Selectboard rejects rezoning fee

Attorney says town can’t impose $1,500 levy

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Selectboard on Monday nixed a $1,500 fee for rezoning applications after learning Williston could not legally impose the levy.

The proposal was aimed at defraying costs associated with reviewing and processing rezoning requests. A recent case consumed considerable staff time and required public hearings before the Planning Commission and Selectboard.

But Town Manager Rick McGuire said in a memo that the town’s lawyer concluded Williston did not have state authority to impose the fee. He recommended the Selectboard vote against the proposal.

Town Planner Lee Nellis, who proposed the fee, told the board he recently received another rezoning application that will “take hundreds of hours of staff time” to process. He suggested the application, combined with an already heavy workload, could be too much for planning staffers to bear.

“We have a difficult workload, and problems with stress on the staff are beginning to manifest themselves,” Nellis said.

When the proposal was first presented at the Selectboard’s Sept. 10 meeting, board members Ted Kenney and Judy Sassorossi said it could discourage citizen participation in municipal matters and worried it might be viewed as a tax on free speech.

After hearing Nellis’s presentation on Monday, Sassorossi abruptly moved to table the proposal and Kenney seconded the motion. Chairman Terry Macaig said no further discussion would be allowed and the board quickly approved the motion.

Tabling a proposal usually means it will resurface in the future. But Macaig and Sassorossi said after the meeting that the issue was unlikely to be revisited.

In addition to effectively killing the fee proposal, the vote also short-circuited what might have been a discussion of staffing and personnel issues. Sassorossi said she made the motion to quickly move through a long agenda. Under meeting rules of order, Macaig said, discussion ends with a motion to table.

The fee proposal was in part prompted by a rezoning application filed last year by Bill Dunn, owner of the Hillside East business park off Hurricane Lane. He asked to change zoning from residential to commercial for a parcel adjacent to the business park to accommodate a tenant’s expansion plans.

The Selectboard and Planning Commission eventually agreed to change zoning, but the company ended up moving to South Burlington.

Nellis complained that the process took weeks of staff time that could have been spent on other tasks. He estimated that a consultant would have charged $4,000 to complete the job.

Nellis surveyed area towns to see if they charged a fee. He found that Colchester charges $1,300 for rezoning applications and Shelburne charges $901.25 for applications that require changes to both the town’s bylaws and comprehensive plan.

McGuire acknowledged there may be differing legal opinions on the issue. Board member Andy Mikell, a lawyer himself, said Colchester and Essex might be surprised by Williston’s take on the fee’s legality.

“Don’t tell the two towns that charge fees,” Mikell said with a wry smile.