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New zoning rules needed in Waltham

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By ANDY KIRKALDY

WALTHAM — After an Oct. 5 hearing at which members of the Waltham Planning Commission and some residents questioned changes selectmen made to proposed new zoning laws, it looks like selectmen and planners will be sitting down to talk before another version of the zoning rules is put before the public.

Selectman Harold Francis said on Friday that disagreements over conditional use language, frontage requirements, changes made in the town’s forest zone, noise law provisions, and the size of the town’s main 5-acre residential zone will almost certainly require face-to-face meetings to resolve.

“It was suggested that the zoning board and selectboard get together and work this out … which I think we’ll probably do,” Francis said.

Planning commission member Dan Morris, a 26-year veteran of that board, said he hopes selectmen and planners can meet and iron out their differences and come up with a plan that can eventually win approval in a town-wide vote.

“I’m really hopeful we can work everything out,” Morris said. “It would be best to get together so that we craft something with them that would have the full support of both boards.” 

A recent change in state law allows selectmen to either adopt new zoning on its own or call for a town-wide vote. Morris said planners favor a vote, while Francis said selectmen are now leaning toward balloting, but the next few months may help decide that question.

“If we get a consensus on everything, there may not be a cause for a vote,” he said.

Nothing will be done to move the multi-year process further forward until Nov. 6, the next selectboard meeting. Then, Francis said selectmen will address a number of wording changes that planners say must be made to bring the proposed zoning laws into compliance with the town plan.

Selectmen did not discuss on Oct. 5 how to handle thornier points of disagreement with planners, who worked for about two years before handing proposed laws to selectmen this spring. Selectmen made their changes in meetings this summer that did not include planners.

Because talks between planners and selectmen will probably be held after selectmen’s Nov. 6 meeting, the timetable for adoption of new zoning laws has been pushed back. If there had been substantial agreement on Oct. 5, selectmen would now be moving toward adoption rather than more debate.

According to Vermont law, any time major changes are proposed to zoning laws at least one more hearing must be held before a town may adopt them. Francis said a town-wide vote is possible on Town Meeting Day, but not guaranteed because of the hearing requirements. 

“I would hope we can go to a vote in March, but it’s going to depend on how the negotiations go,” he said.

CHANGE DETAILS

About many changes there either is no disagreement, or at least none was expressed on Oct. 5. The laws would create a development review board (DRB) to handle all zoning applications, encourage clustered housing in planned unit developments, and expand the 2.5-acre zoning district near Vergennes. Selectmen also proposed eased garage sale restrictions and removed landscaping requirements from all except the 2.5-acre zone.

One central bone of contention is selectmen’s decision to remove language that would allow the DRB to consider whether a conditional use proposal in any district fits in with the character of its neighborhood.

Francis said selectmen were trying to strike a better balance between the rights of property owners and their neighbors.

“It comes down to the level of control the DRB has in allowing people to do what they want to do with their property,” he said.

But Morris said the town may have no choice on the character provision. The state legislation that enables local zoning laws includes neighborhood character on the list of issues that zoning boards or DRBs must address during a conditional use process, he said.

“You don’t have a choice, basically,” Morris said. “You can’t have a zoning ordinance that doesn’t meet the state law.”

Other points of disagreement between planners and selectmen include:

• Planners agreed to allow homes and camps on 25 acres in the town’s large forest zone, much of which is on Buck Mountain, but only on a conditional basis that would allow the DRB to review and rule on proposals. Selectmen decided to allow homes and camps in the zone up to 500 feet of elevation without DRB review.

Morris noted that the forest zone was originally intended to be a conservation zone, and planners still believe conditionally allowing homes is the right move toward change, especially because it better conforms with the town plan.

“Our thought was to ease into this, not go whole hog,” he said. “We see this as a first step.”

• Planners proposed moving many stretches of land along the town’s main roads from the current Low Density Residential zone with a 5-acre house lot minimum to the town’s 10-acre agricultural zone. Selectmen reversed that change.

• Selectmen reduced minimum road frontage requirements in many areas.

• Planners decided that subdivision proposals of three lots or more should be considered major subdivisions, which require a more comprehensive application and a longer process. Selectmen proposed a four-lot threshold as a way of easing the regulatory burden on property owners. 

• Planners proposed a noise ordinance with a specific decibel threshold. Selectmen left the new noise law in, but deleted the specifics because they said they believe those provisions would be unenforceable.

Morris said selectmen have a point in saying that a noise duration provision should have been added to the volume limit, but he feels “there needs to be some kind of standard … that can be used to make a case.”

Overall, Francis said selectmen believe many of the changes they made are supported by what they heard during planning hearings, and that the changes have more backing than was evident on Oct. 5.

“After the meeting people came up and said they felt we had done what should have been done, but they didn’t say that in the meeting,” Francis said.

Regardless of the points of discussion, selectmen respect planners’ effort and position, he said.

“They put a tremendous amount of work into it,” Francis said, “They did what they felt was the best thing to do.”

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