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Jim Kenyon: When It Comes to Zoning, Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

Published: 8/30/2016 12:44:23 PM
Modified: 8/30/2016 12:44:23 PM

I recently wrote about a property owner in South Royalton who was raising 39 pigs in a residential neighborhood and had created quite a stink.But with no town zoning ordinance, the Royalton Selectboard has been a hamstrung in its efforts to do much about it.

Now for the flip side of zoning — a case in Lebanon that shows what can happen when an ordinance goes too far.

First, some background:

Terry Melendy is a self-employed landscaper who has lived on Slayton Hill Road with his wife, Renee, for 30 years. The Melendys own nearly six acres of mostly open land on which they have built a single-story house and two-car garage.

Over the years, Terry Melendy has made a habit of parking the tools of his trade, which include a shiny white dump truck, a small excavator and a trailer, behind the house when they’re not at a job site.

In April, the city’s planning and zoning office received a complaint from a resident who asked to remain anonymous about construction equipment noise on the Melendys’ property. The resident also noted piles of landscaping materials and unplanted trees.

Part of Lebanon Zoning Administrator Tim Corwin’s job is to check out potential ordinance violations. In this case, it seemed a fairly easy task — the Melendys live less than 3 miles from City Hall. But instead of paying the Melendys a visit, Corwin fired up his desktop and typed in their address.

Voila!

Up popped a half a dozen aerial photographs taken from several angles of the Melendys’ property. Sitting at his desk in City Hall, Corwin could see a dump truck in the driveway, a large pile of landscaping material (presumably bark mulch) and an unrecognizable person standing in the driveway. Corwin even had a clear shot of the Melendys’ outdoor hot tub.

Where did the aerial photos come from?

A few years ago, Lebanon purchased a software mapping tool that came with high-resolution images of parcels across the city. The Rochester, N.Y., company behind the mapping tool, Pictometry International, has a fleet of 73 aircraft capable of shooting images much sharper than “traditional overhead photography or even satellite and GPS mapping,” according to its website.

Corwin, who started working for the city last year, told me the software is more than just a time-saver. In some cases, the aerial images are so good that relying on them is “a lot better than driving to the site.” (Lebanon’s use of the technology, which seems only a step away from employing drones, raises privacy concerns, but that’s a column for another day.)

After viewing the aerial pictures, “there seemed to be evidence that the complaint (against the Melendys) was valid,” Corwin said. On April 22, he wrote to the Melendys that they appeared to be operating a landscaping and lawn services business in a part of the city where commercial uses were prohibited.

After receiving the letter, the Melendys contacted Barry Schuster, the go-to attorney in Lebanon when it comes to land-use matters. (When I caught up with Terry Melendy on an unannounced visit to his home, he preferred that I talk with Schuster.)

Emails and letters that are public record show that Schuster and Corwin, who is also an attorney by training, have been going back and forth on the case for nearly four months.

Schuster argued that “like many other contractors in the city,” Terry Melendy operates his business from his home. Corwin maintained that Lebanon’s zoning ordinance doesn’t allow home businesses to have outdoor storage areas.

The Melendys appealed Corwin’s ruling to the Zoning Board. “We were disappointed that the administrative decision was based on Google-type aerial photographs without ever speaking to Mr. and Mrs. Melendy,” Schuster told me.

And that’s a big part of the rub. The aerial photos were taken in April — 2015. One of the trucks in the Melendys’ driveway belonged to a friend who had stopped in to visit.

As for the landscaping materials and unplanted trees? Melendy was stockpiling for a major landscaping project on his own property, which he didn’t finish until earlier this year. Thus, the construction equipment noise that led to the April complaint.

But even after hearing Melendy’s explanation, the zoning board voted 2-1 at its Aug. 15 meeting to uphold Corwin’s ruling.

“The board’s job is not to legislate but to interpret,” said Chairman Jeffrey Halpin. Although he supported Corwin’s ruling, Halpin said that, in this case, the zoning ordinance, as currently written, is “not serving residents well.” The bottom line: Blue-collar residents who are self-employed should be allowed to keep small amounts of equipment and materials on their property.

The case has “helped bring the deficiencies in the zoning ordinance to our attention,” said Corwin, who assured the Melendys when he met with them for the first time on Aug. 19 that the city had put on hold any potential action against them.

The city is now working on a proposed zoning amendment to “address small-scale commercial uses on residential properties,” Corwin said.

Corwin seems like a reasonable guy. I’m guessing that if he’d taken a drive up Slayton Hill Road early on, rather than relying on year-old aerial photographs, that the matter could have been resolved more quickly, and at less expense to the Melendys.

On Friday, five Royalton officials visited the pig farm in their community that has become a bone of contention. Afterward, I was told the situation has improved, but there’s still work to be done. Town officials have scheduled a follow-up inspection for Thursday.

What a concept. Public officials actually seeing for themselves — instead of relying on pictures taken from a plane.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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