I have been a vocal opponent of the MX zone change because it will change the character of Middletown by bringing high-volume, high-traffic, drive-through restaurants and retail to neighborhoods where they haven't existed before. I wrote this commentary the day after the March 13 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting but waited to publish it so that I'd be sure it wasn't fueled solely by anger. I also had the opportunity to watch the video of the meeting again, and my opinion hasn't changed.
--> At the February 27 Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, proponents of the now-adopted MX special exception change, spoke repeatedly about the faith they had in Commissioners to make the "right" decision. I guess that worked out for them two weeks later on March 13. The rest of us may be on the road to losing our religion when it comes to the democratic process in our little town. For two meetings in a row, hundreds of people opposed to the change packed Council Chambers. At the first, forty spoke passionately and cogently about the looming change. At the second, they sat disconsolately as the Commission, directed by our town planner, bumbled their way through the creation of a frankenzone (available now for public view on the P&Z website). As a group, they seemed not to be aware of their duty, their own zoning code or of Robert's Rules of Order. The chairman frequently appeared befuddled by his fellow commissioners, by the tangle of amendment pasted upon amendment and by his very duty to run an orderly meeting. Dozens of my neighbors have asked me to try to explain how an elected board could so recklessly ignore their sworn responsibility to represent the rights, health and safety of residents by accepting a custom-constructed special exception designed to trample landowner rights, create health hazards and promote traffic gridlock and risk to pedestrians. Such an explanation would need to defy logic. The amendments to the original amendment were a carefully-constructed set of misdirections to allow a zoning sleight of hand. The new amendments were designed to appear as though commissioners addressed community concerns, without really doing so. This approach allowed them to look residents in the eye while they offered nothing new: - We will protect historical buildings, but only those on a list which does not include those buildings which stand in the way of Centerplan's development. - We will direct traffic on and off the state highway, even though in previous meetings it has been stated that the state DOT will be unlikely to grant such access. In which case traffic will flow, heavily, down side streets. - We will create parking pods instead of one big lot, but those pods can still be placed between the street and the building, just like they are in all strip malls. - We will prevent the horrible rise of used car lots, ambulance garages, ugly cinderblock buildings, and gas stations, except, that the new code doesn't give commissioners any further authority to do any of that. - We will retain the authority to judge developments case by case, unless the development just so happens to fit the prescripts of the special exception. - We will allow the public to comment at every future hearing on a special exception. Unfortunately, residents have now seen how easy it is for the Commission to disregard public opinion. Commissioner Emery proposed several exceptions which would have protected neighbors, but found her exceptions blocked by the town planner and her fellow commissioners. She suggested: - Let's take some time, vote this down now, and write some good code, and they responded that it was their right to offer on-the-spot amendments. - Let's add some controls on air pollution for the health of residents, and they responded that it would be too complicated, and difficult, and they'd have to do some research and write some meaningful standards, and besides, air pollution comes from Hartford and New Haven and Danbury. - Let's limit business hours and they responded that such restrictions were too limiting, and that business hours should be considered on a case-by-case basis. - Let's change the minimum frontage and building size and they responded by making required frontage smaller, but could not, and did not, offer any evidence in design or usage why such an alteration made any sense. The final vote, obscured as it was in a cloud of mumbles and confusion, was disappointing, but not surprising. Most commissioners appeared to have their minds made up before they entered the room. The amendments that planning staff added to the original special exception amendment, were delivered at the last minute, and while it made substantial changes to the language of the original application, it was not offered for public inspection, or public hearing at any point during the proceedings. The vote to accept the amended amendment came before the new language was ever read out loud, even once, in the public meeting, or into the public record. It came after a two-week break between hearing and vote during which commissioners concocted language (a knowledgeable lawyer called it a “Trojan Horse”) which would allow them to defend their acceptance of the Centerplan-authored code and state publically that it was the best thing for the families and children of Middletown. The vote came after dozens of well-prepared residents offered testimony in opposition to the MX change, and then had their testimony dismissed as less valid than the support some commissioners cited in private phone calls, letters and conversations with unidentified proponents of the plan. What now? You can help. Call zoning commissioners today, and ask them to try to explain what happened. Take notes. You can attend the next Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, when a proposal to limit the uses of ID Zone buildings (part of the MX zone), will be proposed. You can also contribute to a fund to offset legal fees associated with an appeal of the MX zone change. Write a check to Jennifer and Jared Proto, 390 High St., Middletown. You can vote. Half of these P&Z seats will be up for election this November. Remember the names of commissioners who voted against the public good. It's our town, and I don't know about you, but I'm not prepared to cede control to an influential developer with deep pockets.