Boards discuss ethical, procedural, quarry issues
by Margo Avakian
Aug 19, 2014 | 3113 views | 0 0 comments | 45 45 recommendations | email to a friend | print
HALIFAX- When does a solution become a problem? Halifax, with its small population, often finds it hard to recruit enough volunteers for its various governmental boards. One solution to that problem has been to fill two boards, the planning commission and the zoning board of adjustment, with the same roster of members. While it is not an ideal solution, it has worked well in the past. Now, however, in the face of upcoming Act 250 hearings on a proposed schist quarry on the Russell Denison property, members of the two boards find themselves

faced with ethical and procedural questions that would not arise if the boards were separately staffed.

The planning commission, by law, enjoys party status in Act 250 proceedings. Its primary function in those proceedings is to help the district environmental commission determine whether the application before it conforms to the town plan. The ZBA, on the other hand, is responsible for local hearings to determine whether a conditional use permit will be issued. Sirean LaFlamme, chair of the ZBA and, by the end of the evening, chair of the planning commission as well, asked how the same group of people can participate in the state process while avoiding the appearance of “a prejudgment of the merit” in the local hearing.

LaFlamme quoted from a guide for planning and development boards produced by the VT Department of Housing and Community Affairs with assistance from other state agencies. “As the designated judges (in a conditional use hearing) members must scrupulously avoid taking sides on an application before the evidence is heard and must avoid discussing a pending application with an applicant, proponents or opponents outside the context of the hearing,” LaFlamme read, seeking guidance on how the members can fulfill their obligation as a planning commission without prejudicing their function as a zoning board.

Because Denison and his partners have not submitted an application for a conditional use permit, choosing to pursue the state permit first, the board members are not facing an immediate conflict, although there is a strong presumption that a conditional use hearing will take place eventually.

After lengthy discussion, the members reluctantly accepted the distinction drawn by John Bennett of the Windham Regional Commission. Their function in the Act 250 process, Bennett said, is to determine conformity with the town plan, while their function in the local process would be to determine conformity with zoning ordinances. Stephan Chait added that “gathering information” during the Act 250 process is quite distinct from “forming judgement” in a hearing. Pursuing the information gathering point, Bennett noted that some items in the application are at present unclear or missing. For example, Bennett said, a reclamation plan is referred to but not actually included in the application.

LaFlamme also had a specific question. A packet containing what was described to her as “Cliff Notes from concerned community members” summarizing the Act 250 application was sent to LaFlamme. LaFlamme, who had left the packet sealed, asked whether reading the contents would provide grounds for appeal of an eventual ZBA decision. Selectboard member Earl Holtz argued strongly that complete transparency in handling the material will suffice. Selectboard secretary Robbin Gabriel then opened the packet and made copies for the entire board.

A second joint meeting of the selectboard and planning commission to discuss specific aspects of the quarry application will be held on August 26, at 7 pm. The commissioners will also attend the August 19 selectboard meeting when, said selectboard member Edee Edwards, a traffic study done for the town by the WRC will be discussed in detail.

A brief discussion of road issues hinted at possible fireworks to come. Edwards observed that town highway 52, a class 4 road, will need upgrading and maintenance not only for use by quarry vehicles but also to make it passable for emergency personnel. Although town maintenance of class 4 roads, beyond bridges and culverts, is discretionary, Edwards stated her belief that, “As a town, we have a moral obligation (to keep it passable).” “Not with my tax dollars you don’t!” shot back Rick Gay.

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