Planning Commission rift sparks at Chester Selectboard meeting

CHESTER, Vt. – During their Feb. 17 meeting, the Chester Selectboard were made aware of a rift within the Chester Planning Commission as Commission Chair Peter Hudkins, in lieu of giving the expected presentation of ongoing planning efforts, instead largely criticized many revisions being considered as they overhaul Chester’s planning bylaws.

Hudkins denounced several features of the revised bylaws including forest lots needing 36 acres before being able to sub-divide; increasing minimum zoning from three to six acres; buildings restricted to a maximum of 6,000 square feet; limitations on changes to a homestead without Development Review Board approval; paving projects now requiring landscaping and other aesthetic measures; as well as a reference to other “nasty details.”

Hudkins summarized his concerns saying that the new changes bring all the businesses into the village thereby making it harder to develop in rural districts and making rural districts harder to subdivide. “When you put a dot on what could be divided, and couldn’t be divided, it’s pretty surprising how much land is no longer available for development out there because of these changes,” he said.

He distanced himself from the rest of the commission, saying that these measures were the majority opinion on the Planning Commission, but that he had different opinions about it and that the “conductivity of our existing zoning” is lost with these changes and that the proposed changes lack clarity and transparency with too many details outlined in over 240 pages. He also said they were not getting the public opinion they need to have.

Current Planning Commission members also include Tim Roper, Cheryl Joy Lipton, Barre Pinske, and Naomi Johnson.

Select Board Chairman Arne Jonynas said that he was taken aback and wondered exactly what was going on with the board. “As a board I would think that you would all agree…and that as a board it seemed like you should be dealing with this issue,” he said. He then asked other planning board members to comment.

Planning Commission member Tim Roper was quick to respond, saying that the presentation by Hudkins “mischaracterized their work” and that he was upset about his comments. He outlined the Planning Commission process, which included working with a consultant that used state guidelines for municipal planning and development and aligned changes with Chester’s town plan.

He also defended compromises made during the process, saying that everything they’ve done as a commission has been an attempt to find common ground from their diverse board. “Everything we’ve put into the document has been discussed, in some cases hotly debated, and compromise was reached…and that’s what’s in the document to date,” he said. He also said they have invited public input multiple times and that that process will continue.

Jonynas encouraged the board to continue to work through their differences and that there are mechanisms in place to deal with their conflict. He acknowledged the years of work that had gone into their efforts to date.

Board member Lee Gustafson encouraged the board to read the information the Planning Commission had provided as well as the state statute, 24 V.S.A. 4302, that was guiding their efforts.

Board member Jeff Holden confirmed that the state guidance was aspirational and not mandatory.

The Planning Commission, in response to this meeting, scheduled a special meeting Monday, Feb. 22 to refute Hudkins allegations. The next regular Chester Selectboard meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, March 3 at 6 p.m. via Zoom.

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