Planning Board Railroaded by ZBA

Tensions ran high at Tuesday night’s Planning Board meeting as members expressed their concern and frustration at the tabling of the discussion of an article at Monday’s special Fall Town Meeting.

Last night, four out of the five articles on the Warrant were passed by over 150 residents who attended. But the one article which did not pass, regarding the Planning Board’s amendments to the Home Business Bylaw, was not even debated due to a successful effort by members of the Zoning Board of Appeals to table discussion of the article until the next Annual Town Meeting in the spring.

According to Town Planner, John Charbonneau, Planning Board Chairman Arnold Johnson was about to give a brief PowerPoint presentation about the proposed changes made to the bylaw. Before Johnson could begin, ZBA Chairman Richard Cutler read a prepared statement about the article, which was immediately followed by a motion made by ZBA Member Kirby Gilmore to table the discussion entirely. The motion passed and no public discussion was held for the bylaw.

“Unfortunately, we really didn’t get too far into it and it was pretty much a staged, choreographed thing to take it off the table,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there and I think a lot of it is on purpose. When people choose not to understand or to accept something, they can, for lack of a better term, play dumb. I think the average person in the room at Town Meeting last night didn’t understand [that most of the law remains unchanged] and weren’t given a chance to understand it.”

In order to have a home-based business in Rochester, the current process requires applicants to get a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. The Planning Board made some changes to the bylaw, one of which requires applicants to go through a site plan review process in order to determine whether or not the home is suitable to host a business.

As part of the proposed site plan review process, applicants would have to hire independent consultants in order to verify the information contained in their application and report those findings to the Planning Board. Some considerations in the process include the amount of parking spaces that may be required for the business, as well as ensuring that no more than 25 percent of the home is used for the business.

Despite the amendments to the bylaw, most of it remains unchanged.

“Ninety percent of the law is exactly the same as it what is already in our bylaws,” Charbonneau said. “But the Chairman of the ZBA, in his statement, gave misinformation about changes to the allowed size of farm stands and setbacks. But the zoning laws for the size of those structures remain the same.”

“We did change the definition of a farm stand, but we changed it to match the state definition,” said Johnson.

“The site plan review is meant to help take the applicant’s plans and make them work,” Charbonneau said.

“I think the changes we’re making will enhance the opportunities for people in Rochester,” said Johnson.

The Planning Board also reviewed the list of approved home-based businesses, which Charbonneau said was grossly out-of-date.

“We reviewed the use of this list, but it doesn’t account for all the changes that have occurred because of e-commuting,” he said. The Planning Board decided to eliminate use of the list entirely due, in part, to the difficulty enforcing a limit on the number of employees hired by a home-based business.

The tabling of the discussion of the bylaw amendment came as a surprise to the Planning Board, which has been working for over two years to finalize the amendments. During that time, the ZBA has been absent from the process.

“I happened to be sitting beside Richard Cutler and beside Kirby Gilmore,” said member Ben Bailey. He indicated that Gilmore was there to oppose the changes to the bylaw, said Gilmore facetiously said that “everybody would be home in time to watch the presidential debate.”

“The Planning Board has been working for more than two years on this. We’ve had multiple public hearings in various meetings about it. In those two years, nobody from the ZBA attended those meetings or offered comment,” Charbonneau said. “They have not participated in this process to date.”

“I’m not buying into the fact that there wasn’t sufficient time to make comment,” said Johnson. “There are multiple ways they could have made comment on this.”

Johnson said that he would be willing to add joint meetings between the Planning Board and ZBA to the schedule in order to promote an atmosphere more conducive to cooperation.

“We’ll outline everything on our terms. We’ll send them a certified letter with a date, and we’ll send out a notice to invite them to come. It’ll be the only thing on the agenda. If they don’t come, then we can decide to post up and go to their meeting.”

According to Bailey, members of the ZBA said at Town Meeting that they could not attend Planning Board meetings because “some of us have jobs.”

The article was originally on the Warrant for the Annual Town Meeting held this past spring, but the Planning Board voluntarily withdrew it after hearing concerns from Building Commissioner Jim Buckles and Board Member Bob Francis, who was not on the Planning Board at the time. At the time the article was added to the Fall Town Warrant, the Planning Board received no indication from the ZBA that they would push to table the discussion, nor did they receive any communication from the members of the Zoning Board of Appeals voicing any concern or dissatisfaction with the contents of the bylaw amendments.

Bailey continued to say that he would like to take action against the members of the ZBA for their actions at the Town Meeting.

“I would like to go to the Selectmen and ask them to unappoint everyone who was engaged in this ambush. Perhaps they could find a ZBA that is more amenable to working with the other boards of the Town.”

Bailey plans on attending the next meeting of the Rochester Board of Selectmen as a private citizen in order to voice his opinion on the situation.

“The things that were said by Mr. Cutler are direct insults at all of us and they should [know] that the Board itself acted in an imperious and insulting way. As a citizen, I would point that out because it’s demoralizing and the more things like that are done, the less likely people will want to volunteer to serve on boards. We will drive away the very people who could help us run this town well,” Bailey said.

“I think the insult goes to all of us and I think this whole board should show up,” said Vice-Chairman Gary Florindo.

The Planning Board may file each amendment to the bylaw as separate Warrant articles for the Annual Town Meeting in the spring.

In other business, the Planning Board voted in favor of a plan to create frontage in order to split a lot on Hiller Road.

The next meeting of the Rochester Planning Board will be on Tuesday, November 6 at 7:00 pm at the Town Hall.

By Eric Tripoli

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