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EDITORIAL: Select Board Needs To Investigate How Our Zoning Bylaws Are Being Enforced

The Building Commissioner is responsible for the enforcement, administration and interpretation of Groton’s Zoning bylaws.  Since the town’s zoning bylaws can be confusing and contradictory, careful discernment of bylaws is an important part of the job. In a small town such as Groton, the Building Inspector/Zoning Enforcement Officer is the sole authority in these matters, wielding tremendous power to disrupt the life of an individual, a business or even town government.

   With so much power vested in a single individual, the Building Inspector/Zoning Enforcement Officer should be a person who takes into account the substantial hardship a narrow, literal ruling can bring upon a resident, a business or the town. When making such determinations, the Zoning Enforcement Officer needs to balance the purpose and intent of the bylaw with reasonable impact on the public good to find a common-sense middle ground. An extra measure of care, circumspection and prudence is called for.

   Our current Building Inspector/Zoning Enforcement Officer has made a number of rulings that - while reasonable interpretations of the bylaws - have taken a toll on the town and certain individuals by taking an callous, uncompromising approach that has created emotional turmoil and political upheaval in addition to substantial expense.

   This rigid enforcement has alienated people from their town government, seeing such government actions as unfair, unjust and arbitrary. This is unfortunate because Groton town government is generally viewed as efficient, reasonable and helpful.

   In the case of the Indian Hill Music building permit, the Building Inspector accepted the applicant’s argument that the cost of the building was a trade secret and, therefore, proprietary. By accepting this argument, the Building Inspector entered $0 as the construction value of the IHM project, thus opening the door wide to a huge reduction in the building permit fee and consequent public anger at the Select Board’s decision. Likewise, the protracted battle over a change-of-use permit for Prescott School, eventually involving the need to bring in state engineers, created extraordinary anxiety, turmoil and cost for taxpayers.

   Banning John Reilly and Heather Rhodes from parking on their accessory lot was a textbook example of how arbitrary and capricious enforcement of the zoning bylaws can hurt residents. 

   In last week’s article on rescinding the parking ban, John Reilly said, “Cars are a necessity for living in this town. Instead of showing concern for the hardship that a parking ban would cause, Zoning Officer Cataldo prohibited us from parking our own cars on our own land, based on an anonymous complaint, without a full and complete understanding of the legal status of our lot. We spent the last four months in turmoil dealing with this issue, trying to set the record straight, while spending lots of money on legal fees to overturn this parking ban and convince Mr. Cataldo and the Zoning Board of Appeals that our lot was grandfathered under state law.”

     Likewise a building permit issued to Michael Tuomi of Pleasant Street was later withdrawn based on a neigbor’s complaint and then reinstated months later by the Zoning Board of Appeals. In reviewing the buidling permit the ZBA commented that the Building Permit had been withdrawn on a flimsy excuse. The several-month delay cost this homeowner thousands in addtional interest and construction costs. This is yet another example of how arbitrary, narrow decisions can unreasonably burden a resident.

    John Reilly summed up some of the arguments for much more careful zoning enforcement in a story in last week’s edition of the Herald saying, “In our opinion, banning us from parking our own registered cars on our own property was an over-reach of zoning enforcement authority. Why didn’t Mr. Cataldo research the status of our lot before issuing the parking ban?  Why wasn’t there any effort to come up with a temporary solution allowing us to park there until our lot’s legal status was clear? Why was another homeowner allowed to park on their lot when we were not?”

    It seems logical that adverse rulings, rulings that can be seen as punitive, should be avoided where possible. We believe that a reasonable compromise between disagreeing individuals via common-sense discussion and arbitration can avoid most such nasty public spats. This approach requires a Building Inspector/Zoning Enforcement Officer who works to resolve difficult issues amicably.

    There are occasional misapplications of power and process in all human organizations - whether business, non-profits or government. But when a series of poor judgments repeat, forming a distinct pattern, a careful look is needed. If after a careful look, a problem is identified, a plan should be formulated to fix it. 

   In our view, just such a pattern of poor judgment is being revealed in the town’s Building Department and Zoning Enforcement function. In most cases, there are ways to enforce the bylaws with a reasonable flexibility and willingness hile considering the overall public good, without fomenting unnecesssary cost and problems. 

   There is a need for a better customer-focused approach to dealing with the public here, a need to reestablish a respectful, non-adversarial approach to solving most zoning conflicts.  

  We are not sure whose responsibility it is to refocus the building inspection/zoning enforcement function. But, if there are no signs of improvement, the Select Board should use their executive and investigatory powers to get this department functioning in a way that is in the best interests of the town and its residents, insisting on upholding our bylaws, but with a leavening of reasonable mercy.

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