Event barn prompts new debate in Dorset

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DORSET — The Zoning Board of Adjustment closed a hearing Monday night and plans to hold a deliberative session behind closed doors Thursday to determine if a proposed "event barn" qualifies for a conditional use permit under town ordinances.

More than 50 area residents jammed into the meeting room at the Dorset town offices to attend what turned into a more than three-hour long hearing on whether the owners of the Barrows House, Steven and Lauren Bryant, met the criteria for the conditional use permit in their site plan for the proposed 2,000-square-foot event building. The new structure, which would be built on the Barrows House property along Route 30 in Dorset village, would be used for weddings and special events.

The project received initial approval from both the Dorset Planning Commission and the Design Review Board, but hit a snag when two neighbors made an appeal to the zoning board, arguing that an event barn as proposed was a "mixed use" and required a conditional use permit. At its meeting last Nov. 9, the zoning board agreed, setting the stage for Monday night's public hearing on whether the conditional use permit could be issued and the building, with a 3,000-square-foot adjoining patio area, could be constructed as designed. The owners of the Barrows House — filing as Vermont Retreats LLC — had contended the event barn was an "accessory use" — one "incidental and subordinate to the principle use on the same lot," according to Dorset's zoning bylaws — to the inn and had received a permit for it, dated Sept. 30, 2015, from the town's zoning administrator.

The project also received support from the town's legal counsel, Joseph O'Dea, who during the Nov. 9 zoning board meeting urged the zoning board to resolve an apparent ambiguity in the town's zoning bylaws between "inns" and "public lodgings" in favor of the applicants — Vermont Retreats LLC.

On Monday, both sides sought to make their case before the zoning board on whether the conditional use permit should be granted and if so, under what stipulations or limitations.

"The Barrows House is part of Dorset, and needs to be able to compete in the 21st century business world," Lauren Bryant, reading from a document, stated to the zoning board members. "The event barn will be a key factor in the inn's ability to continue to serve the town."

The Barrows House has been part of the town's lodging sector since 1900, and weddings and special events have taken place there since the early 1960s. The application met the requirements of the village commercial district, where the property is located, she said. Other projects had received support from the zoning board, she added, citing the Dorset Field Club and the Marble House Project as examples.

They had made substantial investments in refurbishing the inn and the proposed event barn was intended to replace tents and other temporary structures to provide a better experience for their patrons, she said. The inn also drew people to Dorset and some later purchased homes, an important plus during a time when the local real estate market was undergoing a challenging period, she said.

Representing Lynn Bowden and Linda McGinnis, the two neighbors who had raised the issue of the event barn needing a conditional use permit, John Thrasher, their attorney, said they were not seeking to stop the project, but felt that several conditions needed to be attached to it. Those included requiring the developers to obtain all water for the project from wells drilled on site; that no more than 100 persons should be allowed in the event barn at any one time; that all amplified music should be terminated by 10 p.m. and that there should be a limit of two events per month, among other proposed restrictions before the conditional use permit should be granted by the zoning board.

"We're not here to kill the deal," Thrasher told the members of the zoning board. "We're here because this is a conditional use application, and you as a board have an opportunity to impose conditions on the use of the property. It doesn't have anything to do with change of use, it has to do with the event barn, and being an expansion, and therefore being a change of use."

Thrasher went on to highlight their concerns, starting with the question of water and the limitations on the ability of the local fire department to fight fires given the "overtaxed and outdated" water delivery system in the area's fire district.

Thrasher also questioned whether the project fits into the character of the neighborhood and its conformance with the stated goals of the town plan.

"The creation of a multi-use complex inviting non guests of the Barrows House on site for celebratory events is not a use compatible with the residential character of the Village and accordingly a number of conditions need to be imposed to make sure the use is of a residential character," Thrasher stated in a document distributed at the meeting and handed to the zoning board.

He said the issue was not with the appearance of the building — conceding the applicant had done a "fantastic job" of designing a building which blends into the neighborhood — the issues were about its intended use.

The proposed barn was in effect a replacement for the tents currently in use for events already being held on the property, and fits within the requirements of the town plan and bylaws for the village commercial district, the applicants stated in another document distributed at the hearing. In addition to the employment opportunities it created, the facility would bring additional business activity to the village. They noted the bylaws encouraged tourist accommodation facilities, restaurants and home occupations. They also submitted a detailed study on noise suppression, and maintained that adequate plans for parking cars had been submitted.

The applicants had attended the hearing under protest, the Bryants said in a follow up email to The Journal.

"We are extremely perplexed, as the ZBA has chosen to ignore the advice of Dorset Town Attorney, Joe O'Dea, who advised that a Conditional Permit was not required. The ZBA has far over-stepped their authority and has, in substance, hijacked the permitting process. We consider their actions to be arbitrary, capricious and a form of harassment and not in sync with the rest of our town government."

John LaVecchia, the chairman of the zoning board, urged both sides to keep the bigger picture in mind, midway through the meeting, which had its testy moments.

"We're not supposed to be an adversarial proceeding," he said. "We're trying to find some result that is good for the town," adding that he agreed the applicant had gone to "great pains" to design a building that conformed with the restrictions of the village commercial district.

"I just suggest that we should approach this with the idea that we're going to try and make something work," he said.

The project was originally designed and submitted to the zoning board as a larger 4,500-square-foot building, but ran afoul of a restriction that limited new construction to 2,000 square feet, and played a role in a subsequent debate over a proposed overhaul of the town's zoning ordinances earlier this year. The proposed reorganization was ultimately defeated by Dorset's voters last May.

Editor's note: since the Dorset zoning board of adjustment will be holding a deliberative session Thursday, after The Journal's press time, we will post the outcome of the decision, if one is reached, on our website on Friday.


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