A dispute over zoning districts in South Hero is easily traced to Vermont’s development initiatives promulgated by the unelected Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC).
The proposed new zoning districts consist of 634 acres surrounding existing commercial areas along Route 2. These districts, where the minimum lot size had previously been one acre, are now zoned with no minimum lot size. Disputes over both the substance and process of these changes culminated in a bizarre condemnation of citizens by the South Hero Planning Commission. The question of who works for whom is unavoidable: do South Hero property owners have a right to an opinion on their town’s zoning plans, or are they to be bypassed and shamed by a handful of quasi-public leaders?
The conflict arises over a proposed plan to expand commercial development in South Hero. It is clear from polls that residents do not oppose expansion of commercial development, but by large margins prefer that new commercial development be confined to existing commercial areas to preserve the character of the rural township. South Hero’s Planning Commission favors broader expansion notwithstanding, under the stated goal of increasing available low-income housing for would-be residents to be able to “purchase a small lot, build an affordable home, and work in their community.”
This is a false dynamic: there are no existing efforts to develop more low-income housing in South Hero, though expanding the commercial district will surely permit more non-housing commercial development. South Hero is an affluent town with very few jobs to provide for low-income newcomers: its residents largely commute out of town for employment. Unless the Planning Commission proposes to attract a new manufacturing industry to out-of-the-way South Hero, the mismatch of stated intentions with the economic reality of the town is striking.
This has not prevented the Planning Commission from politicizing the housing needs of the indigent in South Hero, and being willing to avoid resident input to do so. The expanded development zone proposal was presented to the South Hero Selectboard back on Jan. 13, 2020. Selectboard Chair Jonathan Shaw proposed to present the amended zoning bylaws, including the expanded development zone, as the subject of an Article for public vote on Town Meeting Day. A prolonged discussion ensued.
Selectboard member Sharon Roy [at 1:03:16] supported a public vote:
I would like to see the town vote on this. I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough to know what the people of South Hero want. I think they should vote on it. … This is impacting people’s taxes when they come into town, the changes to zoning what they’re going to have to do to upgrade their own property. There’s some huge changes. If they like it, they’ll vote it in.
When Selectboard member Skip Brown asked how the zoning changes would cost more money, Selectboard member Anne Zolotas said [at 1:03:50]:
Every by-law, every rule, limits in some way how you can develop your own property and many of the restrictions do add a cost. Sometimes a little; sometimes it makes it prohibitive. Personally, I feel that the 5% of the people who had input into this product, and the product that came from that, is a limited vision that doesn’t reflect perhaps the on-the-ground reality of what South Hero is and will become.
Sharon Roy later [at 1:15:45] stated, “I would rather have 500 people vote on this than 5 people,” and claimed it was the South Hero Selectboard’s duty to the taxpayers affected to allow them the vote [at 1:24:46]: “I’m not saying I’m not in favor of the zoning by-laws. I just think it is our diligent duty … to let the townspeople have a say in it.”
A motion was made [at 1:26:24] and seconded “that the [zoning] by-laws be an article at Town Meeting for public vote.”
Yet the Articles for inclusion in Town Meeting were determined at the Selectboard’s next meeting, on January 27, 2020, without the voted-for inclusion of an article relating to adoption of revised zoning by-laws. At 1:00, Chair Jonathan Shaw is asked “Did you remove the development regs?” to which he responds “Yeah. That’s removed.” No explanation is provided.
In 2022, concerned residents created two petitions to require future town plans and development regulation changes to be voted on by Australian ballot. These articles passed. Later in the year, citizens followed up by creating two petitions (allowed by statute) to reduce the size of the new development districts. The Planning Commission condemned the petitions as elitist, and suggested the petitions were an effort to inflict housing discrimination. Yet it is voters’ property values and town character that may decline if South Hero is over-developed, regardless of whether there is an increase in low-income housing as a consequence of zoning changes. What if people simply oppose too much commercial development or dense housing, which might spoil the town’s traditional character?
This extremist politicization and abuse of accustomed voter involvement is unusual. Town leadership, encouraged by the Regional Planning Commission, seeks to impose the partisan, unchallenged restructuring of the town’s zoning regulations by avoiding or undermining public involvement. Catherine Dimitruk, the head of the NRPC, suggested in February 1, 2023 testimony related to House Bill 6.1 (to mandate that duplexes be permitted in all Vermont zoning that permits residential construction, and enact other changes to increase affordable housing) that the state should “Make it easier to amend bylaws (Section 4442) remove the ability to vote by Australian ballot in rural towns, and increase the percentage of voters needed to petition a vote after adoption to 10%.”
Unelected social planners are revealing contempt for individual property owners’ rights. In South Hero, the Selectboard blocked voters from deciding what their town plan should be; the Planning Commission has slandered voters who filed a petition to have that vote; and the Regional Planning Commission is pushing the Vermont Legislature to reduce or restrict the rights of all rural Vermonters to vote on their own zoning laws, including increasing from 5% to 10% the statutory requirement to force a Town Meeting vote.
It does not appear that the voters’ voices are being heard in South Hero, as a handful of people make the rules for the 1,674 residents based on the interests of a few. If South Hero’s zone changes damage the long-term character of the town, who will bear responsibility for having side-stepped the voters who are impacted?
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield. © Copyright True North Reports 2023. All rights reserved.