According to zoning administrator Alice Herrick, the new ordinance is a complete overhaul, with work on the project spanning the past 25 years. Perhaps the biggest change will be the inclusion of two new districts in the zoning map: resort/residential, and resort/commercial. Currently the town only has residential, conservation, and commercial zones, but Herrick says the new designations will help to shape future development of the town.
The new ordinance will have a big impact on the area mapped out as the village zone as well. Currently, bylaws require 40-foot setbacks in the village zone (which is located in a commercial district), as well as a one-acre minimum lot size. Under new zoning rules setbacks will be reduced to zero feet, and lot size minimums will be reduced to 1/8 of an acre. As a result, past zoning regulations have turned the majority of downtown properties into nonconforming lots, due to their proximity to property lines.
Herrick said the new setbacks and minimum lot sizes would help businesses and building owners. “It makes sense because a lot of the village lots are really small,” said Herrick. “You want owners to be able to use the entirety of the lots, we want development to happen, and we want to encourage pedestrian traffic.”
The new zoning will also set a maximum height of 35 feet for buildings in the village district.
Cliff Duncan, local business owner and an owner of a vacant West Main Street building in the village district, gave the new ordinance his support. “When zoning was adopted, for unknown reasons, the town adopted an ordinance that made all the lots in the downtown nonconforming,” said Duncan. “Here we are trying to move in a direction to enhance the building, not to change the footprint north, south, east, or west, but to add a second floor. Under current zoning ordinance, that is a problem. This document contains provisions that change that and that’s really good news.”
Resident Tom Consolino asked the board to clarify the purpose of resort/residential districts, specifically how the term “low-impact uses” correlates to the development of an airport. Planning commission chair Wendy Manners said that the pre-existing nature of the airport means the zoning ordinance only promotes low-impact use in that area, regardless of the airport’s usage.
Local land surveyor Ben Joyce, who proposed resort districting earlier this year, asked that the commission consult the town’s attorney on the description of the regulation of merging nonconforming existing small lots, as well as the criteria for exemptions to this rule.
The proposed language says existing small lots which come under common ownership with one or more contiguous lots shall be deemed merged. Lots can be separately conveyed if they meet a set of four criteria: Lots are conveyed in their pre-existing nonconforming configuration; on the date of the bylaw each lot was developed with a water supply and wastewater disposal system; at time of transfer each of these systems is functioning; and the deeds of conveyance must create appropriate easements on both lots for replacement of one or more of these water systems.
Joyce said that the town of Dover had been advised to take the same zoning bylaw out when they were rewriting the ordinance. “If you have two continuous nonconforming lots, they’re merged by the zoning document, and I wanted to know if we could get more clarification if that is applied.”
Manners pointed out that the language for the bylaw is verbatim from VSA statutes, and is intended to explain when the lots are not required to merge. Joyce requested that the town provide clarification as to whether the bylaw was designed to clarify merging, or when a lot is exempt, because there is language for both included.
Another change to the zoning ordinance is intended to make home occupations easier to operate. Herrick says that under current bylaws, those with even the smallest home occupations, (e.g. someone who sews aprons at home and then sells them at a flea market) is required to acquire a permit. “This doesn’t seem logical to me,” said Herrick. “If I could live next door to someone and not know they had a home occupation, then why should anyone make you get a permit for that. There are other things in-home that are more intensive, but this will make it easier for smaller operations.”
Last year, making changes to nonconforming lots was made easier through the use of waivers. In the past, variances were only given to businesses for projects such as the installation of handicap ramps, and criteria were too strict to allow businesses to make changes. Last year the development review board asked the planning commission to change the process to a waiver system that would make reasonable projects easier to accomplish for businesses.