The meeting was a follow-up to a joint meeting in June, at which selectboard members and other property owners expressed dismay about two new proposed districts and acreage restrictions for building in the two new districts. In the proposed conservation district, the minimum size for a building lot would be 27 acres. In a proposed rural residential district, the minimum lot size would be 10 acres.
Currently, the town has two districts, residential and village. The minimum lot size in the village district is a quarter acre, and in the residential district, everything outside the villages of Whitingham and Jacksonville, the minimum lot size is an acre.
Planning commission chair Brad Lackey told board members the changes were proposed after consultation with Whitingham residents, many of whom expressed a desire to maintain the town’s rural pattern of development.
Wednesday evening, Lackey indicated that the planning commission was flexible regarding the minimum lot sizes, but wanted to maintain the two new zones. If the zones were intact, he said, future zoning changes could address requirements such as minimum setbacks and uses that are permitted or permitted with conditions.
Lackey explained that “cluster development” often refers to the concentration of development of a large parcel in one spot, with a guarantee that the remainder of the parcel won’t be developed in the future. Rather than subdividing a 100-acre lot into 20 five-acre lots to build 20 units, a developer could be encouraged to build 20 units on a five-acre parcel. The remaining 95 acres could be maintained by a land trust, the town or a homeowners’ association. Board members expressed disbelief that cluster development in Whitingham would appeal to property owners or developers. “I think it might be overshooting the mark,” said board member Greg Brown. “There might be a few parcels where it might be feasible to have high density building, but we don’t have a ski area where we’re going to have a high density of population to occupy it.”
Brown, like other board members, has property in one of the new zoning districts and would be affected by the proposed changes.
Brown said he wanted to preserve the ability to “peel off” one or two acres for his children to build on someday. Under the proposed conservation district regulations, he wouldn’t be able to further subdivide his 30-acre parcel. Board member Karl Twitchell agreed that it was the minimum acreage, not the conservation district, that concerned residents he had heard from. “We’re not going to have cluster building, Whitingham is a bedroom community. People travel out of town to work.”
But Lackey said the planning commission had also heard concerns. “People were coming to us saying they want (Whitingham) to stay quiet. That was the reason we came up with (the larger minimum lot sizes). One resident was concerned about a neighbor who said he wanted to subdivide his land into as many one-acre lots as he could.”
“I know the ones you’re talking about, people who bought their piece up here and want to keep that postcard image,” said Twitchell. “We’ve got to find a happy medium. There are people who have their life’s savings in their land and won’t be able to get it out – they’ve been paying taxes all along.”
Board members and commissioners debated whether the proposed lot sizes would increase or decrease property values, but agreed to find a “happy medium.”
Whitingham resident Roy Corse, another property owner affected by the proposed regulations, suggested a compromise. He proposed limiting the conservation district to lands west and south of Harriman Reservoir, some of which is already protected either as power company land or state land. He also suggested adding in two local dairy farms and a Christmas tree farm that are already protected by land trust agreements. Some of the land included in his suggestion was his own, located west of the Deerfield River. “I’m willing to throw some of my holdings into conservation because it makes sense,” he said. “But there are some parcels, like right down there on Route 112 or Route 8A that don’t make sense. What logic is it to have a minimum lot size of 27 acres on a state highway?”
Corse offered other minor changes, rising to redraw his proposed conservation boundaries on the planning commission’s map. After a brief discussion, selectboard and planning commission members agreed on the compromise. The board and commission made a tentative agreement for minimum building lot sizes of 27 acres in the redrawn conservation district, three acres in the rural residential district, one acre in the residential district, and a quarter-acre in the village districts. The planning commission will make the changes, and present the new proposed zoning to the board when it’s finished.
Corse offered to help the commission. “I run my mouth quite a bit,” he said, “but I don’t mind coming to a planning commission meeting. I don’t want to be on the planning commission, but I don’t want to be thought of as a person who just comes to a meeting and bangs my fist on the table.”