PARIS – A controversial new subdivision ordinance going to referendum Tuesday promises to be contentious right up until the results are read.

The ordinance, which reached its final draft on May 11, guides the splitting of parcels of property into two or more separate properties. Town Manager Sharon Jackson said the subdivision ordinance has been in effect, with only minor revisions, since 1976.

“Laws have changed in the 30-year period,” she said.

The review standards for the ordinance have increased from nine in 1973 to 20 at present, with the 11 new standards not incorporated into the ordinance.

According to Claude Rounds, code enforcement officer, the subdivision committee was charged with updating the ordinance to accommodate state law and changes of statute. He said the committee was not charged with making “graphic policy changes.”

“Really their opposition is to the original ordinance,” said Rounds of the ordinance’s critics. “I think the developers would have liked us to make changes that would benefit them.”

“I think the biggest thing we did was clarifying language,” Selectman Raymond Glover said.

Some of the opposition has to do with the way the town implemented the ordinance.

“They did not let any private citizen be on the committee to help with the subdivision draft,” Selectman Ron Fitts said.

Troy Ripley, who has been a mainstay at the ordinance hearings, said the creation of the subdivision ordinance committee stripped the Planning Board of its ability to review the ordinance and advanced the selectmen’s agenda at the expense of the taxpayers’ wishes.

“If the current unacceptable ordinance was developed under a Planning Board led by Ray Glover, why would he be the spearhead of the review committee?” asked Ripley. “That’s like hiring the captain of the Titanic to chart the town’s next cruise.”

He said he agreed with the idea of a subdivision ordinance, but the town “went about it in a manner that was polarizing.”

Jackson said the revised ordinance will be easier for the Planning Board to review.

Rounds said board members using the current ordinance have to backtrack through state law and legal issues, while the proposed ordinance gives clearer instructions on what to do.

“From a user-friendly perspective, this is a much better document,” Rounds said.

Fitts said the committee has made tangible changes, such as the definition of a minor subdivision. He said a minor subdivision used to be characterized by a street and nine lots, and a street now makes a subdivision a major subdivision.

One thorny issue regarding the ordinance is the revision that would send subdivision appeals to Oxford County Superior Court, rather than the Board of Appeals. Jackson said developers would only need to appeal matters that violate the ordinance.

Jackson cited the town’s recent victory in a civil action filed against Christopher Stearns last year. Stearns successfully won a variance from the Board of Appeals that would allow the roads in his subdivision to be unpaved; Rounds and the selectmen appealed the decision.

Justice Robert E. Crowley ruled that the Stearns property did not meet the four conditions necessary for a variance and overturned the decision by the Board of Appeals.

“It’s the judge that really should be making those decisions,” Jackson said. The appeals board openly neglected the conditions in their decision to grant a variance, she said, adding, the process can be affected by politics.

Fitts said the town would be defended by a lawyer paid with town taxes, and the taxpayers could save money if the issue goes to the Planning Board or Board of Appeals.

Under the new subdivision ordinance, roads in the subdivision must be paved and built to town specifications at the subdivision’s expense.

“There’s no way the town should bear the expense of private development,” Jackson said.

Ripley cited a 2003 study by Brattebo and Booth which states that unpaved roads have lower levels of pollutants than paved roads.

“This ad hoc committee has made no provision for the environment,” he said.

Fitts said the ordinance abolishes any waivers from the Planning Board.

“I think the Planning Board should be able to use their common sense to grant waivers,” he said. “The exact same thing goes for the appeals board.”

Jackson said the ordinance still grants waivers, but not for any development that would cost the town money. For example, paving a road cannot be waived under the ordinance.

Fitts and Ripley were both opposed to the article that makes the code enforcement officer responsible for “interpreting and enforcing the ordinance.” Ripley said the wording takes away a property owners’ ability to develop his land and puts it into the hands of one person.

“It abolishes home rule authority for the town of Paris,” he said.

Jackson said Rounds has more training to interpret the ordinance than the members of the Planning Board, and that opponents to the article were guided by personal dislike of Rounds.

“I think you’ll find that’s the same language that’s in all other ordinances in the state,” she said.

Fitts said the ordinance will lead to an increase in the price of housing lots. The committee said that monetary issues cannot be used for the basis of an appeal. The decision in the Stearns case ruled that while a variance can be granted to help a property yield a “reasonable return,” it cannot be used to make it yield a maximum return.

Jackson said that while the new requirements would increase the costs of development, it would also increase the sale value of the property.

“They’re actually going to get more money if their lots are developed the way they should be,” she said.

The issue goes to the polls from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Paris Fire Station.


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