Scotland has an ordinance that allows our zoning enforcement officer (ZEO) to issue a citation to residents who do not comply with zoning regulations, and who ignore orders to remedy their noncompliance. The ordinance gives the town the right to assess fines of up to $150/day. It also gives the resident the right to appeal the citation to a hearing officer appointed by the Board of Selectmen.
The ordinance has been on the books since the town meeting of 2006. It had its first use this year, when the ZEO issued a citation to a landowner on Cemetery Road for various violations of the regulations, including staging public events without a permit and running an illegal campground, that remained in operation for at least a month after a cease-and-desist order was issued. The resident appealed the citation, and the hearing was held on November 29.
The Board of Selectmen has appointed two Hearing Officials. One of them has become a town employee, and while the ordinance does not forbid every town worker from presiding over a hearing, it seemed prudent to ask the other officer, Bart Laws, to preside. The hearing was attended by two residents, and testimony was given under oath by Melissa Gil, the ZEO, and Larkin Trainor, the landowner. I also attended to provide information and the perspective of the town government.
The ZEO offered evidence that Ms. Trainor had conducted the illegal activities. She had photos and narrative accounts gathered by herself and by neighbors. Of greatest concern was a bus that was being converted into an RV, in which a family had been living since summer. It was located close to a property line, and a generator had been running 24/7, creating a noise nuisance for the neighbor. She said that while Ms. Trainor had shut off the generator at her request, she had also ignored her repeated requests to close the campground and stop using the bus as a residence. She had also ignored orders to stop advertising the campsites and running events. Ms. Gil showed that as late as October 25, a month after the cease-and-desist order had been issued, there were online reviews of the campground. The bus remains in place near the property line. She told the Hearing Official that calculated from the date of the violation notice, the fines amounted to nearly $7000.
Ms. Trainor did not deny having conducted the illegal activities. She said she had been confused by the regulations, and did not know that she could not stage events. She pointed out that the family in the bus had a young child, that she could not just put them out on the street, and that it took a few weeks after the order was issued for them to find a place to live. The family is gone, she added, but the bus remains, and there is no reason she can’t park a vehicle there. She also said that she had stopped operating the campground, but the website on which it was advertised had not removed her ad as she had requested upon receiving the cease-and-desist order. She said that she was in the process of applying for the permits to operate the businesses she would like to have on her property, which include an agriculture education program for which she has already established a nonprofit corporation. And she told the Hearing Officer that a fine in the thousands of dollars would be a substantial hardship on her.
I told the Hearing Official that I had fielded numerous complaints from neighbors regarding the activities. I also said that some of what Ms. Trainor wanted to do, excluding the campground, seemed compatible with the town’s interests, and that other landowners, notably Hillyland Vineyards, were already conducting similar activities. But those landowners had permits to operate, which meant that neighbors and other interested parties had had a chance to weigh in. I also said that Ms. Trainor was advertising for other events, including a wreath-making gathering scheduled for next week, for which she was charging an admission fee, and that while this was not the subject of the citation, it was bound to attract more complaints, and should be considered as part of any disposition. I said that the Town had no interest in exacting a huge fine from Ms. Trainor, but that we had expended funds on enforcement and legal support, and we needed to be compensated.
Mr. Laws determined that Ms. Trainor had violated the zoning regulations and ignored the orders to stop. He assessed a fine of $500. He said that the fine could be further reduced to $300 if, within two weeks, Ms. Trainor moved the bus away from her property line, took down all advertising for non-permitted activities, and stopped operating them. Ms. Trainor agreed to the fine and conditions. She has until December 15 to comply.
Ms. Trainor expressed regret for the trouble this had created with her neighbors, and concern that even though she owns fifteen acres, she may not be free to do what she would like with her property. She said she was concerned that even if she comes into compliance, her neighbors might continue to complain about her anyway. That, of course, is possible, but I reminded her that people in Scotland tend to believe that people should be free to do what they like on their land. We’re a live-and-let-live town, and that if she can operate her businesses according to the zoning laws, there should not be a problem.
I think this process was a success, and I am glad we have this ordinance. Previously, zoning matters have ended up in court, where expenditures can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars, costs that are often assessed against the landowners. By keeping things local, we were able to make a deal that, should Ms. Trainor comply, will result in a de-escalation of what has become a controversial issue in her neighborhood. It may also lead to the establishment of a legal business on her property that, rather than being a nuisance to her neighbors, can be an asset to her neighborhood and to the whole town.
I’d like to give special thanks to Bart Laws, who educated himself on our zoning regulations and related law, and conducted the hearing (as a volunteer) with fairness and kindness to all involved.