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Zoning and Wetlands Seek Authority to Issue Citations

Town schedules enforcement ordinance for vote

 

By Wiley Wood

Should the Town of Norfolk be allowed to fine its residents for violations of zoning and inland wetlands regulations? This is the question that will be put to vote at a town meeting this month.

At present, the enforcement officer can notify a landowner who has run afoul of a zoning or wetlands regulation that he is in violation, and he can ask for compliance, but he has few tools at his disposal if the landowner chooses to ignore his request.

The enforcement ordinance, if passed, will be accompanied by regulations outlining the procedures to be followed before a citation can be issued. These were described by the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) at an informational meeting on Sept. 12 at Town Hall.

“Most landowners want to be in compliance with the regulations,” said Tom Fahsbender, a member of the P&Z. “If you let them know there’s a violation, they’ll work with the commission to fix it.”

The fines are intended to address extreme cases where a landowner refuses to comply with a regulation, even after losing a series of appeals to town review boards and to allow local resolution of the issues, rather than having to resolve it in court.

“I can think of seven or eight times in the last five years when it might have come into play,” says Zoning Enforcement Officer Michael Halloran.

Zoning violations typically deal with building permits, the illegal use of a property or improper setbacks, according to Michele Sloane, chairman of the P&Z.

“Someone operated an illegal rock quarry on Winchester Road,” said Sloane. “It dragged on for three years and was only resolved when the property was sold.” The property was in a residential zone, the quarry was next to the road, and a neighbor living 50 feet away objected.

Town residents brought a range of concerns to the information meeting. William Brown asked if there were provisions in the regulations for dealing with “nuisance situations.”

“We don’t have a blight ordinance,” said Halloran. “We don’t want to be intrusive in how people lead their lives.” A town meeting would be needed to enact a blight ordinance, but there are no plans to do so.

Another resident, Michaela Murphy, asked what would be the point of appealing to a town-appointed board or hearing officer, since the town authorities would only consult the zoning and wetlands regulations but couldn’t overturn them.

“It amounts to weaponizing the P&Z,” said Murphy, who argued that zoning regulations hamper Norfolk residents who use their property to earn a living.

“We’ve eased regulations a lot in the last 10 years,” said Sloane, responding to Murphy. “and we’re very proud of that.”

In the past, businesses were simply not allowed in residential areas, Sloane explained. Now, zoning permits are issued for home offices with up to two employees. Home enterprises such as nurseries or landscape businesses can also be permitted, though usually with conditions.

In other recent changes, the regulation of accessory apartments is now more generous, and the minimum lot size in Norfolk’s downtown has decreased from one acre to half an acre, as an encouragement to businesses.

West Lowe, a commission member, also responded to Murphy, saying “If you want to think of the ordinance as a weapon, remember that there are three layers of diplomacy before the weapon comes into play.”

The town meeting to vote on the enforcement ordinance is scheduled for Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at Botelle School’s Hall of Flags.

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