Budget Inn owner claims exemption in zoning fight
BARRE — Accused of violating a never-enforced provision of the city’s zoning ordinance, the owner of a North Main Street motel has appealed the Development Review Board’s decision in the potentially precedent-setting case.
The two-page appeal that Montpelier attorney Paul Gillies filed on behalf of Budget Inn owner David Singh challenges the board’s conclusion in early April that the motel’s practice of renting some rooms to patrons who occasionally stay far longer than 30 days violates a 2010 provision of the city’s zoning ordinance.
At worst, Gillies contends, the 1950s-era motel is a pre-existing nonconforming use and is exempt from the new restrictions.
“(The Budget Inn’s) practice of allowing residents to remain longer than 30 days was in place for many years before the city adopted regulations requiring ‘primarily’ transient occupants at the motel,” he wrote.
That assertion has local zoning officials scouring records to ascertain what regulations were in place when the inn opened as the Heiress Motel in 1957, and whether any subsequent amendments to the ordinance might come into play.
Barre adopted zoning in 1950, and a cursory review of that old ordinance, which was first amended in 1968 and overhauled in 1973, revealed that motels weren’t even defined. Hotels were: as “a building occupied as a temporary or permanent abiding place of individuals who are lodged with or without meals.”
But length of stay clearly was not a concern in the 1950 ordinance — unlike in the arguably ambiguous language in subsequent revisions, including those adopted in 2003 and 2010.
That probably explains why the Central Hotel — now Downtown Rentals — was openly advertising apartments and “rooms for permanent guests” when the Heiress — now the Budget Inn — opened in 1957. City officials have suggested the Budget Inn is a test case that could lead to similar enforcement against other establishments, including Downtown Rentals, which is owned by the city’s attorney, Oliver Twombly.
Citing Twombly’s potential conflict of interest, the city retained Montpelier-based lawyer Rob Halpert to handle the Budget Inn case.
Regardless of how the Budget Inn appeal is resolved, going after Twombly could prove to be a reach because the Central Hotel was renting rooms long before zoning was first adopted in Barre. A 1932 advertisement for the Pearl Street hotel boasted: “well furnished, pleasant rooms” while promising “moderate prices.”
In the appeal that Gillies filed with the Vermont Environmental Court on Singh’s behalf, he doesn’t agree the Budget Inn’s operation violates the latest zoning language in Barre, notwithstanding testimony that at least one of the motel’s patrons has lived there for seven years.
The 2010 rewrite defines “motel” as the “use of a structure which … contains living and sleeping accommodations used primarily for transient occupancy to the general public on a daily basis for compensation.”
Though the ordinance doesn’t define “transient,” city officials have said it means less than 30 days and suggest establishments that want to rent for longer-term stays can do so by meeting the new requirements for “extended stay motels.”
Singh has argued he shouldn’t have to change his operation because he doesn’t believe that’s what the new ordinance says.
In his appeal, Gillies indicated that whether the Budget Inn is “primarily for transients” is a question for the court.
Specifically, Gillies has asked the court to determine whether “the few units that are rented longer than 30 days, as compared to units that are rented for 30 days or less, are sufficient in number to justify a defense to the claim that the (Budget) Inn is not in accord with present Barre City zoning bylaws.”
Gillies has also argued that if there is a violation, the statute of limitations for enforcing it has expired under both state law and the city’s own ordinance.
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