Saturday March 2, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The Select Board has asked for changes to a policy it requested outlining how local property owners can seek a zoning change outside of the regular town plan review process that occurs every five years.

Bennington Planning Director and Zoning Administrator Daniel Monks presented a new policy to the board on Monday. The board sought a new policy for altering the zoning of specific properties in September after rejecting a request from the owner of the former Johnson Controls land off of Northside Drive.

A motion made by board member Jason Morrissey in September and passed by the board asked town staff to develop a policy that would allow zoning variances on a case-by-case basis.

State law

Monks said Monday that variances are now allowed under state law, however.

"Variances cannot be granted by the Select Board. The only way that something like that can occur is if the zoning is changed, which, there is statutory methods for doing that. If the Select Board says, ‘Hey, change that zone,’ the Planning Commission submits that and holds a hearing, you guys hold two hearings and it becomes law," Monk said.

Monks said the policy developed by town staff essential refers back to existing policy, which calls for examining zoning every five years as part of the town plan. The proposed policy allows for zoning changes at other times under specific criteria, including:

-- The proposed zone change complies with the overall goals and objectives articulated in the Town Plan.

-- The proposed zone change will result in substantial benefits to the community as a whole that outweigh the benefits of not making the change.

-- The change can be accomplished without unconstitutional spot zoning.

-- The zone change is necessary to advance a project that is not speculative in nature. Specifically, if the change is approved, the project is likely to occur prior to the next Town Plan update as evidenced by firm landowner, tenant and/or financing commitments. Written assurances that the project will be constructed as described to the Select Board shall be required.

-- The project shall result in significant grant list and/or job growth.

The policy calls for "all" of the criteria to be met. The board asked for a revision, however, calling for "some or all" of the criteria to be met instead.

Monks said the policy was an attempt "to articulate what we thought the board meant in their directive to the staff."

"This policy sets forth those situations where it might be appropriate to look at something outside of (the Town Plan) framework," he said.

Board member Justin Corcoran reiterated his opposition to the policy because it simply sends a property owner back through the same process already available. He said the motion the board sough was for a variance.

"I said then this policy accomplishes nothing. I’ll say it again now, this policy accomplishes nothing because we can do that now," Corcoran said.

Changing faces

The Select Board set the wheels in motion in 2011 for a potential change for the former Johnson Controls land when it voted 4 to 3 in favor of beginning the process of altering the zoning designation. The makeup of the board changed, however, and the prospects of the board voting in favor of the change became dim.

Still, the Planning Commission voted in June to forward a proposed zoning change, despite taking a position against its own proposal. The commission was tasked by a previous Select Board to develop a possible change for the property, which has not been used in about 20 years.

The plan developed by the commission would have expanded the existing planned commercial district to include the former Johnson Controls parcel. It would also have allowed for some manufacturing and research and development, making it, in effect, a mixed-used designation.

Follow @nealgoswami on Twitter; email him at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com