SHAFTSBURY - The select board of Shaftsbury is looking into asking voters to change its designation from a rural town to an urban town to make the process of adopting zoning bylaws simpler.
According to Vermont state statute, a rural town is defined as "a town having, at the date of the most recent United States census, a population of less than 2,500 persons, as evidenced by that census, or a town having 2,500 or more but less than 5,000 person that has voted by Australian ballot to be considered a rural town." As Shaftsbury had a population of 3,590 as of the 2010 census, it is eligible to be considered either a rural or urban town.
The town voted in 1987 to become a rural town, which, according to Vermont state statute, gives the town the right to "require that bylaws, bylaw amendments, or bylaw repeals shall be adopted by vote of the town by Australian ballot at a special or regular meeting duly warned on the issue." It goes on to say that that procedure shall "apply until rescinded by the voters at a regular or special meeting of the town." In all other cases, bylaws are adopted by a majority vote of the select board.
According to Town Administrator Margy Becker, the town has taken several actions adopting bylaws and amendments since 2009, none of which were voted on by the public, which is required under the town's current designation.
According to the town attorney, there is a two-year statute of limitations on all town bylaws and amendments, meaning that only two items that were enacted since 2012 are in jeopardy, including one recent amendment regarding industrial composting. The attorney suggested that both of these amendments should be put to the voters. However, he also suggested re-visiting the discussion from the 1980s as to whether Shaftsbury should remain a rural town going forward. "It would go back to the way it had been at one point, and that was by majority vote of the select board, after public meetings, and presentations, and all of that," said Becker.
"The larger you get, the more involved your zoning bylaws become, to the point where [the select board] could spend a day voting on bylaw amendments," said Becker, each of which would require a public vote under the current designation. Making the switch back to an urban designation would streamline that process. As mentioned earlier, each bylaw would still require a public hearing to discuss the issue.
According to Selectman Mitch Race, the town has "eight [bylaws] in the hopper," meaning that they are at various stages of the approval process. Under the current designation, each of those will have to be warned voted on by the public. "We put these aside," said Race, "because of the current revisions to the town plan, which have to be done every five years."
Any items that will appear on the ballot at this March's town meeting will have to be warned 30 days prior to the vote, meaning the select board has little time to get this issue on the ballot.
"It would appear to be more efficient," said select board chairwoman Karen Mellinger, "To have the legislative body to be able to approve these things, with input of the community, rather than having to pay for an election where, frankly, they may not have any idea of what they're voting on."
Mellinger said that it is often difficult to educate the public on bylaw issues, because the public hearings and discussion are held during the approval process, after which the proposed bylaw will just sit until either the next November or March election, at which time the voters would have to be re-educated on the issue.
Race agreed that the current system was not ideal, saying, "The planning commission has gone through the process of doing the research on this question, then they go to the town, and they say no, because they don't agree with it, or they don't understand it, they haven't sat at the meetings and discussed, they have no idea of all the different angles that have been spoken about."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB