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How Big Is Too Big? Dorset Grapples With Zoning Question

It’s the classic Vermont conundrum: how to protect the picturesque quality of a community yet promote economic development? Right now it’s a debate that’s playing out in Dorset.

Steven Bryant walks across the grassy lawn of the Barrows House, an historic 19th century inn on six acres in Dorset.

He points to a large open space between several smaller outbuildings where he hopes to build a new 4,500-square-foot event barn. “[What] we’re looking at now is what would be the proposed location, with the narrow end facing this way," he says.

The inn currently uses tents to host larger weddings – something Bryant says is more costly, less environmentally friendly and not practical in the winter. "At one level it’s an insurance policy,” says Bryant. “Building a permanent structure allows us to have a more predictable business model during peak times and increases the chances of off season winter business as well as mid week corporate events," he says. 

Bryant feels the new barn will blend well with the white clapboard inn, one of many elegant old buildings on a street filled with grand porches and stately columns.

But others in town aren’t convinced. And many, like resident Rich Latour, are furious that town officials want to change zoning limits on new construction in the area – expanding the current limit of 2,000 square feet to 4,500.

“You look around and you think it’s absolutely beautiful,” says Latour. “You know, what is one new modern building going to do to the town? But the zoning changes will stay in effect and he says you have to consider the worse-case scenario. Eventually it will get built out the way Disneyland was built out,” adds Latour. “If want to live in a historic area, you have to leave it just the way it is.”

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Steven Bryant, one of the owners of the Barrows House Inn in Dorset holds the plans for a 4,500-square-foot event barn he hopes to build on the 6-acre site.

Latour and others gathered enough signatures to bypass the select board and put the proposed zoning bylaws, which impact four distinct parts of Dorset, before voters.

Carol Donnelly says she and her family moved to Dorset 10 years ago to get away from the very things she fears the new zoning changes would allow, like self-storage units and other large commercial structures that she thinks will detract from the character of the town. “Yeah, I would not like to see the zoning allow the larger buildings, she says. “Perhaps that’s naive to think that something can stay the same. I don’t want to see Dorset stagnate.”

But those in favor of the changes believe that’s exactly what will happen if they don’t provide more flexibility to local businesses, many of which they say were hurt by the recent recession.

An architectural drawing of a proposed 4,500-square-foot event barn. Owners of the Barrows House Inn say the permanent structure would be more economical and energy efficient than a tent and help attract more year-round business.

Sara Buckley, a local real estate agent, says home sales in Dorset have finally rebounded from a low in 2010, but she says prices in the area haven’t budged in a decade.  

She says the central historic village is key to Dorset’s housing market and in the last few years she says there have been a lot of improvements there. She cites a newly renovated general store, a successful art gallery and more support for the Dorset Theater.

"If you want to live in a historic area, you have to leave it just the way it is." - Rich Latour, Dorset resident

Pointing across the street to The Barrows House, she says five years ago it was an eye sore that was falling apart. She says the new owners, including Steven Bryant, have turned it around beautifully and she feels the town should support local businesses that are part of the village’s renaissance.

Brooks Addington, a member of the Dorset Planning Commission, agrees. “When I look at Dorset, there’s an exclusivity factor that people love, that they want to maintain the quaintness, we all do. But the businesses do need to survive,” says Addington. “We do need to have people coming and spending money in stores, going to art galleries or the theater, and staying at the inns, or there won’t be any people in the future or community in the future. So there has to be a balance.”

"When I look at Dorset, there's an exclusivity factor that people love, that they want to maintain the quaintness, we all do. But the businesses do need to survive." - Brooks Addington, member of the Dorset Planning Commission

Addington points out the allowable footprint is only one of many criteria the town would consider when approving new construction. He says he hopes voters will take the time to come to an informational meeting Monday evening before casting their votes on Tuesday.

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