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DRB vs. ZBA - towns mull options

November 16, 2006 

By Erin Post and Lisa Loomis

To DRB or not to DRB - that's the question for two local towns that are mulling over changing their regulatory review process from a zoning board of adjustment and planning commission structure to a development review board, planning commission format.

In Fayston and Waitsfield this week, the select boards discussed whether, when and how to make the switch from a ZBA to a DRB. In Moretown and Warren, the switch was made some years ago - Warren in 2000 and Moretown in 2000.

Typically, and historically, towns had two review boards that heard applications for projects, subdivisions, variances and developments: a planning commission and a zoning board of adjustment. Over the past dozen years many Vermont towns have switched most or all regulatory review to the DRB while leaving all planning functions and, sometimes, subdivision review with the town planning commission.

Members of the Waitsfield Select Board discussed their continued desire to address the issue of whether to make the switch at a November 13 meeting this week, and members of the Fayston Planning Commission discussed their concerns about making the switch in a meeting with the town's select board that same night.

"Warren switched to a five-member DRB in 2000. We have two alternate members. It works for us because it puts the review process on one board so applicants save some time in terms of going before town boards. It allows a more efficient hearing process. So far this year, we've processed 22 subdivision applications and 18 to 19 conditional use applications. I think we'll have reviewed about 80 applicants by the time the year is over," explained Warren zoning administrator Miron Malbeouf.

Malbeouf said that, for Warren, the switch was made to try and make the permitting process more efficient. He noted that in terms of legal fees the town has had to spend, 'they've been fractional' compared to before the town made the switch.

In Moretown, planners and other town officials are happy with the division of labor between the planning commission and DRB.  Planning commissioner Steve Robbins said Moretown's system allows the commission to focus on planning and the DRB to focus on interpreting regulations, a split in duties that makes each board's role clear.

"It works as long as there is communication between the boards," he said, noting that the planning commission encourages input from DRB members on specific issues that may need to be addressed in the town plan. Moretown has a seven-member DRB.

For some planners in Waitsfield, there is concern about making sure that the planning commission keeps its fingers on the pulse of proposed development in the town and concern that if/when the planners commence planning only, there is no disconnect.

"I don't know if it would be a good thing or a bad thing because I don't know what Waitsfield needs. I'd like to hear the full story," said planning commissioner Jamie Sherman.

Other concerns from Waitsfield planners include the question of whether or not making the switch will improve the permitting process.

Fayston's nine planning commissioners bring an assortment of skills and expertise to the table, helping the board to negotiate the intricacies of subdivision application review.

On Monday, two planning commissioners told the select board they don't want to see that talent lost if the town decides to form a five-member development review board.

Margie Torizzo listed some of the occupations represented on the current planning commission, pointing out that Realtors, transportation experts and residents well versed in natural resources management are all now serving on the commission.

Drawing on a "good spread of backgrounds and interests" to approve a subdivision application makes for a thorough review, Torizzo said, something that may be more difficult with just five members on a board.

Planning commissioner Shayne Jaquith echoed Torizzo's comments, pointing out that during most proceedings, "everyone [on the nine-member board] has something different to say," on whether an application meets regulations governing everything from site layout and septic system requirements to conservation and wetlands management.

The discussion came as the select board continues to weigh the pros and cons of disbanding the zoning board of adjustment (ZBA) in favor of a development review board (DRB).

Under the proposal, the DRB would be charged with reviewing subdivision applications, a job now assigned to the planning commission, in addition to the zoning-related duties the ZBA now handles.

Officials have said shifting the responsibility of subdivision application review to a DRB would separate the judicial and planning aspects of town governance, making the application process more transparent. It would also free the planning commission to focus on updating the town plan among other long-term planning tasks.

How many members will serve on the DRB and the reconfigured planning commission has not yet been decided, although officials have discussed keeping nine on the planning commission and limiting the DRB to five, the minimum allowed by law.

Select board member Ed Read pointed out that other area towns with larger populations than Fayston use a five-member DRB and are satisfied with the review process.

"Things do go quicker with fewer people on the board," he said. 

Concerns about reaching a quorum with only five members and alternates are legitimate, said planning commission chair Chuck Martel.

"In the back of my mind, I was looking at seven," Martel said.

Ultimately, the select board is charged with making final appointments to both the DRB and the planning commission, said select board member Jared Cadwell.

Those decisions will likely be made after reviewing with current planning commissioners and ZBA members where they would prefer to serve, as well as extending an invitation to the general public.

With development on the upswing, long-term planning needs to be a focus for Fayston, town officials said. Renewing that focus is the goal in forming a DRB.

"Fayston is in a great position to do some good work on our town plan," Cadwell said. "And we don't have the time."

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