Thursday, March 14, 2013
Planning And Zoning Commission Abdicates Responsibility
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.
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.