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Newfane petition calls for an end to zoning rules

NEWFANE—There’s a move afoot to repeal Newfane’s zoning bylaws.

If the 87 legal voters — at least 5 percent of the town’s population — who have signed a petition calling for that action can persuade the rest of the voters in this picturesque town of about 1,650 residents to abolish the zoning regulations that were first enacted in 1975, developers will have only the state’s Act 250 regulations with which to comply.

The pros and cons are predictable, although there are degrees of passion.

Realtor David Berrie, a prime mover of the petition, said straight out, “I’m not a fan of zoning.” 

He’s also irritated because the petition is dated June 28 and there’s been no action since. 

Such a petition must first be considered by the Planning Commission, which meets monthly on the second and fourth Tuesday, and then by the Selectboard, which also meets monthly, on the first and third Thursday, before a special election can be called for and warned. 

Even if the planners were to meet next week, the process would take at least until the middle of November. Both meetings require warning periods.

The Selectboard does not have to meet first unless it plans to call for a special election by Australian ballot. That also must be warned.

None of these actions have been taken.

Petition signers speak

Berrie declined to name specific projects that he believes have been thwarted by the zoning laws. He instead spoke generally about unequal treatment under the bylaws, and about “so many rules, for what reason, so much control,” between Act 250 and the Newfane restrictions.

Act 250 is the state land use and development law passed in 1970, which lists 10 specific criteria that new development must conform to before it is built.

Berrie feels the two-acre and five-acre lot restrictions now in use in Newfane need more flexibility and should include the addition of one-acre lots in the village. He also takes exception to the town usurping land off of county roads and town trails.

“That’s just taking away property rights,” he said.

Ted Schreyer, another signer, is of two minds. He’s down on self-interest and favors common sense.

A surveyor, Schreyer remembers “a long time ago when there was no zoning and then we were invaded by all these people with money,” some of whom wanted one-acre lots. He says the town had to do something and eventually created the two-acre minimum “which we had to do to keep the land from being all divided up.”

Schreyer’s not too keen on the history of the zoning board. “Members were too self-interested. I remember one person wanted a 15-acre minimum.” He says when someone on the board is too enthusiastic about anything, it’s a bad sign.

Vikki Butynski said she signed the petition to support her neighbor Joe Wright, who was denied a permit to build a garage for his big equipment.

“I’ve lived at Wildwood Acres for three years, and the town was really helpful to me when I moved in, explaining what I needed and who to contact. I really signed for Joe.”

Wright, who runs an excavating, logging and maintenance business on Route 30 near Grimes Hill Road, said that several years ago, he went to court three times and spent $8,000 trying to get a permit to build the garage.

“They spent taxpayer money to deny me a permit for a building I would pay taxes on,” Wright said. 

He was denied, he explained, because the town said the garage was a commercial building, based on the tri-axle machines he would store, and he needed four acres instead of the 3.85 acres he’s got. Further, a portion of his property had been taken when the road was repaired.

Acting Zoning Administrator Ed Feifel, who was part of the process to deny Wright’s permit, said his story was substantially correct.

“I think they need some zoning rules for setbacks and so forth,” Wright said, “but I think in this town they abuse them.  I was never into politics, but my feeling is that you need to get on these boards. People get on the boards for two reasons: for things you want and for things you don’t want.”

E. W. Morse, who signed the petition, is especially aggravated by “the present administration” in Newfane.

“I think they’re vindictive,” Morse said, noting the recent change in zoning administrators and relating a story about asking Feifel, who had come to his door to report a possible violation, to get off his property, which was clearly marked with no-trespassing signs.

“We need some control,” Morse allowed. “Most legal issues relate to zoning.  Maybe this might inspire some modifications.”

Community dialogue?

That sentiment is echoed by Selectman Frank Saponski, who says, “I’m not sure we need to get rid of zoning but I might be in favor of some modifications.”

Selectboard Chairman Gary Katz is particularly interested in publicizing the petition and the subsequent hearings.

“The Selectboard was told at our last meeting that the Planning Commission will hold their meeting Oct. 19 or 27,” he said. “They will then send the board their recommendations, and we will meet and set a date for the special election. Because this petition calls for the complete repeal of the zoning laws, it requires an up or down vote."

Katz said he hoped the meetings would draw a lot of interest and would serve as information sessions.

Gregory Record, who was elected to the Selectboard in 1989 and served for seven years, signed the petition mainly because he senses apathy among residents.

“My real concern is how uninterested people are,” Record said. “I can’t remember when we had a full [zoning] board or when many people showed up for meetings. If zoning is that important, why don’t people come to the meetings? We don’t even have an actual zoning administrator, just an acting one.”

Record, who has a lawn-mowing business after 26 years working at WW Building Supply, says, “I’m not anti-zoning, but I’m against Newfane’s zoning and the way the laws were written.We need to simplify.”

He said the Joe Wright case was a good example of someone for some reason sticking to the letter of the law “because one person had an issue.”

Another example, Record says, was his own. 

“I live on a private road behind the Newfane Elementary School.  You can’t see my house from [Route 30]. The bylaws say that setbacks have to be 65 feet from the center of the road. I have a two-acre lot and I wanted to build some sheds for my lawn mowing equipment. I’ve dealt with all my neighbors, the school. Nobody had any issues. And I’m on a private road.” 

The Development Review Board (one step above the zoning board) denied the permit because of a space deficit.

“Everything was so cut and dry,” Record said.

Why zoning happened

Former Town Clerk Sandra Dowley, who held that job from 1988 to 1999, is in good humor about almost everything.  She is married to Richard Dowley, whose family owned a lot of land off River Road.  They sold 300 acres of their dairy farm (“200 milkers, 200 young stock”), between River Road and the West River, to Nicholas Mercede, who lives on River Road. 

Much of that land is now Winchester Stables, owned by Mercede. He owns considerable acreage in the vicinity, including the Maple Valley ski area in Dummerston, the River Bend Motel in Newfane and a large house next door that is now the home of Bootsy’s Restaurant on Route 30.

The stables, crosshatched by serene white fencing and luxurious barns, back up to Mercede’s rambling house and tended gardens.

The prevailing story told by several residents who wished not to be named is that the zoning enacted in 1975 by Newfane was, in part, a reaction to Mercede’s plan to subdivide the Dowley farm.

The Dowley family maintains a River Road presence. Richard and Sandra Dowley live there, and another part of the family owns and runs Kenolie Village Campground. (“Do you know where that names comes from?” asked Sandra Dowley. “Well, he was named Ken and she was named Olive and everyone called her Olie and that’s how the campground got its name.”)

The family is well-known in the community. “Dick mowed the grass on the town green for so many years they finally put up his picture in the court house,” Sandra Dowley reported.

She is clear about zoning.

“I wouldn’t sign that petition,” she said. “I can’t imagine not having zoning.  It’s been there so long. Without it, you could build anything.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #68 (Wednesday, September 22, 2010).

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