After opening the hearing, Readsboro Planning Commission Chair Sue Bailey noted that the petition, the second in recent years, that prompted the hearing was led by resident Larry Hopkins and 34 signatories, confirmed as registered voters in Readsboro.
Hopkins began by summarizing the results of the first petition in 2014, noting that the bylaws were retained on what he called a close vote. He referred to an original 20 issues related to zoning applications that he said were decided unfairly or not at all. “Two of the issues were resolved by voluntary compliance,” said Hopkins.
Regarding other zoning issues, Hopkins said he believes the planning commission and zoning administrator “have made errors by making up rules, as opposed to following the bylaws.”
Since 2014, Hopkins added, 20 more issues have occurred “with no action other than voluntary compliance. All of the backlog is problematic, 10 issues have fallen off the face of the earth. Nothing has changed since 2014; in fact, the hole is getting deeper.”
Resident Cherie Giddings asked if there are towns in Vermont that do not have zoning. Bailey said she is aware of some but added that without bylaws, state regulations must be followed. Rhonda Smith expressed her concern that without the guidance of the bylaws, particularly the restrictions of zoning districts, “anything goes.”
Another resident, Ray Eilers, asked where the hearing was posted and complained that he did not see the notice on the website. Several attendees, including John Whitman, currently Readsboro’s representative to the Windham Regional Commission, also noted problems with the website, namely the absence of timely postings of Planning Commission minutes. Bailey responded by stating notices of the hearing were posted wherever legally required and that she submits her minutes for posting to the website. When questioned whether she follows up to assure the minutes have been posted, she replied that everyone has a job to do and it wasn’t her job to make sure they were doing theirs.
Giddings asked if the zoning administrator has enough hours to do the job. The theme of hours and compensation came up several times during the meeting but it was also expressed that the concern went beyond those factors, including the support of the community and its municipal leaders.
Helyn Strom-Henriksen, Readsboro Selectboard Chair and acting zoning administrator, noted the resignation of previous zoning administrator Jason Clump was “due to frustration.”
Strom-Henriksen said that previous zoning administrators kept files at home and when she became the acting zoning administrator “it took a great deal of time to reorganize all the material. “
She added that of the 34 issues since 2014, two have not been resolved. She also summarized fees received and files are all in one file in the town administrator’s office. As to the position of zoning administration, there remains an open invitation for applicants since the previous two have declined because of insufficient compensation.
Whitman said that he has been trying to follow the process, which he believes “isn’t working and it’s the job of the selectboard to make it work. “
Jim Franzinelli, new member of the selectboard, stated his opinion that “getting rid of zoning is not the right thing to do but the board should hold people’s feet to the fire to get the job done right. The problem is the process, not the zoning administrator.” He added that failure to post minutes is against the law. “Individuals have done their job,” Franzinelli said, “volunteers are doing their jobs. But the ball is being dropped somewhere along the line.”
When Hopkins said that many problems were buried, Franzinelli interrupted. “Don’t say buried because that sounds intentional and I don’t believe that’s true,” he said. When pressed for details, Hopkins said he was unwilling to give up his entire notes, only the summary.
Bailey said in the defense of zoning administrators that the bylaw is not easy to interpret and apply, especially given changes in state law. Turnover of boards has had an impact on continuity, which Bailey contends is important in making appropriate decisions, including whether aspects of the bylaw need tobe looked at for possible changes. She outlined in detail the process of a “problem” from initial application to resolution. “There are three planning commission members,” said Bailey, “we should have seven. When it works, it works well but everybody is stretched to the max.”
Giddings added that she believes this is not a friendly town for people wanting to participate in public service. Smith noted the same nine people show up to the same meetings. “Where is everybody else?”
Bailey closed the meeting by stating that the comments and concerns that were presented will be turned over to the selectboard, after which, under state structure, the selectboard’s hearing must be held no more than 120 days later with a 15-day notice.