SHAFTSBURY -- Voters in Shaftsbury elected on Tuesday night to maintain Shaftsbury's status as a rural town, despite recommendations from the planning commission and select board that the town switch to an urban designation.
Vermont towns with a population between 2,500 and 5,000 can choose which designation they prefer. Procedurally, towns that are designated as rural must hold a town-wide vote to approve any amendments to zoning by-laws, while urban towns adopt amendments by vote of the select board, but only after the planning commission has approved and held public meetings to discuss the amendment, and the select board has held public meetings to discuss the amendment. The measure failed 242-493.
At Shaftsbury's floor meeting on Monday night, several residents and public officials spoke out against and in favor of the article. Resident Michael Gardner spoke in favor of remaining a rural town, as it gave the townspeople a final say. He also expressed that not fully explaining the designations in the ballot article was "a disservice to the people of this town."
The article read, "Shall the voters of the Town of Shaftsbury authorize future amendments to the zoning bylaws be adopted by majority vote of the Selectboard, as provided by 24 VSA Sec. 4442(c)(1)?" Chairwoman Karen Mellinger said that the town's legal counsel had advised that any additional information could not be placed on the ballot, and that the town could not include an additional handout with the ballot, under Vermont law designed to prevent town officials from affecting voters' decisions at the polls.
Resident Michael Foley argued that town bylaws were very complicated and the members of the planning commission and select board spent considerable amounts of time working to understand those complexities, which the average townsperson didn't have the time, or necessarily the desire, to do. "I give these boards a lot more credit than a lot of others here do. There are a lot of particulars on these bylaws that, unfortunately, aren't well understood." Foley encouraged more public participation at meetings, which are usually very poorly attended.
Megan Donckers, chairwoman of Shaftsbury's developmental review board, spoke to all the work that boards like the DRB and planning commission did in researching state requirements and the intricacies of proposed bylaws, and said, "I think it would do a disservice to the community to leave [the amendments] up to town vote."
Former select board chairman Lon McClintock agreed, saying, "There's a check and balance system in place already," referencing that neither the select board nor planning commission have the ability act unilaterally. As the process would have worked, the planning commission, after at least one public hearing, would have submitted a proposed bylaw amendment to the select board, who would vote on whether or not to adopt the amendment after a public hearing of their own. If the select board wished to amend the amendment in any way, they would have had to send it back to the planning commission; the select board could not simply change and adopt the amendment on their own. "These bylaws have a lot of technical issues," said McClintock. Additionally, he asked what the boards were supposed to learn if a bylaw failed to pass in the town vote, saying, "If a bylaw gets voted down, why did it get voted down?"
Departing select board member Carl Korman said, "A lot of the things I'm hearing here a based around one factor: Fear." Korman went on to say that if he were in their position, as he soon would be, it wouldn't be the select board that he would fear. It would be townspeople voting on an issue they don't understand well, and perhaps causing significant consequences they didn't realize would occur. As an example, he cited one of the bylaws up for vote on Tuesday's ballot, regarding flood hazard area regulations. If, for some reason that didn't pass, residents who live on flood plains will no longer be eligible for subsidized insurance, and the town would lose out on significant FEMA funds. That measure ended up passing 413-219.
The issue of rural versus urban designation came up when Town Administrator Margy Becker discovered that the town had been adopting zoning bylaws incorrectly. In 1987, Shaftsbury voted to switch from an urban to a rural town. At some point in the late 2000s, Shaftsbury had begun adopted bylaws by select board vote rather than by town vote. Mellinger believed this might have occurred during a period of heavy turnover within the planning commission, select board, and zoning administrator positions, saying that somehow the institutional knowledge was lost. Zoning bylaws have a two-year statute of limitations, meaning only the two bylaws that were on Tuesday's ballot were eligible to be re-adopted by town vote. All bylaws moving forward will be adopted this way.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB