When the Board of Selectmen appointed William Sarmuk and Russell Lee to the Zoning Commission earlier this year it seemed on the surface a routine matter.
But underneath the appointments were underlying issues and First Selectman Richard Barlow’s decision to not recommend the reappointment of members Peter Clarke and Mark Podesla. Both had expressed interest in continuing.
“This is the first time this board has had an opportunity to look at members of a land-use board,” Barlow said. “We’ve all been apprised by a number if citizens that they were not happy with the zoning commission with respect to a number of issues.”
Many have criticized Canton’s land-use process and the time it takes for businesses to navigate through it. Some projects, especially new construction, involve other commissions and agencies but as key part of the town’s land use, some of the criticism has fallen to the zoning commission.
“A lot of people feel the zoning commission is not friendly to business,” Selectman Steve Roberto said. “I felt we needed some new eyes and new blood.”
The land-use process is a complex one and is governed by state statute and the town’s zoning regulations.
Some accuse the commission of getting sidetracked and delaying applications, a charge Zoning Chairman Jay Weintraub does not agree with. Some spectators “do not understand the process,” applicants in some cases are unprepared and good zoning enhances value in town, Weintraub said. There is also a current effort to revamp the zoning regulations.
Barlow is quick to admit that some of the criticisms may be perception.
“It’s a question of reality versus perception,” Barlow said. “At some point it’s really hard to differentiate between the two.”
There have been many ideas over the years to streamline the process. Some have advocated combining the planning and zoning commissions, an idea that came up during charter revisions but never really gained steam and remains controversial. Another idea backed by selectman Tom Sevigny has been a “form based” zoning, in which very specific regulations are preset for certain sections of town, such as Route 44. Everyone then knows the exact parameters ahead of time.
“That’s much more neighbor and business friendly,” he said.
Town Planner Neil Pade said it can help attract businesses.
"This type of approach ultimately leads to a more predictable land-use environment, something that most developers will tell you they look for in a town when choosing to make a substantial investment," Pade said.
Weintraub said it’s not an idea that’s really been discussed in town but one he would be willing to at least learn about.
“Certainly I’d be in favor of looking into alternatives to make things go more quickly,” Weintraub said.
But there are ideas that have gained fairly wide acceptance, including at least one that does allow staff to sign off on some projects, especially for businesses moving into existing spaces.
Currently business activity, even in the town’s Business District, is generally allowed only by special exception. Once a particular use is established, it stays with each location.
So someone wanting to open a retail store or small office in a location where such a use has not been permitted must go before the zoning commission for a special exception that requires a legal notice, a public hearing, signage and more. It also costs an applicant more than $200, usually involves at least two Zoning Commission meetings and other steps that must be carefully timed to meet legal requirements. As a result, many small businesses must invest time and money before even opening.
“It becomes a burden for a lot of small businesses,” Pade said.
But that situation is set to change and a subcommittee of the zoning commission, with the help of a consultant and town staff, is working on rewriting the town’s regulations.
One of the proposed changes is to require only staff approval and a $50 zoning permit for many uses in existing spaces, including retail and personal service businesses up to 2,000 square feet, professional offices, non drive-though banks, class 1 restaurants, art studios and some small industrial uses.
If a project involves a new building or expansion it may still require approval by the commission but the changes will offer many businesses a much easier process, although it would require more intensive review and use of town staff time, Pade said.
In fact the new zoning regulations will eliminate many inconsistencies, be more user friendly and even speed up the process in some cases, Weintraub said.
But the time that rewrite is taking is one of harshest criticisms of the zoning commission.
According to the minutes of a September 2005 subcommittee meeting, final adoption of new regulations was then estimated for November of 2006.
“That rewrite has lingered far too long,” Barlow said. “To some extent all members of the board are accountable for the rewrite.”
Weintraub said it’s been a difficult process hampered by numerous problems. He said the commission was not pleased with the work of the initial consultant assigned to the task. Initially the rewrite involved numerous members and sometimes lacked a quorum, the minimum number of members to conduct business.
The committee has worked with two different town planners, an interim planner and a change in zoning commission chairs.
“There’s been a series of unfortunate events in terms of timing,” Weintraub said.
But the rewrite committee has been meeting regularly and has made great progress, he said.
Currently the re-write subcommittee is going through a draft that includes changes it made as well as some suggested by the consulting firm Planimetrics and Town Planner Neil Pade.
Pade said the goal is to have a draft to the full zoning commission in May.
From there it will go through a process that includes the input of other town boards as well as the public.
And regardless of that and other issues, Weintraub does not feel the change in commission members will solve any problems. He feels there was pressure from the business community.
“It’s human nature to look for a scapegoat,” he said. “Making a scapegoat without good reason isn’t going to change anything.”
Clarke agrees. He also felt that as an architect he brought a unique perspective to the zoning commission and had mixed feelings about the suggestion he join the Design Review Team, which needs additional members but has architects on board.
“I do understand plans more quickly,” Clarke said. “I sort of felt I contributed to that.”
And although selectmen offered little direct criticism of the two former members, Barlow feels it was an appropriate decision.
“This was the first opportunity to address what seems to be a growing concern about land-use boards in town as clearly articulated in the POCD (Plan of Conservation and Development) update process,” Barlow said.
Officials are quick to state that the two commissioners worked hard at a volunteer positions and have encouraged them to pursue other commissions.
Weintraub also said the zoning commission lack two alternates, another reason he felt it did not make sense to pass on Clarke and Podesla.
Zoning Commissioners also pointed out that Podesla was actively involved in the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development update process and at a recent meeting, many were openly reluctant to send another representative.
And the zoning commission has publicly thanked, at its Jan. 18, 2012 meeting, Podesla for seven years of service and Clarke for 26.
Podesla said he was honored to serve and hopes to again in some capacity.
“It’s been my privilege and honor to serve on the Zoning Commission over the past 7 years,” Podesla said. “I’m encouraged to see that more Canton residents are volunteering for the various town board positions and I myself look forward toward serving in another capacity down the road.”