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New Haven proposes a development review board

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December 31, 2007

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

NEW HAVEN — The town of New Haven is thinking about simplifying the review process for new development proposals. A Jan. 8 meeting will let town residents talk about creating a development review board (DRB), which would take over all the responsibilities of New Haven’s Zoning Board of Adjustment as well as some of the Planning Commission.

“It more or less combines all the development review issues in one body,” said planning commission chairman Al Karnatz. “It streamlines some of the process.”

Currently, the ZBA handles most parts of an application for any significant new use or change in use of property in New Haven, including appeals of the zoning administrator’s decisions, applications for variances, and conditional use permits. However, approval of the planning commission is required for a number of uses of property. The planning commission’s main job is the town plan and zoning bylaws, but in addition to those responsibilities, it also gives subdivision approval and reviews site plans for commercial and industrial developments.

A DRB would replace the ZBA, and would also take over the planning commission’s approval and review functions. “Applicants who (now) need both planning commission approval, like for a subdivision, and zoning board approval, like for a septic tank, would only need to go before one board,” said John Evers, chairman of the ZBA.

According to Evers, the ZBA originally had almost all the review and approval responsibility, but as new cases arose functions closer to the planning commission’s job were shifted to them. “Over time, what happened is that there is more and more overlap.”

Karnatz said that this has led to situations where applicants have to go back and forth sometimes between the two boards for approval of various parts of an application, sometimes even getting contradictory rulings before finally being approved, and the proposed change is mostly intended to avoid that. “It’s about continuity,” he said.

Karnatz was supportive of the proposal overall, but he said in an e-mail that one possible downside is that the planning commission will continue to write the town plan and zoning regulations but will no longer have any role in enforcing them. This would make poor communication more likely between the planning commission and the DRB than it is between the planning commission and the ZBA. However, he felt that regular meetings between the two groups or having some members on both boards could prevent the problem.

This is not the first time New Haven has considered a DRB. Evers said that it was one part of a proposal four years ago for a number of planned changes to the planning and zoning process, such as expanding the definition of a home business. That package was voted down, but Evers hopes this proposal by itself will be more successful. “We’re just going one step at a time. I think we’ve learned our lesson,” he said.

Several Addison County towns already have a DRB, including Middlebury and Vergennes. A selectboard has the authority to create a DRB on their own, but the New Haven board hopes to get input and feedback from town residents before taking any action. The upcoming public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 8, at 7 p.m., in the town hall cafeteria.

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