By Lee J. Kahrs, The Reporter
PROCTOR — A selectman abruptly resigned and walked out of a regular meeting on. Oct. 12 after a lengthy debate over conflict of issue regarding a zoning grievance.
Proctor Selectman Dick Horner, who is also chair of the Proctor Planning Commission, was asked to recuse himself by property owner Jodi Jones when Jones began to explain her zoning grievance to the select board. Jones explained that she had already been before the Proctor Planning Commission numerous times regarding the way her property is zoned. But Horner refused to recuse himself from the agenda item and Jones proceeded with her complaint.
She said the area where she and her husband operate Big Twin Motors on South Street used to be zoned agricultural/commercial but a number of years ago, the zoning was changed to non-residential. Jones said the zoning designation is negatively affecting the resale value of her property because of a grandfather clause keeping the property from being zoned any other way. She said she went before the Planning Commission in August and again in September and requested to be heard on the issue. She said she was told that the commission is waiting for a state grant that will allow it to go over the town plan and update the zoning, but that the process would take roughly one year to complete.
“All I want from this board is a timeframe on when you think I can get an answer,” Jones said. “What is the due process to be heard as a property owner?”
Selectman Bruce Baccei replied that it would take time for the board to get up to speed on the specifics of Jones’ complaint and asked the rest of the board if 15-20 days would be enough to respond to Jones’ inquiry.
“No, it’s not,” Horner replied. “We have applied for a grant and will receive it in three to four weeks. She wants us to stop everything we’re doing and concentrate on her particular complaint. She raises a number of issues and we want to look at the whole zoning comprehensively to make sure that we do it correctly this time, that we don’t do it piecemeal, and that process is going to take about a year to do it correctly.”
But Jones immediately shot back that it was a conflict of interest for Horner to even comment on the issue as a member of the planning commission.
“I asked you to recuse yourself,” she said. “You cannot be the Planning Commission chair and on the Select board. I’ve gone before you for months now and that is why I’m in front of the select board.”
But Baccei said regardless of the town conflict of interest policy, according to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, it is up to the individual to recuse themselves.
But Jones reiterated that property owners should be entitled to due process.
“They should not have to wait until a new law is written to find out an answer,” she said.
Baccei then suggested that more time was needed to review the situation, and that December would be more likely.
“You’ve brought up a lot of issues and they’re good issues,” he said. “But to cover them, I think we will really need some time.”
At that point, another Proctor resident at the meeting, Patrick Walsh, defended Jones’ request for answers and questioned Horner’s interests.
“It doesn’t seem fair that one man on a board should have more power than the rest of you,” he said.
But Horner was adamant.
“This zoning was changed at least 13 years ago and they’re just coming to us now?” Horner asked. “Now, all of a sudden, they want to push, push, push and get this done? It takes a number of hearings, notices have to be published, it takes time to change zoning. We are not going to make changes every time a citizen comes in. We are going to do it comprehensively.”
The situation quickly escalated from there, with Walsh and Horner loudly talking over each other, until at one point, Horner told Walsh to “shut up.”
“I want it noted on the record that this man told her to shut up,” Walsh told Baccei.
“I apologize for telling you to shut up,” Horner said.
Jones then suggested that she might put her property taxes into escrow until she got the answers she was looking for.
Walsh then questioned the relationship between the Planning Commission and the Select Board.
“I’m wondering if there is some collusion here between the Planning Commission and the Select Board,” he said, which Baccei quickly dismissed.
But at that point, Horner began gathering his personal belongings and stood up.
“I’m resigning from the Select Board right now,” he said. “There will be no conflict of interest. It’s gotten way out of hand.”
Horner walked out of the meeting and those in attendance burst into applause.
Reached at home for comment on Monday, Horner stuck by his decision to resign, as well as his assertion that Jones would have to be patient as the Planning Commission evaluates Proctor’s zoning laws.
“Absolutely,” he said. “You can’t do it piecemeal. You have to look at everything. It might take six months, it might take a year. I’m not making any promises.”
The grant in question is an $8,000 state Community Development Program grant that the Planning Commission applied for with help from the Regional Planning Commission to update the Proctor town plan.
As for Jones’ complaint, Horner said he agrees that it’s something that should be looked at.
“I don’t deny that she has a zoning claim and that it hurts her resale value,” he said. “But if everybody that come in wanted re-zoning and changed it… the costs adds up and it is time consuming. It’s better to do it all at once.”
The Select Board is now accepting letters of interest from Proctor residents who would like to serve on the Select Board. The Board will appoint someone to serve out Horner’s term until Town Meeting, at which point the appointee would have to run for election to the seat.
Letters of interest should be sent to the Proctor Select Board, 45 Main Street, Proctor, VT 05765, on or before Oct. 23, 2015.
This story first appeared Oct. 21 in The Reporter, a sister publication of The Mountain Times, located in Brandon, Vt.