The Little Fire District that Could

Front Page / Jul. 24, 2011 2:06pm EDT

By Sandy Vondrasek

A story in last week’s Herald made widely public, for the first time, the fact that Randolph Fire District #1 (RFD1) in Randolph Center had enacted its own sign ordinance earlier this year, and is now exploring other zoning initiatives.

With the adoption of the RFD1 sign ordinance, anyone seeking to erect a new sign in the fire district needs to get two sign permits, one from the Town of Randolph and one from the fire district.

This week The Herald looks a little more closely at the ordinance itself and how it was adopted, and at some of the mandated requirements of a fire district.

It didn’t come as a surprise to long-time Randolph Center resident and historian Mim Herwig that the Randolph Fire District #1 (RFD1) has the power to enact zoning.

“I knew about the charter longer than anyone,” she said last week.

Its 1939 charter grants a surprisingly wide range of powers to the fire district, which is, in fact, a water district. Its member/users include 50 residences and three businesses—a car repair shop, a general store, and a dentist’s office—in Randolph Center. Most of VTC’s acreage lies within the boundaries of the fire district, but the college has its own water source.

Herwig was surprised, though, to learn last week that the fire district had adopted a 28-page sign ordinance in the last six months.

Herwig said she never saw a posted notice in Randolph Center, never noticed a legal warning in a newspaper, and she doesn’t remember getting a call from the chair of the district’s governing board (the Prudential Committee) in advance of the Nov. 11, 2010 meeting at which the ordinance was voted.

There was indeed notice of the meeting, according to Carolyn Lumbra, chair of the Prudential Committee. She said a notice was published in the Times Argus and copies of the ordinance were posted “at the post office and store for weeks.” She personally called fire district members prior to the meeting, Lumbra added.

The fire district has warned at least some other meetings—for example, its annual meeting this May and a special meeting in August 2010—in The Herald of Randolph.

There is apparently nothing legally amiss with using a variety of publications. According to Deputy Secretary of State Brian Leven, fire districts are not required, as are towns, to designate an official newspaper for the publication of warnings.

However, Leven said, “I think generally there is no question that fire district documents, or records produced by its governing body, are public record.”

The RFD1 charter itself states that “No ordinance passed by [the Prudential] Committee shall be enforceable until notice thereof has been posted in four public places within the bounds of said fire district for a period of two weeks, and published in a newspaper … having a current circulation within said district.”

The Ordinance

RFD1’s sign ordinance was drafted by Dan LaLumia, a part-time resident of Randolph Center.

The ordinance borrows quite a bit of language from Randolph’s 16-page ordinance but differs in substantial ways, as well.

Randolph’s sign ordinance, for example, lists nine purposes. The RFD1 ordinance includes all nine—with language slightly modified—and adds a new one.

The added language states that a purpose of the RFD1 ordinance is “To restrict the use of unnecessary, undesirable, offensive, obnoxious, frivolous, or unsightly signs that are considered inappropriate or incongruent with the unique historic and aesthetic character of Randolph Center within the geographical limits of Randolph Fire District #1.”

The ordinance is extremely restrictive when it comes to signage in areas of the fire district listed on federal and state historic district registers—which is most of the fire district. In those areas, “no signs shall be located within direct sight of significant historic sites or landmarks,” the ordinance states. The restriction includes sections of the VTC campus that are in the fire district and “visible from … historically-sensitive areas.”

VTC Electric Sign

Both LaLumia and Lumbra told The Herald that the erection of a sign on the VTC campus last fall—one that displays programmable, LED-lighted messages—motivated them to push for a sign ordinance. RFD1’s sign ordinance forbids 22 kinds of signs, including LED/electronic signs.

According to VTC Dean of Administration Jack Daniels, the sign in question was a gift from a graduating class of a few years ago. The sign did not need a permit from the Town of Randolph, as it is considered a directional sign. Daniels said an inspector from the Vermont Agency of Transportation approved its location, at the edge of a parking lot and set back about 300 feet from Randolph Center’s Main Street.

Daniels said VTC officials did not learn about the RFD1 sign ordinance that now bans such signs until “it was a done deal.”

“I can be accused of not seeing the legal notice,” he commented.

LaLumia said he consulted with Randolph Zoning Administrator Mardee Sanchez as he drafted the ordinance.

