burlington.

The rezoning process took “weeks and weeks” of staff time that otherwise would have been spent on other tasks, Nellis said in an interview. Ironically, one of those projects is revising the town’s zoning ordinances, work that has yet to be completed.

Nellis said he has been approached by someone seeking another zoning change. He declined to provide details.

“I don’t want to get people in the neighborhood fired up about something that might not happen,” he said.

Williston charges developers some of the biggest fees in Chittenden County. The fees are designed to defray infrastructure costs associated with new development.

The town levies impact fees for schools, transportation and recreation. The school impact fee alone is more than $10,000 for each single-family home.

But Nellis said his fee proposal wouldn’t affect affordability, since zoning changes generally increase land values.

“The (rezoning applications) you can anticipate will be all about making the land worth more money,” he said.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said charging fees to those who use government services helps reduce the burden on taxpayers. But he acknowledged that board members who worry that the proposed zoning application fee would amount to a tax on speech have a “legitimate concern.”

Nellis has been surveying area towns to see if they charge such a fee. He said he has found that Colchester charges almost as much as his proposed fee.

McGuire said results of the survey will be compiled and presented to the Selectboard. He expected the board to take up the issue again next month.