POWNAL – The question of whether businesses can be allowed under the Pownal zoning in a rural residential district is at the heart of a dispute involving John Babson’s proposal for a South Stream Road parcel.
During two previous town development review board meetings, Babson sought approvals for building a log home and for businesses he operates involving logging and solid waste hauling. .
The companies are based in his Gage Street office in Bennington, he said on Friday. Its intention is to store trucks, haulers, dumpsters, waste containers and other equipment on the Pownal property at 2853 South Stream Road.
Despite meetings in March and April, council has yet to vote on the proposal, prompting lengthy debate and many questions and concerns from residents. However, council members discussed approving a variance for the proposed commercial use in a residential area.
Among those who registered strong objections at those meetings was real estate agent Paul Harsch, who represents a neighbor of the site who is trying to sell his property.
Harsch said this week the city could face a legal challenge if a waiver is granted for Babson’s property. He said his client, Deborah Eaton, of 2090 Maple Grove Road, had retained an attorney who planned to attend the DRB’s next meeting on the Babson application, scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“It’s quite unusual for me to have to step in to this degree,” Harsch said in an email. “But I am very concerned that the newest members of the DRB board have moved in a very troubling direction, considering granting a license for use that is explicitly not permitted in the [rural residential] district in which Mrs. Eaton’s property and the plaintiff’s adjoining property are located.
He added that the council and zoning administrator Michael Gardner “appear to remain determined to bend and even ignore regulations to grant permission to the single applicant. Their reasoning is also troubling, that there are other scattered cases in the city where for the past few years a small contractor has been able to keep their equipment at home, for example, so they think that would justify doing an example here too, regardless of the impact that that line of thought throughout the city.
Neither the zoning administrator nor Gardner could be reached Friday for comment.
In the minutes of board meetings from previous sessions, there is reference to a 2008 decision, authorizing a previous owner’s request for a house and garage on the same property.
Harsch argued, however, that “the ‘proposed use’ in the permit clearly states ‘residential.’ Nowhere on the permit application or approved permit is there any mention that the intended use of the property was for commercial purposes.
He added: ‘The DRB have suggested they will grant continued commercial use of the property. It is false and misleading. The prior use was residential and the owner’s occasional practice of keeping a construction vehicle on site was not granted in the permit and would not have been permitted under the bylaw. If such use occurred, it either went unnoticed by city officials or was given no attention if no complaint was filed.
Reached by phone Friday, Babson said he had owned the plot for about two years, but there were no complaints until he applied for a permit for commercial use.
Referring to his intention to store vehicles on the property, he said it would be similar to other sites in the city where commercial vehicles are stored on a property. He added that a car company previously operated the plot he now owns, although he does not know if a permit has been issued.
For Harsch, a key question is whether the city enforces its zoning provisions consistently.
“Pownal Town DRB members have a legal duty to thoughtfully and consistently enforce existing regulations for the benefit of all town citizens, present and future,” he said. “For the DRB to grant, let alone accept, a request for improper use is against reason and against the law. If this permit or similar permits were granted, it would essentially remove all of the protections that landowners are entitled to rely on as to permitted uses and unauthorized uses in any part of the city.
Referring to her role in marketing Eaton’s home, Harsch said she “lost a very nice sales opportunity because of Mr. Babson’s ownership”, saying any adjoining property “would be next to impossible. for sale” if the permit requested was obtained.