While that may seem extreme to some, it does appear on the surface that Readsboro’s zoning process is a hot mess.
The issue came to a head at a public meeting held by the planning commission in response to a petition. At that meeting, complaints were aired and accusations flew, but very little concrete evidence was offered to support those accusations. If petitioners really think zoning is as poorly or selectively enforced as they say, evidence will need to be offered. That will be the only way to get to the root of the problem.
Of course, offering that evidence may be problematic in its own right. As so often happens in a small town, residents will make vague accusations but stop short of concrete evidence. Neighbors are often loathe to call out neighbors, for obvious reasons. But if zoning is being enforced selectively, or if permits are issued based on anything other than what the ordinances require, at some point push has to come to shove and concrete examples have to be given. It’s one thing to say those things are happening, but it will take more than a meeting and vague accusations to prove them.
Regardless of the whys and wherefores of the current Readsboro spat, it’s important to consider how complex zoning can be, even in a town of less than 800 residents like Readsboro.
There are a lot of moving parts to zoning. The voters, the planning commission, the development review board, the zoning administrator, and selectboard all have a role to play. All of them, to some degree, have to buy into the concept of zoning and placing reasonable limits on individual construction or large-scale developments for the common good of the community.
At its best, zoning can be a very useful tool for a community to not only control growth in a sensible way, but to actually stimulate it by creating zones that make sense for certain segments. Residential areas, commercial areas, recreational area, and industrial areas can and should be controlled by effective, sensible zoning.
Think of what might happen without zoning in Readsboro. Building in flood-prone areas could go unchecked. Readsboro has already lost three properties as a result of flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and more are being threatened by continuing erosion as a result of that flooding. Imagine what might occur without zoning to control how and where buildings are constructed. They might be built on the river’s edge. If the town had no zoning, would they be eligible for flood insurance, or disaster relief if the unthinkable should happen again?
Historic properties might be razed for new development. What if the Bullock Building were torn down to make way for low-income housing. Zoning and the development review process would create a forum for residents to review and discuss that. Without those things, that wonderful historic building could be gone in a week or less.
As was pointed out in last week’s meeting, someone may decide to raise pigs or cattle in the center of the town. Or someone may build a chemical plant next to the school. Extreme examples, for sure, but without zoning there may be little to be done about it should it occur.
While there are other land-use laws that may be applied to certain developments, such as the state’s Act 250 development law, most are designed to work in concert with local zoning. Without it, the process becomes more convoluted and certainly gives less local control to the community and residents who would be most affected.
For zoning to work, it has to be fully supported. Much of the enforcement of zoning falls to the Development Review Board and the zoning administrator. They need to feel supported by town officials and the general public. Without that support, there will be more trepidation than anticipation to follow through with the zoning process and enforcement.
Residents and officials in Readsboro need to get to the root of the zoning problems. If permit issuance or enforcement is selective, then evidence needs to be presented. If building is being done with blatant disregard for zoning regulations, then officials need to know so enforcement or remedies can be carried out.
Without proof of the problems, the knee-jerk reaction of eliminating zoning seems extreme. If things in Readsboro get to the point where voters will be called upon to decide whether or not zoning has a future in the community, they deserve concrete, not vague and anecdotal, evidence that their zoning process is so far gone it can’t be saved.