Barre board sides with zoning official on motel fightMark Collier / Staff Photo
The Budget Inn on North Main Street in Barre is the subject of a zoning dispute over how part of the motel is used.
BARRE — A motel that Richard J. Wobby Sr. opened under a different name in 1957 was the subject of a potentially precedent-setting ruling by the city’s Development Review Board late last week.
Theirs probably won’t be the last word on the subject, but board members came down squarely on the side of their zoning administrator, who earlier this year cited Budget Inn owner David Singh for violating a never-enforced provision of the city’s zoning ordinance.
In what is being trumpeted as a test case, Mike Miller, the city’s director of planning, zoning and inspection services, claims a three-year-old provision of the city’s zoning ordinance prohibits Singh from turning motel rooms into what he views as undersized and ill-equipped apartments.
After listening to 45 minutes of testimony and briefly deliberating behind closed doors late last week, the board affirmed Miller’s finding.
In doing so, members flatly rejected the arguments offered by Singh and his lawyer, Paul Gillies, and set the stage for an anticipated appeal to the state’s Environmental Court.
If the argument advanced by Gillies last week is any indication, the appeal — if there is one — won’t focus on the definitions of words like “primarily” and “transient” as city officials expected.
In his written notice of appeal, Singh took issue with Miller’s interpretation of an ordinance that defines a motel as a structure that “contains sleeping and living accommodations used primarily for transient occupancy to the general public on a daily basis for compensation.”
Singh argued that “primarily” doesn’t mean “exclusively” and “transient” isn’t defined anywhere in an ordinance that created a new classification and regulations for “extended stay hotels and motels.”
On Thursday Gillies said while there is a case to be made for that semantic debate, he doesn’t believe it is necessary because the city’s new rules don’t apply to the motel that Wobby opened as the Heiress in 1957 and Singh bought — several owners and two name changes later — six years ago.
“I don’t think you reach that if you stop at the door marked nonconforming use,” Gillies said, arguing that the Budget Inn’s practice of renting rooms to some patrons on an extended basis is a “pre-existing non-conforming use.”
“The city cannot begin to enforce this kind of regulation until either there’s an abandonment of a year … some enlargement, or a change of use,” he said, suggesting that simply isn’t the case with regard to the Budget Inn.
Asked whether a change in names, owners, and even patrons over the years would affect his opinion, Gillies said it would not.
“That would be like saying the grocery store changes every time they run out of tomatoes,” Gillies said. “This is the nature of a motel. People come in. They check out. Some people stay longer. Some people, who have no other place to go, (stay) because they are in town for three months or six weeks (and) they’re not going to be able to get an apartment.”
Gillies urged board members to focus on what they were told was an uninterrupted use that dates back decades.
“Uses, as with structures, have a special advantage in being allowed to remain until something happens that triggers the jurisdiction of the city,” he said, suggesting that hadn’t happened
“What’s in place stays in place,” he said.
Not according to Miller, who argued the ordinance that was on the books before the 2010 change, while admittedly ambiguous, was in his view “more restrictive.”
Under that decade-old version of the ordinance, motels and hotels were defined as: “… A use of land for the provision of temporary sleeping for travelers.”
Miller maintained some of the rooms Singh rents, including one that has been occupied by the same person for seven years, is not “temporary.”
“The previous illegal use of the property would not validate the current illegal use of the property,” he said. “The grandfathered status applies only to ‘legal’ non-conforming uses.”
Miller based his analysis on the definition that was included in an ordinance that was adopted in 2003 and replaced one that had been on the books since 1973.
Barre’s first zoning ordinance was adopted in 1950 — seven years before the Heiress Motel opened. That ordinance was first amended in 1968, overhauled in 1973 and again in 2003. It has been amended twice since then. The board heard no testimony about how, or even if, motels were defined in the earliest versions of the ordinance, though Rob Halpert — the lawyer the city hired to pinch-hit for City Attorney Oliver Twombly — told the board that could be a factor if the decision is appealed.
“In order for this use to qualify as a non-conforming use … it had to be a valid use under the old regulations,” Halpert said, without publicly specifying which version of the regulations the board should focus on to make that determination, given the vintage of the motel and the city’s history with zoning.
Halpert was hired to advise the board due to a potential conflict of interest stemming from Twombly’s interest in the former Central Hotel, now Downtown Rentals. Miller has said that pending the outcome of Singh’s appeal, Twombly is among those who could face a similar enforcement action.
Board members were told by Singh that renting some motel rooms on an extended basis is a “common business practice” in Barre and elsewhere.
Singh, who was never cited under the earlier version of the ordinance, said it was also a practice employed by the inn’s two previous owners and objected to what he characterized as the city’s attempt to force him to comply with an ordinance that didn’t exist when he bought the property.
“You’re forcing a change of use on me when I don’t want to have an … ‘extended stay motel,’” he said, referring to new regulations that require the installation of kitchenettes in motel rooms continuously occupied by the same person for more than 30 days.
Gillies argued the North Main Street inn qualified as a pre-existing nonconforming use, but said even if it didn’t, the long-standing nature of the operation barred the city from pursuing an enforcement action against his client.
“If it has been that way and inconsistent with your zoning for more than 15 years, the city is foreclosed from enforcing it,” he said.
Gillies and Singh left the hearing while the board was deliberating and attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.
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