By Greg Elias
The town of Williston will alter rules governing a big box shopping center, issue tickets for zoning violations and streamline the permit process under ordinances adopted by the Selectboard last week.
The board approved the first portion of the Unified Development Bylaw at its Nov. 19 meeting. The rules, which go into effect on Dec. 3, will be used on an interim basis until the remaining zoning ordinances are rewritten.
Most of the existing zoning remains unchanged. But other parts of the new bylaw represent significant departures, either to adapt to evolving land-use patterns or to correct enforcement and permitting problems.
The most notable change concerns the mixed-use commercial zoning district. The district includes the western portion of Taft Corners Park and adjacent land.
For years, no new development has occurred in the commercial center, despite several open parcels. Amid fears of being overwhelmed by big box development, the Selectboard several years ago toughened zoning restrictions in Taft Corners Park, home of Wal-Mart and other chain retailers.
But Town Planner Lee Nellis has said existing zoning “has frozen everything in place” and ruled out infill development that town officials view as desirable. The new rules are designed to encourage the kind of densely packed, pedestrian-friendly development that could help the area around Taft Corners congeal into downtown Williston.
Instead of forbidding certain types of development, the revised zoning establishes stricter design guidelines. For example, walkways must link buildings to street-side sidewalks. Parking must be located in the side or rear of a building.
Exceptions are permitted if a development includes features the town considers desirable. For example, building heights can exceed the limit of 36 feet if the developer includes things such as a parking garage.
That provision drew the attention of Marlene O’Brien, the only member of the public to address the board. She felt that taller buildings would be out of character for Williston.
“I think the question is do people want to see five- or six-story buildings,” she said in an interview.
TICKETS, NOT HEARINGS
Making it easier to enforce zoning rules is the aim of another section of the new bylaw. The revised ordinance moves the town from a court-based enforcement system to one that relies on tickets akin to traffic citations.
Zoning violations in Williston – illegal signs and non-permitted outdoor storage are among the most common – had been enforced using an unwieldy system that included violation notices, hearings before the Development Review Board and appeals in Vermont Superior Court. The process of collecting the $100-a-day fines could take several months.
Now the town will simply issue a ticket. The citations will fine violators $250 for a first offense and $500 for all subsequent offenses. The “waiver fee” for those who do not contest violations is $150 for a first offense or $400 for subsequent offenses.
Town officials have long complained that the old system was unwieldy and took too long. Particularly with temporary signs, violations often became a moot point by the time enforcement action was taken.
“We’ve not been pursuing the violations lately because we don’t have enough staff,” said D.K. Johnston, Williston’s zoning administrator. “This ticket book setup should help.”
The new rules will also streamline the development review process. Under the old system, there were seven types of permits. Now that is reduced to just two commonly used permits, administrative and discretionary.
Discretionary permits are required of larger developments, such as subdivisions and shopping centers. They must be approved by the Development Review Board.
Administrative permits can be approved by planning staff. They include smaller projects, such as a homeowner adding a patio.
The changes will make the review process more understandable to the general public while allowing planners to more efficiently handle applications, Nellis said.
But with simplification comes strictness. Planning staff and the Development Review Board used to spend much time reviewing incomplete applications. No more.
“We’re going to be very strict about the development review process,” Nellis said. “It’s going to put a lot more pressure on applicants to get their act together.”
The Planning Commission is scheduled to consider the next batch of bylaws, which will cover various zoning districts, in January, Nellis said. If those bylaws are approved by the commission and the Selectboard, a final group of about 10 more chapters will be written and reviewed in coming months.