Shaftsbury planners delay commercial district discussion

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SHAFTSBURY — The town's Planning Commission has tabled discussion of a proposal to expand its "roadside commercial" zoning district along Route 7A until mid-October, allowing the land-use board more time to share information with the public about what is being considered.

The Select Board directed the Planning Commission last November to explore whether the roadside commercial district — currently a 500-foot strip along the west side of Route 7A between West Mountain Road and Route 67, plus a couple of sections on the east side of the street — should be altered to encompass "a larger portion of Route 7A," according to meeting minutes.

Currently, beyond the northern boundary of the district — which according to town bylaws is "intended to provide opportunities for business development" — zoning around the state highway shifts to a more restrictive rural district. But the stretch nonetheless features two motels "and a commercial cluster around Hidden Valley Road" that includes a chocolate shop, pottery studio, "barn sale operation" and fence company, all of which constitute "grandfathered" nonconforming uses, according to an April 2020 memo from the commission to the Select Board.

Nonconforming uses — operations that do not adhere to current zoning laws but lawfully existed before the adoption of those rules — are allowed to continue "indefinitely," according to bylaws. But if the business is "discontinued or abandoned" for one year, it cannot be resumed.

At a meeting on June 1, Select Board member Art Whitman, a proponent of expanding the district, cited the potential loss of commercial activity through that mechanism as a concern.

"Nothing lasts forever," Whitman said, "and when [the grandfathered operations] go out of business, and if something isn't taken up within a year that is the exact same thing, that area is lost for more commerce."

Earlier this year, the Planning Commission counseled against this prospective northward expansion of the roadside commercial district. The current rural designation, it wrote in the April memo, "accomplishes the objective of the Shires Scenic Byway designation — to provide the traveler the experience of our rural valley with great views of farms, forest and mountains without a Dunkin' Donuts in sight."

The grandfathered businesses themselves, the commission added, "were somewhat ambivalent" about the potential change.

"They felt they had a really good mix of different businesses and they were afraid that commercial zoning might overturn that over time," Chris Williams, who chairs the commission, told the Select Board at its June 1 meeting.

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The commission instead suggested rezoning a rural district that runs along Route 7A from around the Harrington Trailer Park to the North Bennington boundary as roadside commercial. Though "steep slopes and a wetland make some sites unsuitable," it acknowledged, there are "a number of developable sites such as the now defunct Howard Art Museum."

The Select Board, however, was unmoved by the idea of a southward expansion.

The commission later agreed to recommend to the board that a roadside commercial district be established around the cluster of businesses near Hidden Valley Road, according to minutes. The Select Board, in turn, pressed for a larger expansion — from West Mountain Road to Birch Hill Road on the west side of Route 7A, plus Clear Brook Farm and several parcels above it on the east side.

The same need to preserve commercial activity beyond applies to that longer segment along the west side of Route 7A, Whitman said, according to minutes. Designating this larger tract as a roadside commercial district, he said, would also "avoid spot zoning," or the selective rezoning of a small area within a larger one with a different classification.

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A number of citizens who attended the virtual meeting voiced concerns about the rezoning proposal, according to minutes. One attendee, for instance, "said a balance should be struck between development and preservation of those features that make for a desirable quality of life" and that an "RC zone in the northern part of town would `kill the goose that laid the golden egg.'"

Another meeting participant, Andrea Bacchi, later wrote in an email to the Banner that she is "worried about the safety of drivers, runners, and walkers in the area of a rezoned area and how any changes might bring large chains to the area and hurt local businesses." She also wrote that she'd like to see the matter put on hold until it's safer to discuss during in-person meetings, given that "many people not only cannot get a reliable internet connection, but they might not understand how to effectively use the computer or virtual tools to access such information or speak to certain committees."

The public dialogue at the meeting preceded the commission voting three to zero, with one abstention, to table discussion of the proposal until Oct. 13.

In an interview, Williams said the two governmental entities share an interest in ensuring the "generation of good-paying local jobs" but that the most realistic strategy for achieving that outcome remains in question.

"There are quite a few good roadside commercial sites sitting vacant," Williams said, citing as one example the former Endless Spring garden center.

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If the rezoning discussion advances, corresponding bylaw changes eventually would need to be approved by town voters following a series of public hearings, according to zoning administrator Shelly Stiles.

Toward the end of a Select Board meeting on Aug. 3, Chairman Tim Scoggins updated members on the commission's decision to delay consideration of the issue — and floated the idea of the board moving the proposal forward without further collaboration with the commission.

"If it is the case that the Planning Commission is not inclined to act on a recommendation from the Select Board, the Select Board has it in their power to act on their own in moving forward with hearings and a vote on a zoning issue," he said, later clarifying that the matter still would ultimately be decided by voters. "I'm not there yet, but I think I'm getting close to the point where I'm thinking that that's where we are here."

Whitman voiced frustration with the delay but said he'd prefer to allow the commission to complete its own process before the board takes action.

Scoggins estimated that the process leading up to a public vote on a bylaw change takes at least six months, which would mean that if a March 2021 vote is targeted, October "is when we need to start deciding that this needs to move forward."

If the commission opts to move forward at that time, "I think we're probably good," Scoggins said, but "if their decision in October is to start over with analyzing this or doing a lot of research, we wouldn't make the March vote, possibly." He added that he was not necessarily opposed to further research but simply outlining a projected timeline.

After board member Tony Krulikowski expressed a preference for not intervening at this juncture — "We don't have any clear direction; it seems to be really confused out there," he said, "so I think we ought to wait" — Scoggins said the board would take the matter "under advisement" and, unless a member asks for the item to placed on a future agenda, would wait for the commission to resume its consideration of the proposal.

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