“We currently have a system that is not working fairly for everyone,” said Larry Hopkins, who turned in the petition. “Unless we as a town apply and enforce equally, people will ignore communications because they know nothing will ever come of it. After so much time elapses the only reason supplied for something not being carried out (by the zoning administrator) is ‘We cannot do anything about it.’ I didn’t know there was a statute of limitations for acting on a zoning violation.”
Hopkins, who is one of the town’s listers, explained that over the last four years he has observed numerous zoning violations during site reviews, including size and setbacks of sheds, an 800-square-foot structure that had no permit, several changes of use that he says were ignored, and two decks built without permits. “The integrity of the system is shot, and there is no respect for the bylaw,” said Hopkins. “We’re all for this economic development that everyone is pushing, so why are we constantly driving people away with rules we chose to accept and only have them apply to a few, while others do not have to follow. Why do we have zoning bylaws if things are not corrected and filed when they are reported. (I’d) rather have no zoning at all rather than the system that is in place today.”
While those speaking against the bylaw refrained from using specific examples of the inconsistencies in bylaw enforcement, the group’s main issue was that favoritism often trumps the law. “I would rather see us not have bylaws if everyone isn’t treated fairly,” said Lance Howard, “It makes a mockery of the town and we lose people who want to buy property in this town.”
Former zoning administrator Rod Salamone said that while he realizes the zoning administrator job is challenging he was “disturbed” by the way in which zoning is currently handled in town. “I was zoning administrator for nine years, and I’m in favor of zoning bylaws in town,” said Salamone. “I think they’re a good thing, but the way the administrator, and the way the DRB works in terms of violations is terrible. I think bylaws are a good thing but I did sign that petition and I had my family sign that petition, too.”
Others in attendance were not convinced that abolishing zoning would solve the issue. Bob Marechal spoke to the fact that with no zoning bylaw in place, the town has no idea how bad development can get in town without a standard in place. “The zoning laws were put there by the ancestors of the community, and there must have been a reason for them to respect the changing environment around them,” said Marechal. “The comments so far do not force changing the status quo.”
“To my ears it’s an extreme notion to remove zoning all at once,” said Nick Zammuto. “When the imagination runs wild, what abuses can take place if zoning is gone? Could someone buy land and start putting cell towers on every little hill in town? We need to clarify the negatives.”
A former member of the planning commission, John Whitner, said that he didn’t believe the bylaw was overly restrictive, and abolishing it seemed like a drastic reaction to something that could be solved with better enforcement. “I came to this meeting wondering what the reasons for this petition were,” said Whitner. “Was it something in the bylaw people didn’t like or whether it was being badly executed and administered, and I think it’s important to decipher them. Larry and the petitioners scored success forcing this meeting but what has been proposed is not what we need.”
The underlying factor to some comes down to years of nepotism by the DRB and the zoning office. “There’s been too many times when people stop someone from doing something and it’s not fair and it’s not right,” said Kim Thayer. “It’s not this board, not the one before it, it’s been all of them. If you have a friend on the board you get what you want and that’s the way it’s always been. It’s never been imposed evenly and that’s the problem. It’s who you are is what gets through. I’ve been here all my life, and if you’re in the clique you go through with no problem, if not, you get the shove. Half the towns in this state don’t have zoning, is our town going to go to hell without zoning? I don’t think so.”
Windham Regional Commission senior planner John Bennett was in attendance as well, and Marechal asked him what his experience with the same situation had been in other communities. Bennett didn’t give any specific examples of towns abolishing zoning, but he agreed that the problem was with enforcement and not with the bylaw itself. Bennett recommended the town would benefit best from providing zoning administrator Karen Boisvert and the DRB more training and guidance.
Selectboard chair Dave Marchegiani made the point that without zoning, property owners would only be required to get permits for sewer and water, and beyond that they are free to do as they please with their properties, and have no setbacks to follow.
Planning commissioner Sue Bailey pointed out that in the bylaw there is a system for how notifications of violations and ensuing fines are supposed to be handled.
The planning commission will take the comments gathered at the meeting and forward them, along with a recommendation, to the selectboard, who will also be required to hold a public meeting on the matter.