Thursday, March 14, 2013

Planning And Zoning Commission Abdicates Responsibility

The Planning and Zoning Commission last night voted unanimously to approve changes to the MX zone text. These changes open the door to high traffic restaurants, as long as these are accompanied by high traffic retail, or offices, or residences. These changes were originally proposed by a developer, Robert Landino, who wants to build a retail development opposite Wesleyan. The vote occurred before a series of amendments to the text change were well articulated. The lack of an open discussion and the apparent confusion of several commissioners left the large crowd of people puzzled. After the vote, the chair of the Commission, Richard Pelletier, turned to the Director of Planning and asked him, "Could you make clear what we just approved?"

A large and diverse turnout of informed residents
Even more people showed up than did for the original public hearing, the crowd included families with children living in neighborhoods that will be affected by the zoning change. The media turned out as well, reporters were there from Patch, Wesleying, The Press, and The Courant, as well as Channel 3 and Channel 61.

The residents in attendance were well informed about the zoning code and legal issues, and paid very close attention to the Commission's deliberations. At one point, when Chairman Richard Pelletier accepted an incorrect statement by Planning Director Bill Warner, Catherine Johnson, a resident of the Washington Street neighborhood, rose to her feet to raise a "point of order". Pelletier claimed she was introducing new information and tried to keep her from speaking, but he eventually admitted that Warner was wrong.

Warner's Words
When Commissioners arrived to the meeting, they found in front of them a series of changes to the original text submitted by Landino. These proposed changes were presented as a response to the extensive input during the public hearing, but they turned out to be the kind of "where possible" and "if available" statements that a developer's expert witnesses easily explain are not applicable to a particular development. Warner added a statement ostensibly to protect the historic urban residential character of the neighborhood. This could have been written by or for the developer, it simply stated that no "inventoried building" shall be demolished. None of the properties under contract to Landino are "inventoried", and thus the developer's plans for high-traffic restaurants are unaffected.

The only sustained objections by the commissioners to Warner's words actually made them even more favorable to the rampant conversion of single family homes into drive-through restaurants (as long as they have a one-room office, perhaps vacant, upstairs). Warner proposed changing the developer's request for a 15,000 square foot minimum building, with a 300 foot minimum frontage to a 7,500 square foot minimum with a 150 foot frontage. Commissioner Joyce Rossiter asked Warner to justify these numbers, "What's magical about these?" Beth Emery also suggested that since there was a minimum building size, it would also be reasonable to have a maximum building size.

The other commissioners did not see a need to think about Planning. Ken McClellan and Nick Fazzino suggested that there should be no guidelines at all on the building size, because the developer (not the Planning and Zoning Commission) should determine what is best.

The commissioners agreed to abdicate any control over the size of the buildings, without any further discussion.

Air quality: not our problem
Commissioner Emery raised the impact of the proposed text change on air quality, suggesting language that would require a developer to determine how much extra pollution would be created in the residential neighborhoods around a new high-traffic commercial development. None of the other commissioners were receptive to this, even though the city's Plan of Conservation and Development lists this as a principle that should guide all zoning code text.

Director Warner told the commissioners that pollution was complicated, hard to measure, and hard to enforce. The other commissioners agreed, McClellan said, "yeah, pollution is there," but since it comes from all over, he argued that the Commission should abdicate responsibility for air quality in Middletown.

"What the public doesn't realize"
Commissioner Dan Russo argued at length that the rights of property owners to maximize their sales price was of paramount importance, "You can't block someone from selling their property!" He did not make clear whether this was a response to a particular statement from someone opposed to the zoning code text change, or whether zoning code text should in general be guided by the short term maximum profit that can be made by property owners.

Russo tried to assuage any concerns that neighborhood residents might have, he listed 30 or 40 uses that are currently allowed in the MX zone. He spoke slowly and clearly to make sure that neighborhood residents understood that neighborhood land could be developed into a used car lot, an ambulance service, or a bank drive-through. Russo wanted the residents of the neighborhoods to believe that allowing new, high traffic uses into the zoning code would improve the residential, mixed use neighborhood.

The uses mentioned by Russo are only allowed by special exception. And after the meeting, Russo admitted that the new regulation will not increase the Commission's ability to regulate any of those uses that are currently allowed by special exception. The approved text opens the door to new, high traffic restaurants and retail, but does not in any way impact the already approved uses.

Astonishingly, this was news to the Chair of the Commission, Richard Pelletier. Pelletier told me after the meeting that he voted for the new zoning code text amendment under the impression that it would give the Commission more power to prevent used car lots and some of the other allowed uses.

"It's pretty much an automatic approval"
Emery suggested an amendment that would require businesses to restrict their hours of operation to 6AM to 11PM. Bill Warner expressed misgivings about this, suggesting language that would not be binding to developers. Ken McClellan reminded his fellow commissioners that they would have virtually no control over what is ultimately approved under this new code, pointing out that if a developer meets the special exception conditions, it is impossible to deny.

Emery's suggestion of restricted hours of operation was accepted by the Commissioners. When Warner stated that the commissioners were restricting hours only for the drive through, Pelletier agreed. Only when the audience expressed its disbelief, and Catherine Johnson raised a point of order, did the other commissioners correct Warner and Pelletier.

