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Mahaiwe drops third Grist Mill Island appeal

VERGENNES — Mahaiwe LLC principal owner David Shlansky has dropped his Vermont Supreme Court appeal of two setbacks in Environmental Court, both of which came when he appealed a Vergennes Development Review Board decision.
At issue has been a condition the DRB imposed on a September 2016 permit that allowed Mahaiwe to add five apartments to four existing apartments on Grist Mill Island in the Otter Creek falls.
The DRB insisted on solid metal railing fencing around the perimeter of the island, similar to that on the neighboring Pump House Island. Shlansky had in 2016 proposed, as he described in a 2016 email to then zoning administrator Mel Hawley, a fence with “railroad track as vertical posts and two heavy chains between the posts,” a style of fence that already existed on some of Grist Mill Island’s perimeter.
The drop from the island to the river and rocks below at some points is about 37 feet.
To the Independent in 2016 Shlansky criticized the DRB process as a lengthy and arbitrary “guessing game,” and said the DRB lacked standards upon which to base its fencing requirements.
But in denying Shlansky’s second appeal in May 2018, Environmental Court Judge Thomas Durkin wrote that the Environmental Court’s original April 2017 decision “noted that the standards set out in the Regulations ‘are based on a reasonable person’s understanding of safety, which is not an impermissibly vague benchmark.’”
After the 2017 decision Shlansky installed the DRB’s preferred style of fencing, but chose to appeal again on principle, noting the style of fencing he preferred is used near Niagara Falls.
City Manager Matt Chabot — a former Shlansky employee — said this week that Shlansky chose to drop the second appeal after new zoning administrator Peter Garon and Shlansky sat down to discuss the city’s zoning application process.
“Our new zoning administrator was pivotal in kind of orchestrating this truce or understanding between the city and David Shlansky,” Chabot said. “The desire is we have a development application process that is better for anybody.”
In a Wednesday email to the Independent Shlansky said, “I have confidence” moving forward with Garon and the DRB. 
“Changed circumstances lead to changed approaches,” he wrote.
Garon acknowledged the discussion with Shlansky appeared to be a factor in his dropping the appeal, something that Hawley told the city council in June could cost Vergennes between $6,500 and $13,000 more in legal fees after spending about $13,000 in Environmental Court.
But at the same time Garon said the changes to the city’s zoning application process are not dramatic.
“David certainly appreciated the attempt to make the process a little more simplified,” Garon said. “I don’t think this is a radical change from what Mel was doing at all.”
Garon had experience coming into the job from a brief stint as the New Haven zoning administrator, and had served on the city DRB, most recently as its chairman. To learn more about his new post Garon said he contacted a number of other zoning administrators about how they handle applications.
Through that research he said he developed a one-page applicant checklist that he shared with Shlansky, one that he said should help applicants gather what they need before they meet with the DRB for the first time.
“It’s being definitive in writing to say to people, here’s your checklist. The first thing to do is meet with your zoning administrator so that meet up front about the project and make sure whether the documents are going to me or going to the DRB that (the application) is as complete as possible at that stage of things, so the applicant is ready to answer the things that need to be answered,” Garon said.
“That’s pretty much the process that was in place, but what I’ve done is reduce it to a checklist.”
Essentially, the checklist boils down what is already in writing to make it user-friendly, Garon said.
“The stuff is already in writing in the regs,” he said. “But the regs are extensive. I reduce it to one page and hand it to people.”
Garon said he did not want to overstate any changes and praised Hawley’s work as zoning administrator.
“When I was chairman of the board he made sure things happened clearly and timely. We were always prepared for our meetings,” he said.
Chabot said he was pleased Garon and Shlansky had a meeting of the minds that led to a positive outcome.
“I’m grateful to Peter and David for finding a path forward for this,” Chabot said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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