'Open flags,' forestry and more set for planning commision hearing

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MANCHESTER >> The Planning Commission has scheduled a public hearing on proposed changes to the town's Land Use and Development Ordinance for Monday, March 28.

The hearing is part of a larger and ongoing overhaul of the town's zoning, or land use ordinance, and will precede a series of public forums planned for later in April and May which will explore adjusting zoning boundaries and the rules governing permitted uses to better meet the goals set forth in the town plan.

Monday's public hearing will be more narrowly focused on clarifying and streamlining some of the language in sections on parking, housing development and review procedures and definitions, according to Town Planner and Zoning Administrator Janet Hurley.

Three areas likely to draw greater interest among the 24 provisions the planning commission hopes to cover Monday night include open flags, a zoning change of the Palmer House parcel, and a redefinition of forestry to bring it into alignment with Vermont case law, along with proposing a definition and conditional use allowances for forestry operations.

The use of "open flags," currently prohibited under the present zoning ordinances, emerged into the spotlight during hearings held last year and reached the select board level last November before being sent back to the planning commission for more consideration. The question concerned whether or not such flags could or should be displayed and if so, under what guidelines. Several merchants, pushed to allow for their deployment — other residents argued against that, saying it would lead the town down a slippery slope to visual clutter that would diminish the overall attractiveness of the community.

The newest attempt at a re-write of this provision was an effort to strike something of a middle ground.

"The planning commission has proposed language that would allow 'open flags' under limited circumstances where a business didn't have a good visibility from a main road," Hurley said.

Another issue the planners will take on is reclassifying the zoning on a corner of the Palmer House property along Route 7A into one lot. The owner, Peter Boll, had sought the single zoning designation shortly before his recent passing. The planning commission is proposing they all be consolidated into the designated General Residential district rather than having the northwest corner remain Single Residential.

A third change is redefining what is forestry from a municipal permitted use standpoint. The issue came into prominence recently during an appeal of a firewood business on Bonnet Street. During the course of that appeal, the town discovered its language on permitted forestry use didn't match up well with state case law, Hurley said.

"Vermont case law interprets forestry to include operations that occur on the lot where timber is cut, but not further," Hurley said. "We are making our definition of forestry comport with Vermont case law, and the Planning Commission, in addition, is proposing a definition for forestry operations. If timber is not cut on a lot, it's not considered forestry."

If the changes pass muster during this public hearing, they will head to the select board for another public hearing. If approved there, the land use and development ordinance will be modified accordingly, Hurley said.

From there, the planning commission will move on to a second phase of their broader rewrite of the town land use ordinance. Last December, the town's planning office was awarded a state grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development of $16,100 for this project, which enabled the town to hire a consultant, Brandy Saxton, of PlaceSense, a consulting and land use planning group based in Hartland, Vt., to assist with the overhaul.

The effort will look at existing regulations and zoning district boundaries to see if they are effective at guiding development in the town, Saxton said.

"We are going to be going back to the drawing board with the districts and saying 'what should we do to reshape and redefine' — I would expect at the end of the process to see a different looking zoning map coming out of it," she said.

A second part of the project will include more language refining and streamlining of the town's "complicated" land use regulations, she said.

The kick off for this important public effort is set for April 25, when a public zoning exercise workshop will be held, the first of several, to recraft the regulations.

Monday's public hearing will start at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall.


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