Proposed zoning change causing uproar
By Kym Soper
VERNON - After 20 years of living in New Jersey, Karen Wintress returned home last December with plans to retire on nearly 30 acres of family land in Talcottville, only to learn her nest egg could be cracked by a proposed zoning regulation change meant to preserve open space.
The proposal, which has caused uproar among some residents with acreage, would amend Vernon's subdivision regulations to increase a developer's set-aside requirement of 5 percent of the land for open space to 20 percent.
And under the proposal, the 20 percent cannot be wetlands or a steep slope, which has alarmed some landowners who say the town is going after the best sections of their parcels.
Wintress says she's a partial owner of the Elm Hill Avenue property, which is split between herself and her two brothers. Purchased by their parents in the 1940s, Wintress planned to divide her third of the land between herself and her two children.
Now, with the proposed regulation, Wintress says she doesn't know if that would still be possible.
"This is retirement - welcome home," Wintress said with a wry laugh.
Town Planner Neil Pade says there is an exception in the language that allows for families who want to subdivide for children, grandchildren, siblings, and even extended members, such as aunts and uncles.
According to state law, the shared property must be less than five lots, among only family members, with a minimum range of 10,000 to 40,000 square feet each, Pade said.
Still, for Wintress, the proposal "is not 100 percent clear, and people are not sure if this will affect them or not."
"It's a very substantial change," Pade said, adding that it could potentially affect "any person with land large enough to be subdivided."
Under the proposal, property owners will be allowed to pay a fee to the town in lieu of donating the land, but it must represent the fair market value of total land to be developed, Pade said.
As for the type of land to be donated, "it's not fair to the town for a developer to only give junk land for open space, and it's not fair of a town to only keep the good land," Pade said.
The Vernon Open Space Task Force, a subcommittee of the town Conservation Commission, made the proposal with the intent to offset developmental impacts on the community by making provisions for recreational and conservation measures, members say.
According to the task force, Vernon's current set-aside of 5 percent is optional, and rarely exercised by the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Meanwhile, a recent survey by the Capitol Regional Council of Governments shows Vernon has one of the lowest requirements in the 29-town region.
"This change is long overdue in Vernon's regulations and should have been done years ago," Sheryl McMullen, Conservation Commission chairwoman, said.
"We're just trying to bring Vernon out of the dark ages here," added Open Space Task Force co-chairwoman Ann Letendre.
So far, three hearings have been held on the proposal, with a fourth scheduled for Jan. 18 and a possible fifth on Feb. 15.
The commission then has 65 days after the hearing period to deliberate before taking a vote.
In the meantime, "we're interested in getting as much public input as possible," Pade said, adding that one of the biggest points of contention has been the size of the required contribution.
Commission members may decide, based on the hearings, that the size of land donations could be made on a case-by-case basis, he said.
There are issues besides landowner rights to keep in mind, however, Pade cautioned.
In Vernon the town is geographically divided by a highway, with the north mostly developed and the south filled with natural resources and opportunity for subdivision.
With subdivision, a development of new homes brings more people into the town and added burdens to the budget, such as education, public safety and social services, Pade said.