"What just happened?"
After the Commission voted, few in the room knew whether the vote was on Warner's amendments to the proposed text, on the commissioner's amendments, or on the text change as a whole. And although the language of Warner's amendments was prepared ahead of time, it was not clear which amendments had been altered or removed, and how that left the language of the text amendment. The motion to approve appeared to be for the text code change "as entered".

Thus, when the voting was done, none of the 150 residents reacted or rose to leave. It was only after Pelletier forged ahead with other Commission business that the crowd began to leave the room. While Pelletier  was interviewed by the TV cameras, a dazed and angry group of neighborhood residents milled in the lobby wondering how and why the Commission had failed to have any substantive discussion about city planning, and how lot and building sizes, drive-throughs, traffic and air quality affect a neighborhood community.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to read this but not surprised. Mayor Thornton wouldn't help us when NU decided to take our property without eminent domain- just said it was their land. City assessment workers wouldn't help us- we would still be taxed on almost 3 acres- but NU left us living on a half acre. We fought hard. Our savings to rebuild a fixer upper we bought were depleted. When this town has a business agenda- they don't care about the simple home owner.

Anonymous said...

oh put on your big boy pants and stop whining. you lost. deal with it. it was a 6-0 vote and you get another bite at the apple when the actual development is submitted.

Anonymous said...

That's a good question, Steve Devoto: What actually was the proposal which the P&Z Commission voted on and approved last night?

Karen Swartz said...

I am totally outraged by what happened last night. The back and forth about the amendments was difficult, practically impossible to follow, for the public and obviously for the Commissioners too. The amendments amounted to more substantive text than the original item. As Commissioner Emery suggested, this entire thing should have been rewritten and considered more carefully. The language that Director Warner added about inventoried historic properties was intentionally deceitful and was not provided to the Commissioners in advance. According to what Commissioner Emery said, she received the amendments only upon entering the room just before 7pm. It is very sad and shameful that a city leader would intentionally mislead the Commissioners and the public. Any reasonable person who was not afforded time to research this language would think that its intention was to prevent demolition of historic properties. What does it say about Director Warner that he would use this tactic? This is totally outrageous, a sad state of affairs, and a failure of the democratic process.

John Milardo said...

I always believed that government is supposed to work for the betterment of the people in their community. When the masses attend to "tell" their leaders what "they" want, and it is completely ignored, is a sad state of affairs.
Truth is the City is taking the side of an outside business concern who only cares about making a buck- and the City is only looking at bringing in tax revenue (making a buck). This is the stuff that makes people disllke and distrust goverment so much.

Anonymous said...

Karen, it's also a denial of due process and fundamental justice, and therefore appealable.

Anonymous said...

Would have been nice if the City Attorney had shown up. Also, why are Rositter and Pellitier chairs anyway if they have to ask what is going on?

Anonymous said...

Where is Deborah Kleckowski's opinion when we need it?

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon 11:13. To Jen and Ed and anyone else involved, please make a public announcement where we can send money to support this appeal. I don't live near High and Washington Streets, but as a Middletown resident, I feel your pain and disgust and want to help.

Bill Wilson said...

That's the one thing I don't understand by some of the comments here. You do realize that any project will have to go before Planning and Zoning with a public hearing where citizens can talk about their concerns one way or another.

Jen Alexander said...

Hi Bill,

First I want to say thank you for signing your comments - I really appreciate it and I think it lends legitimacy to the comments you make.

It's of course true that a special exception hearing will be held on the development when the plans are revealed - but it's also true, as Commissioner McClellan (sp? sorry) noted last night, that the presumption is for approval. As a former commissioner yourself, I'm sure you remember the advice to "vote yes or we'll be sued" that often limited debate, even on special exceptions. Since the developer wrote the code (or at least certainly approved it, since they are the applicant) then it's expected that their application will fit the code, and therefore, will be approved. Not that I'm personally giving up hope that the commission might suddenly exercise more discretion (and risk a lawsuit from the developer) during the special exception process than they did during the zone change, but some of my co-protesters are a bit more cynical about the chances for a future refusal.

-Jen Alexander

Paul Torop said...

Have to wonder how much pressure and from where it came for our elected 'representatives' to ignore the wishes of their constituents.

Bill Wilson said...

When I sat on the commission we had a number of projects that we amended after the public hearing was closed. Which was one of the complaints from the public afterwords.
Again it comes down to the public hearing and people making their points known to the commission. I just wish those who sat in the room last night had a little more faith in their elected officials.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder why people are surprised. This deal was made in city hall long before it came to the public's attentions. That's where the real problem is. Hearings and meetings are just window dressing. When I say city hall, I'm not implying necessarily mayoral complicity. This transcends administrations.

Anonymous said...

You might want to think about having mass demonstrations of protest against the zoning change and against the way business is conducted in this town. The Centerplan headquarters, the Mayor's office, etc would be good places to start. and lets not forget the the elections are just around the corner.

Linda said...

The Commission needs a parliamentarian who makes them adhere to Robert's Rules of Order. That way, a commission member is offering an amendment (even if it's staff wording), the amendment is discussed and voted on. Then other amendments are offered and voted on. Finally the original motion, as amended, is voted on. I was very concerned to read that the Commissioners didn't really know what they were voting on. Following Robert's Rules would've helped.

Anonymous said...

It also seems to me that if those who protest this zoning change want to gain real traction, the issues needs to be seen as a real TOWN issue, not just the issue for a local few. This has to do with the quality and character we want for our town.