Fairlee to vote on cannabis and zoning amendments


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-06-2023 11:02 PM

FAIRLEE — Residents of Fairlee are set to vote by Australian ballot Tuesday on whether to allow the retail sale of cannabis and on proposed zoning amendments that could be friendlier to affordable housing development.

While the two articles will be voted on by residents at the same time, Chris Brimmer, Fairlee’s zoning administrator, stressed the obvious.

“Folks need to have clear in their minds that the two articles on the ballot are distinct and separate issues,” he said.

In October 2022, retail cannabis, for sale to those 21 years and older, was legalized — and heavily regulated — in Vermont. But pot sellers can only set up shop following town-wide approval through a vote.

If Fairlee voters give cannabis retailers the go-ahead, the town would be in a position to join other Upper Valley towns — including Bradford, Vt., Hartford, Randolph, Windsor and Woodstock — where cannabis shops have already opened their doors.

“We see it as something positive for Fairlee,” said Peter Berger, vice chairman of the Selectboard, about the board’s position on cannabis retail. “It’s not something to be ignored. The state is seeing revenue from it.”

In Fairlee, per state statute, retail operations would be barred from existing within 500 feet of Samuel Morey Elementary School on School Street.

The zoning bylaw amendments include provisions that are more amenable to housing development, such as the inclusion of new state regulations that liberalize accessory dwelling unit regulations, decrease the parking requirements for multi-family units and enable cluster development. A full list of the potential amendments, as well as the ballot, can be found online at this link: tinyurl.com/mu522utk.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

The potential rollout of the proposed zoning amendments comes after the Legislature passed a bill in June that effectively bans single-family zoning by permitting duplexes wherever year-round residential development is allowed.

“Luckily, we were ahead of that,” Brimmer said, emphasizing that Fairlee is keeping in step with efforts by the Legislature to incentivize residential construction.

The amendments would also include an increase in the permitted building height in the village from 25 to 40 feet.

“We’ve been told that anything less than three stories on a project just doesn’t pencil out,” Brimmer said

After getting assurances from the town’s fire department that it could fight a blaze in a building that tall, the Planning Commission turned their sights to the two largest structures in town: the clock tower on the Community Church of Christ and a feed store’s grain elevator. Both stand above 40 feet.

“The number was picked because we didn’t want the two most dramatic architectural features in town to be upstaged by new buildings,” Brimmer said.

New commercial buildings would be required to have a second floor. “Number one, to encourage housing, but the other things that we’re trying to get a certain verticality,” Brimmer said. “It would set our Main Street off somewhat from other reasonably similar ones in this part of Vermont.”

As far as aesthetic regulations go, Fairlee’s not drawing lines around “window design, brick sizes or that sort of thing,” Brimmer said, but the amendments would restrict the “general block shape of the building.”

In addition to keeping pace with housing needs, the proposed amendments are meant to help avoid another “Dollar General situation,” Brimmer said. Much to the chagrin of many residents, Dollar General arrived in Fairlee in 2015, when the town had no town plan. Taking advantage of the regulatory vacuum, the store was able to set up shop. More thorough commercial zoning can out-maneuver that kind of real estate snatch, Brimmer said.

Around Lake Fairlee, the amendments would be restrictive to “adding bedrooms” to houses skirting the lake, Brimmer said, with special concern about “guests around the lake with (septic) systems that aren’t designed to support them.”

The amendments would also restrict new construction on non-conforming lots, and place a “permitting regime,” he said, on short-term rentals. Current policy regulates short-term rentals as residential use of property, but the new bylaws would regulate them as commercial.

Brimmer emphasized that the two ballot items — zoning bylaw amendments and cannabis retail — are separate issues, but one leans into the other a bit more.

“If you really desperately want retail cannabis in town, you’re cutting your toenails short if you vote against the bylaw,” Brimmer said, pointing to the amended bylaws’ laxer attitude toward development.

“You can approve the new bylaw without approving cannabis, but if you approve cannabis, the very machinery necessary to have it in town is contained in the bylaw.”

Voting is scheduled to take place on Tuesday between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. at the Town Hall at 75 Town Common Road.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.