By Katy Savage
The chair of the Woodstock Planning Commission resigned on Friday, April 22 in the midst of a discussion about an amendment to the town’s zoning regulations to allow on-farm restaurants in residential areas.
Sally Miller, who had been chair of the Planning Commission for 23 years, said recent public hearings have been “stressful,” but declined to comment further in a phone call after the hearing.
The amendment would allow commercial restaurants in residential areas until 11 p.m., up to seven days a week with seating for up to 80 people. The discussion started as Peace Field Farm seeks an on-farm restaurant.
The Select Board held two public hearings about the amendment last week, which was brought to the Select Board by a petition, thereby sidestepping the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission urged the Select Board to reject the amendment so commission members could review it, to the dismay of some residents. Residents aired criticism at last week’s public hearings, calling the Planning Commission “biased, ” being too slow to respond and too reluctant to make changes to zoning regulations.
“They do not meet their own deadlines or goals, and should be all fired,” Todd Ulman posted in a Zoom chat during the meeting on April 22. “Abolish the planning commission and let the select board hire experts.”
Ulman’s wife Angela, who is trying to reopen the Taftsville Country Store, said the Planning Commission’s process hampers businesses from coming to Woodstock.
“Woodstock is suffering because the process takes too long and the businesses or potential businesses without very deep pockets cannot withstand the political back and forth with zero accountability,” Angela Ulman said.
The amendment was drafted in part by Select Board chair Joe Swanson with farm owners from Woodstock and nearby towns. It was signed by about 25% of Woodstock residents.
“We put a ton of work and effort into this petition,” said resident Donna Lombard, who is married to the chef of Peace Field Farm. “It’s not a bad thing for the town. If I could say it a million times, please let’s not send it back to the Planning Commission.”
Jenna Barker echoed Lombard and said she had “serious concerns” about letting the Planning Commission work with the amendment. She said a recent Planning Commission meeting about Peace Field Farm was “completely biased.”
“Anyone who spoke up to support it was immediately shut down,” Barker said at the April 22 meeting.
Todd Heyman, the owner of Fat Sheep Farm in Hartland, who helped draft the amendment, said Planning Commission members had “years to write an amendment and haven’t.”He referred to the hundreds of people who signed the petition as a show of support for change in Woodstock.
“Missing from this discussion is a respect for the civic engagement,” he said.
Planning Commission members at the public hearings argued the restaurant would open commercial activity in residential areas.
The Planning Commission urged the Select Board to not accept the amendment in a Feb. 2 letter, saying in part that the proposed farm was “out of alignment with activity in Residential areas and doesn’t take the impact on neighbors into account.”
The Planning Commission further said the amendment “is counter to clear goals laid out in the Town Plan to protect the rural areas of Woodstock.”
Miller further argued her point at the public hearing on April 22.
“Zoning changes are not a minimal process. You want to make sure you do the right thing,” Miller said, urging the Select Board once again to reject the amendment and send it back to the Planning Commission for review.
Miller said the process to amend zoning is “complicated.”
“It would be important to you to understand what other communities are doing as well,” Miller said.
Miller’s resignation is one of many recent changes to the town. Town Manager Bill Kerbin has been placed on paid administrative leave and David Green, who is also the fire chief, has stepped into his position.
The Select Board asked Steven Bauer, the town’s interim zoning administrator, to make an amendment consistent with the hearing from April 22.