Rural landowners frustrated with new zoning regulations

LISA SCAGLIOTTI
Correspondent

The Shelburne Planning Commission recently heard from rural landowners frustrated with new land-use rules that they say could restrict their ability to manage, live on, and even make a living from their property.

At its regular meeting last week, the commission listened to comments from Becky Castle, co-owner of Fisher Brothers Farm on Spear Street, and Jonathan Harris who, with his sister Amanda Herzberger, owns High Acres Farm within Shelburne Farms.

The landowners expressed frustration with new zoning regulations that call for property owners in the rural areas of Shelburne to go through the planned-unit-development review process – often referred to as a “PUD” – when they want to make changes to their property such as subdividing or even changing a boundary line.

A PUD plan takes a big-picture approach to look at an entire parcel to delineate how it would be used and developed, often clustering structures and leaving sections open or natural.

Town officials adopted an updated town plan and accompanying zoning amendments in February. One change now allows landowners with 15 acres or less to subdivide. The PUD process also requires landowners to designate 60 percent of their property be set aside as “open space.”

Planning and Zoning Director Dean Pierce summarized the term, explaining that it refers to land left in its natural state, used for agriculture, or available for recreational uses. He pointed out that buildings constructed for farming purposes are not subject to permitting review.

Castle asked several questions including what the objective of the zoning change was, whether rural landowners offered input before the change was made, and whether town officials considered how it might affect landowners whose livelihoods are tied to the land.

Regarding the open-space requirement, she said: “It’s so much. It seems like the town wants total control over rural landowners’ land.” She suggested that the requirement would reduce property values.

“As a rural landowner, I’m going to go to the assessor’s office and say I’d like a reduction in my taxes,” Castle said.

Harris said he and his sister discovered the new regulations as they tried to finalize a boundary-line adjustment on the 176 acres they inherited when their mother passed away in 2016. The siblings are in the process of each building a home on the property.

Reviewing land records, they discovered that the property was actually three lots “eccentric in their geometries,” Harris explained. He and Herzberger sought to reconfigure the boundary lines to create similarly sized parcels with shapes that better follow natural features. Due to an easement his mother entered with Shelburne Farms in the 1990s, he noted that, despite its size, the property is limited to no more than five home lots.

But redrawing the lot lines triggered the need to go through the PUD process and designate a large portion of the property to remain open. Harris said that’s a difficult decision to make now.

“Our vision here is not to subdivide and create Spear Street. Our vision here is to bring the landscape to life in a new kind of way, but we want to preserve the flexibility to find out what that means,” he explained. “We just don’t know the answers at this point to be able to draw you a map and say this zone is never going to have anything in it – and it feels deeply unwise to do that at this point. But we don’t have another route given the town’s current zoning bylaws to do this simple boundary line adjustment.”

There was some discussion whether such a step should come under full PUD review, or whether it might be handled administratively. Planning Commission Vice Chair Andrew Everett looked to summarize the rationale behind the rule change.

“The town wants to protect the rural area and make it harder to develop there,” he said. “We don’t want five-acre McMansions everywhere. We’re trying to thread a needle at some level between protecting things while also not infringing on everybody’s rights. Did we get it perfectly right? I don’t know.”

Commissioner Kate Lalley said planners aimed for rules that would give landowners flexibility. “It is not our goal to create a very onerous system,” she said. “Sounds like we might have to go back to the drawing board.”

Everett said the commission wants to know whether people see negative impacts of the regulation changes in order to consider if adjustments may be needed. Pierce said the commission will continue discussing PUD issues, tentatively as soon as the April 11 meeting. The agenda was to be set by the end of this week and will be posted on the town website, Pierce said.

The commission make-up also is in transition. Last week was the last meeting for Susannah Kerest and the first for new commissioner Neil Curtis, who took the seat previously held by Asim Zia. Applications are being sought for Kerest’s seat.

Water policy and economic development

Shelburne Water Quality Superintendent Chris Robinson did a presentation for the planning commission explaining the work needed by the municipality to comply with state and federal stormwater regulations. He detailed many requirements that he oversees and noted that efforts will continue this summer to develop recommendations regarding stormwater compliance.

A committee that looked at the issue last year recommended forming a utility that would assess fees to landowners but the Shelburne Selectboard decided not to set that up yet. Robinson said the committee plans to work over the summer to draft a revised proposal for town officials to consider later this year.

The commission also heard from the newest member of the selectboard, Mike Ashooh, who was elected last month. Ashooh and Everett agreed that both bodies should communicate regarding priorities for the coming year, particularly since the commission recently completed work on updating the town plan.

The earlier topics of how to preserve open space and address stormwater are topics the selectboard also considers priorities, Ashooh said. Both he and Everett agreed that economic development is another top priority. They suggested that the Route 7 corridor will be a main focus as the Rice Lumber project nears completion. Voters in March agreed to pursue a partnership with Healthy Living market that could potentially locate a new fire and rescue station in that commercial area.

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