Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Well, Who Ought To Be Writing Zoning Code?

Ed McKeon is a former Middletown Eye editor, and resident of Pearl Street.  He is challenging the expansion of the MX Zone, and recommended that former residences in the ID Zone be regulated as a residential zone with adaptive reuse allowed.  This is an opinon piece.

It was a surprise to me.  When I asked a staffer at the town's planning office about who could apply for a zoning change, he told me, "Anybody who pays the $160."

Sure enough, I looked through the regulations, and it was true.  However, when I handed in my application, it was rejected.  I was told I was not a landowner in the ID zone in which I was requesting the change.  When I protested that the regulations don't make the distinction about owning land in a zone, the staffer handed me a sheaf of "legal precedent" and suggested I find an ID landowner to co-sign the application.  I did, and now I can play the role of "zone-maker."

Still, I'm not completely comfortable in that role.

Sure, I submitted the application because I wanted to give neighbors some protection from developers who want to change their residential zone into a commercial zone.  And, in the end, the Planning & Zoning Commission would have to pass judgment on my suggested changes.

But does it make sense that any resident with a notion to change code, should be able to?

Worse still, should any developer, who's looking for an advantage for their particular development be able to write zoning language?

I think the answer is "no" in both cases.

The regulation ought to be changed.  I can't think of anything more counterproductive to good town planning than to have developers playing the role of zone-maker.  And if one developer is allowed to rewrite code, imagine the precedent that's being set.  Imagine the kind of zoning code we'd have.

I  think the regulation needs to be changed.  What's more, I think our entire zoning code needs reformation.

The often-contradictory Plan of Development is a toothless document without meaningful zoning code, and the town planner has admitted so himself.

Leslie Creane, Hamden Town Planner
Four years ago, Hamden's town planner Leslie Creane was received enthusiastically when she made a presentation to the P&Z about her town's transformation from use-based zoning to form-based zoning, and the remarkably adaptable SmartCode.

She made a few things clear.  New code should not be written without lots of public input.  They call this process "charette" and its a process designed specifically to get many residents involved in the process of defining what their town is, and what it will be.

She also noted that the zoning must be "coherent."   Because it's a zone based on the form of buildings, instead of the function, one neighborhood must relate to the one next to it, and so on.  You don't write this code in bits and pieces.  You create form-based code for the entire city, so that neighborhoods are integrated (and by the way,  pedestrian-friendly).

So, to cut and paste quasi-form-based principles into a proposed zone change, for a slice of a single, small zone in a city, goes against the entire idea of form-based zoning.

Yet, that's what will be proposed at tonight's Planning and Zoning Commission, as the lawyer endorsing an MX Zone change will surely claim that because it's "form-based" it's better.  He's likely to get a ringing endorsement from the town's planning department.

The principle of form-based zoning is a good one.  But piecemeal form-based zoning, particularly zoning designed by a developer to meet his needs, is not an auspicious beginning.

For this reason, I  urge the Planning and Zoning Commission to vote "no" on the MX Zone change.

The Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission meets Wednesday, February 27, 7 PM, in City Hall's Council Chambers to deliberate two significant zoning proposals which could affect Middletown neighborhoods.


Casual Observer said...

Anyone can propose a change, but only the Commission can adopt it, or change it, or turn it down. Times change, tastes change, and new issues come up. It makes perfect sense for anyone who encounters an issue which isn't addressed to their satisfaction in the code to propose a change, thereby asking the Commission to give it consideration. These changes always require public hearings, with legal notices, so any change or new reg will always see the light of day. And there will typically be an analysis by the City Planner, including how it relates to the adopted Plan of Development, which by the way, is actually pretty good. It gave us the police station on Main Street, with a restaurant on most of the ground floor, which is probably most responsible for the downtown revival.
So to give people the idea that "anyone with a notion can change the code", or worse, a (nefarious) "developer", is disingenuous, and simply not true, and is only meant to stir people up and get an angry, misled mob out to the hearing tonight.

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Casual observer:

I beg to differ, and you can tell from my column.

I don't agree with you on the Plan of Development. It's a hodgepodge poorly written with concepts and principles that constantly contradict one another.

I'm not sure what you consider giving us the Police Station - the Plan of Development? The current one wasn't authored until two years ago.

I think you're right about the placement of the PD in the downtown revival.

I don't think developers ought to be authoring zoning language, period. There's an inherent conflict of interest.

And if anyone's been misled, it's not "the mob." It's the folk listening to the developer and the planner.

BTW, who's being inflammatory, referring to residents as "misled mob?" I see you're not a fan of democracy.

Casual O said...

The mixed-use police station was the result of the thinking that went into the prior iteration of the POD, attributable to the P&Z of that era and the City Planner, Bill Warner.

Developers making a proposed text change is not a "conflict of interest", it IS in their interest, but it is then vetted by all.

And I am the true fan of democracy, which means giving people all the accurate information possible for them to come to a rational, informed decision. Distortion of the facts by the few who control the media, our two local newspapers in particular, is manipulative and truly anti-democratic.

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Casual Observer

The POD is swiss cheese. Full of holes, and prone to contradicting itself on every other page. It's no wonder that proponents on both sides of the argument are able to quote it chapter and verse.

A conflict of interest arises when someone uses the law to give advantage to themselves, and refuses to admit it.

I'm not sure the Constitution says anything about "accurate information" but it does champion freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Once again, a developer who denies he has a plan, when he's already proposed a plan, is truly manipulative. Because you don't like my opinion, doesn't mean it isn't factual or wrong.

BTW, can you still be a Casual Observer if you testified in favor of the development?

Anonymous said...

Why is it a conflict if a developer has an interest in it supports it but not a conflict when a resident who will be impacted is against it?

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

(Not so)Casual Observer:

The difference is money. When you are going to make a huge profit from a change in the law, that's a conflict. When you are trying to protect your neighborhood, that's citizenship.

And if you read my column, you'd realize that I believe a single resident, or developer, with a singular point of view, shouldn't be writing zoning code.