When asked if she thought the ordinance was enforceable and legally approved, Sanchez said she had “not delved into the legality of the document whatsoever.”

“It’s not really my place to challenge that,” she said.

However, Sanchez said it was she who put the RFD1 sign ordinance on the Town of Randolph website, at the request of the fire district officers.

Planner Chris Sargent of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission noted that when it comes to writing ordinances, “you have to be really careful where you tread.”

Ordinances, he said, can control design and location criteria, “but can’t restrict in terms of language.”

Care is also needed, he said, to ensure that decisions to grant or deny permits have “a basis in fact.” Signs can’t be dismissed because someone feels they are frivolous or unnecessary, he said.

“You’ve got to have a reason, so that someone can look and understand how you are making your decision,” he said.

Sargent said he had never before heard of “double layers” of ordinances or zoning bylaws in the TRORC region.

Two Views

LaLumia told The Herald in a July 12 interview that he considers the RFD1 sign ordinance “a stand-alone, independent document—that’s the way it is drafted; that’s the intent.”

However, as reported in last week’s Herald, Randolph Zoning Administrator Mardee Sanchez and Atty. Paul Gillies of Montpelier, an expert in municipal law, agreed that the fire district remains a part of Randolph and subject to its bylaws, ordinances, and, for that matter, taxes.

And, the RFD1 sign ordinance itself, in section 105, states that “nothing in this ordinance shall negate the need” for applicants to get any necessary permits from the town.

After formally enacting the sign ordinance in January, the Prudential Committee (consisting of Lumbra, Mike Regan, and Randy Clark) appointed LaLumia to serve as the fire district’s sign officer.

In a recent interview, LaLumia acknowledged that he had also drafted a “municipal plan” and a “zoning overlay” that are being circulated among fire district members for review. However, both he and Lumbra said they felt these documents were not public records at this time.

Who Can Vote?

LaLumia told The Herald he considers himself a voting member of the fire district, since he is a property owner there, but it appears he is mistaken about his status.

LaLumia, who lives most of the year in New Jersey, confirmed that he is not a registered voter in the Town of Randolph. Therefore, according to both the charter and state law governing fire districts, LaLumia is not entitled to vote in the fire district.

RFD1’s charter states that only those “qualified by law to vote in town meetings and who have resided for one year within the limits of said fire district shall be entitled to vote.”

Dana Dean, clerk of RFD1, said that the district does not maintain a voter checklist.

There is no requirement to do so in the charter itself, and Deputy Secretary of State Leven said last week that nothing in state law mandates a fire district checklist, either.

“There’s no checklist,” affirmed Prudential Committee member Mike Regan. “Everybody knows everybody. We certainly know who lives here and who doesn’t.”

Could VTC students or employees who live on campus year-round vote?

“I do not know,” Regan responded. “I do know they never have.”

Managing Water

Regan explained that the college and the fire district work together very collaboratively when it comes to water resources.

“We have our own spring; the college has its own well,” he said.

“The two sources both pump to the water tower. We both use the water, and the State of Vermont looks at the water system as one,” he added.

VTC is not a fire district “user,” but both the college and the fire district “use the same water pipes and are totally interconnected.”

“We help each other if there is a problem,” Regan noted. “If we’re down, they pump extra water for us, and we do the same for them. I personally have a very good working relationship with the college.”

There was, however, a conflict over who owns the water tower a few years ago. The fire district took the issue to court after VTC received an Act 250 permit allowing cell phone antennae to be mounted on the tower. A judge has since decided that the tower belongs to VTC, LaLumia said.

Although Mim Herwig feels strongly about the need to preserve the beauty and historical character of the village she loves, she questions whether zoning and ordinances are the right tools. She has some other ideas (see her letter to the editor in this week’s Herald) and she said she supports a “positive” approach to the historic preservation task.

Herwig thinks her late husband, who served for many years on the fire district’s Prudential Committee, would not be enthusiastic about the district’s recent venture into zoning activities, either.

“Wes always said a fire district is the lowest form of a municipality,” she said with a smile.

Still, Herwig added, a municipality it is, and as such, the fire district needs to carefully fulfill all requirements related to meetings, voting, and public notice that are required by state law and the charter itself.

 

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