WOODSTOCK — The clearcutting of 4 acres near Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park has drawn the ire of neighbors. But despite acknowledging administrative hiccups in the initial permitting process, the town government says construction can go on.
The clearcutting began on Rabbit Hill Way in May, neighbors said. Although a permit was issued in June by the town’s zoning administrator, the neighbors allege it was not properly posted and that it should have required conditional approval from the town’s development review board.
“This quote-unquote isolated issue definitely seems part of a pattern,” said Howard Krum, one of the disgruntled neighbors. “I hate to say it, but it feels like and it seems the evidence is that people have learned that there are no teeth to the town's zoning regulations.”
Krum and his wife, Mary Margaret Sloan — who serves on Woodstock’s planning commission — point to Peace Field Farm, a proposed restaurant near their home on the northern edge of Woodstock, as evidence of a trend. The project has divided the town, and its permitting fights have extended for more than a year.
The restaurant’s developer, John Holland, constructed the barn-style building before receiving Act 250 approval from the state. Vermont’s natural resources board ultimately denied Peace Field’s Act 250 permit, arguing that it violated Woodstock’s town plan.
Holland appealed the decision, and the structure has gone unused as the business navigates red tape from its skirting of the permitting process.
Now, Holland and the town appear to have forged an agreement, and the restaurant looks poised to proceed, even as the business appears to have initially violated Woodstock’s own planning goals.
Sloan and Krum suggest the Rabbit Hill Way project is much like Peace Field. Yet this time, Woodstock has greenlit construction from the get-go.
Sloan said she and her husband reached out to the landowners at 0 Rabbit Hill Way, Meridith and Daniel Peirce, to ask about the construction before appealing to the town.
“But you know, then they lawyered up, and now we're in this situation where the town is dragging its feet and not being responsive,” Sloan said.
The Peirces did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email.
Woodstock has experienced a period of administrative upheaval, upending a thorough bureaucracy. Phil Swanson, its town manager of 34 years, died in 2019. Swanson’s replacement, William Kerbin Jr., spent 25 months in the role before reaching a separation agreement with the town in May. An interim municipal manager now holds the job.
Steven Bauer is the second person to serve as planning and zoning administrator since Michael Brands retired in 2020 after three decades.
And in April, the chair of Woodstock’s planning commission, who served on the board for more than 20 years, resigned after enduring angry outbursts from a resident at a public meeting.
“I can imagine Woodstock changing dramatically in the next few years,” Sloan said. “We have to make sure that the people who are charged with enforcing (town rules) are doing so.”
In its denial of Sloan and Krum’s appeal of the Rabbit Hill Way construction, the town development review board acknowledged the turmoil.
“Mistakes were admittedly made during a difficult period of transition,” the board’s Nov. 15 decision read, “but we do not find those mistakes to rise to the level of being materially misleading. Instead, we find them to be the unfortunate byproduct of limited staff serving limited hours.”
The board found that Sloan and Krum had waited longer than the 15 days allotted to appeal a permit and thus could not appeal now.
The decision makes no reference to one of the key arguments of the neighbors — that because construction is occurring on a slope steeper than 15%, it triggers conditional use review from the development review board, according to Woodstock’s zoning regulations. The construction area is labeled as 18% grade in the Peirces’ application.
Wendy Seiple, whose home sits across the valley from the clearcutting, shares her neighbors’ sentiments. For a notoriously stringent municipal government, she said, the recent actions by Woodstock officials stand in stark contrast.
“My experience with the town has always been, it’s by the book,” Seiple said. Now, “everyone's kind of asleep at the wheel. … They're just kicking the can down the road.”
According to Seiple, after the clearcutting, construction on the new home has gone on seven days a week, often beginning at 6:30 a.m. Sloan and Krum contend the building’s rapid construction may reflect an attempt to finish the project before alarm bells could be rung.
Kevin Geiger, director of planning at Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, said in an email that Bauer, the zoning administrator, has a “nondiscretionary duty to enforce the bylaw” if he has determined it is likely being violated.
“Speaking in general terms, not any specific case, there are lots of things people don’t like, but to be a zoning violation it has to violate the zoning,” Geiger said.
Asked about the 0 Rabbit Hill Way permitting process and turnover in Woodstock’s town government, Bauer offered a limited response.
The development review board “found that it does not have jurisdiction to redress any claims regarding the permit’s validity because interested persons failed to file a timely notice of appeal,” Bauer wrote in an email. “I cannot comment further as the decision’s appeal period to the Environmental Court is open until December 15.”
Despite town approval of the project, Krum and Sloan may seek another appeal. A lawyer is “evaluating our case at the moment,” Krum said in an email this week.
Don't miss a thing. Sign up here to get VTDigger's weekly email on the energy industry and the environment.