Town tries to speed zoning rewrite

Giant job may be divided into pieces

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A slow-moving rewrite of the town’s zoning rules may gather momentum next week when the Planning Commission considers whether to approve the new code piecemeal.

It’s been 1-1/2 years since an updated Comprehensive Plan was approved. But the town is still working with out-of-date zoning and subdivision regulations that don’t always mesh with the plan’s broad goals.

Town Planner Lee Nellis said he and the rest of Williston’s planning staff has juggled the update of hundreds of pages of rules while dealing with a steady stream of proposals for new development. The rewrite is now about two-thirds complete.

Rather than waiting for it to be finished, he will ask the Planning Commission on Tuesday to consider approving the code in pieces. Nellis said the work could be divided into two or three chunks, with each run separately through an approval process that includes public hearings and votes by the Planning Commission and the Selectboard.

That method would move the huge job forward, giving attention to problem areas like the sign ordinance while allowing the public to consider the new rules in digestible portions.

“It probably makes it easier for the public to comment on it in the sense that it is a very bulky document,” he said. “People will not have to absorb a huge quantity of information all at once.”

The rewritten rules will be called unified development bylaws. They will govern things as large as a new subdivision and as small as home addition.

The Comprehensive Plan outlines general policy goals for the town. The bylaws codify those guidelines with legally enforceable rules.

With some of the code yet to be written and other parts still in draft form, it is unclear exactly what will change. Nellis said most of the current rules will stay the same, albeit organized in a different format. But some changes are beginning to come into focus.

Perhaps the biggest change concerns the permitting process. Depending on the project, the town uses one of seven types of reviews. The new regulations narrow that down to two review processes, Nellis said.

The sign ordinance, an ongoing enforcement problem, will also be altered, Nellis said. The new rules will allow the town to issue tickets for violations rather than the current cumbersome process, which requires notices of violation and hearings before the Development Review Board.

Of interest to homeowners will be consolidated rules governing home additions, swimming pools and sheds. Those rules are currently scattered throughout the zoning code.

The new bylaws will move “95 percent of everything homeowners need to know about changes to their property” to one chapter, Nellis said.

The overriding concern is to make the rules simpler and easier to understand and enforce, Nellis said.

“The old code is very difficult to administer because there are lots of internal contradictions and vague and unclear language,” he said. “The rewritten code solves all those problems.”

Nellis and other planning staffers have been working on the new bylaws since the town adopted the Comprehensive Plan in February 2006. Nellis said he and his staff’s work on the rewrite has been interrupted numerous times.
He ticked off several time-consuming projects, including the town’s application for state growth center status, review of the 356-unit Finney Crossing subdivision and a controversial rezoning case in the Hillside East business park.

Williston could have hired a consultant to do the rewrite. But Nellis said only large out-of-state firms would have had the expertise required to reorganize the code into unified bylaws. He estimated the work would have cost in the “low six figures.”

Town Manager Rick McGuire said he and other town staffers did discuss hiring a consultant. But they concluded that it would be more cost efficient – albeit slower – to instead use the expertise of Nellis and other planning staff members.

The staff “thought they could handle it,” McGuire said. Besides, he added, Williston’s planners would still have to be involved in the project even if a consultant was used.

Nellis said he hopes to complete the work and have the new land-use rules approved by the beginning of next year.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to consider how to proceed with the zoning rewrite at its Aug. 7 session. The meeting starts at 7: 15 p.m.