Written by A.J. LaRosa, MSK Attorneys – Vermont municipal zoning regulations are among the strongest in the United States. Along with Vermont Act 250, the state’s municipal zoning regulations focus on protecting natural environmental features and the “character” of a given area.
Before purchasing land in Vermont, undertaking an addition on an existing structure, subdividing land or siting a project, you should know the basics of Vermont zoning regulations and the approval process. You may find it more difficult, and certainly more complicated, to get approval in Vermont than in other states.
Do I need a land development permit in Vermont?
All Land Development in Vermont needs a zoning permit. The term Land Development is defined extremely broadly by Vermont law and includes the division of a parcel into two or more parcels, the construction, reconstruction, conversion, structural alteration, relocation, or enlargement of any building or other structure, or of any mining, excavation, or landfill, and any change in the use of any building or other structure, or land, or extension of use of land. Thus, just about any work on or in regards to a parcel of land needs a zoning permit.
What do Vermont municipal zoning regulations cover?
Vermont allows each community to establish zoning bylaws that cover the following aspects of development:
- Specific uses of land and shoreland facilities
- Dimensions, location, maintenance, alteration and removal of structures
- Areas of land that can be occupied by structures
- Timing of growth and population density
- Uses within river corridors and buffers
Vermont requires zoning bylaws to be applied consistently across all properties within a given zone. For example, a town may require that no structure can exceed three stories in height in a downtown area. No exemption can be granted to this rule under Vermont state law. As a rule, Vermont zoning variances are issued only when existing zoning rules prevent the reasonable development of a piece of land, and only to the minimum that allows the land to be developed.
Who applies zoning regulations in Vermont?
Towns with enacted zoning regulations have a zoning administrator. Most development (like the construction or alteration of a single family home) needs only a permit issued by a zoning administrator. These types of administrative permits generally only require the submission of basic project information, the completion of an application form and the payment of a permit fee.
Larger, more complex projects, or those projects that impact specific resources (historic buildings or districts for example) need to be reviewed and approved by town municipal panels. Vermont municipalities will have either a Development Review Board, which can review all aspects of a project, or a Zoning Board of Adjustment and a separate Planning Commission. In communities that have a separate Zoning Board and Planning Commission, the Zoning Board reviews use-based changes and structures, while the Planning Commission reviews subdivisions and site plans.
Depending on the exact nature of the project, review through these panels requires more in-depth submissions including engineer-drawn site plans, architectural drawings and sometimes reports regarding stormwater runoff, erosion control and traffic generation.
Decisions from all three of these bodies are made after public hearings. A quorum consisting of a simple majority of the members of each individual body (Development Review Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment or Planning Commission) must be present to issue a decision.
As part of the hearing process, “interested persons” are given an opportunity to appear and have their concerns heard. The governing body must consider the concerns of interested persons when making decisions.
Under Vermont law, Interested persons can include any of the following:
- Owners and residents of nearby properties who can establish that the project may have an impact on their interests
- Representatives of the municipality that has a bylaw under appeal
- Any group of ten persons, voters or property owners, who believe that a zoning appeal would violate local bylaws
- State agencies or departments that own a property or an interest in a property in the municipality
All hearings on zoning issues must be announced at least 15 days before they take place. Announcements are posted in newspapers in affected communities and include the time and date of the hearing. Notices are also posted in public places and mailed to the property owner and abutters.
It is important to note that Vermont considers a property owner an abutter even if a highway or public right-of-way separates two parcels of land.
Following a hearing, a decision must be issued by the governing body within 45 days. If no written decision is made during this time, then a “deemed” approval in favor of the property owner is granted.
The Vermont Zoning Appeal Process
Any applicant or interested person may appeal an administrative permit/permit denial to the appropriate municipal panel within 15 days of the decision. Once that appeal is filed, the panel will consider the issue and either uphold the administrative decision or overturn it.
Decision of a municipal panel may be appealed to the Vermont Superior Court – Environmental Division by filing a notice of appeal with the Court not more than 30 days after the date of the panel’s decision.
The experienced zoning and permit lawyers at MSK Attorneys have helped hundreds of clients throughout Vermont navigate the zoning appeals process. Our experience and knowledge of local zoning rules can help you avoid appeals or win on appeal if a variance has already been denied. Contact us online or call us at 1-802-861-7000 for experienced support in Vermont zoning cases.