Monday, September 9, 2013

Stephen Devoto: Candidate For Planning And Zoning Commissioner

Photo by Robert Walsch
The two most important activities of City government are education and land use regulation. 
Other city actions like snow removal, public safety, and water supply are obviously important, but their impact rarely extends beyond the lifecycle of an election. In contrast, decisions on how land can be used shape the nature of our city for generations to come.

The future of the land along the river, the future of Newfield, South Main, and Washington Streets, the future of open space around Mt. Higby and in Maromas, the fate of the vacant Aetna lot, these are all dependent on actions by Planning and Zoning. In fact, there is no neighborhood community, no business district, and no industrial area anywhere in our city that will not be impacted by future municipal decisions on how land can be used. The municipal agency charged with making these decisions is the Planning and Zoning Commission.

I am running for Planning and Zoning Commissioner because I want to see our city's vitality enhanced by smart and fair land use decisions that benefit all of the city. I love Middletown.

Planning and Zoning is tasked with many roles by state statute, but the two most important are in its title--Zoning decisions that have a short term impact on land use, and Planning decisions that have a long term impact on land use.

The Short Term
Zoning decisions have an immediate impact on life in our city. The two most common types of decisions are on applications to subdivide a parcel of land into multiple lots for the purpose of building houses or businesses, and on applications for "special exceptions", to allow land to be used in a way that is not written into the zoning code as a right.

The P&Z has considerable leeway in making zoning decisions (if the Zoning Code, State legislation, and the City Charter dictated decisions, there would be no need for an elected Commission!). It matters who is on the Commission.

It would be improper, if not impossible, for me to predict how I would vote on any future zoning application, or even on specific parcels of land, but I believe that every candidate should make his guiding philosophy clear.

My goal is to evaluate zoning applications based on what's best for ALL of Middletown's residents, because commercial, business, and residential developments usually have an impact far beyond a single lot. For example:
  • Westfield has the vast and vacant Aetna property, whose development will dramatically increase our city's tax base and jobs, and change traffic and the quality of life for surrounding residential areas. 
  • Newfield Street (zoned NPC) has industry, historic homes, car dealers, some small stores and salons, apartment complexes, and the High School, and is also a traffic route to Cromwell and Route 9 north. 
  • South Main and Washington Streets include centers of commerce, small offices, and residential neighborhoods. 
  • Maromas mixes farms, residences, industry, and a natural environment that residents from all over the city explore and enjoy. 
  • Riverfront development south of Harbor Park could lead to public spaces that will be used with pride by all city residents.
My decisions on specific development applications will take into account not only the relevant laws, the tax base, traffic, safety, and the appropriateness for the neighborhood, but also the impact on quality of life for all residents. They will not be based on short term profits or the desire to do something (anything!) with every lot right now. Finally, my evaluation will take into account the impact on future Middletown, I will always vote to improve the livability of our great city.

I will encourage community input into all decisions. First, I would carefully weigh the deliberations of the Conservation Commission and the Design Review and Historic Preservation Board. These two agencies are advisory to Planning and Zoning, but they are too often completely ignored. Second, I would encourage further community input by asking every developer, "How did you solicit the input of the neighboring community?" Many decisions by the P&Z are on applications that are not required to post signs informing neighbors, and too often the Commission is faced with a confrontational situation in which the community residents are fighting against a developer. This is good for neither the developer nor the community.

Finally, for every decision I will provide a clear explanation to the community as well as to the developer. I will inevitably make decisions that somebody will disagree with, but there will never be decisions that I do not explain. Trust in Planning and Zoning decisions is dependent on the transparency and accountability of every Commissioner.

The Long Term
By common sense (and State law), the short term zoning code and zoning decisions must be consistent with the principles of a long term plan for the city, known as the Plan of Conservation and Development.  Unfortunately, in the past two years, the Commission has abdicated long term planning. Too often, the Commission has approved zoning code text changes after a discussion that focused on one developer's plans for one specific lot.

I will revitalize open discussions about the long term planning of Middletown.  Long term planning should not be relegated to a short burst of discussion every 10 years, it should be an ongoing process. I propose that some of the regularly scheduled meetings include on the agenda specific aspects of the city's long term plan. These should be on universal issues (for example, what is the city's optimal ratio of industrial, residential, agricultural, commercial, and recreational land?), as well as on regional issues (for example, what should the future of Newfield Street be?).

By holding regularly scheduled meetings devoted to long term planning, the Commission will provide a natural venue for considering the impact of zoning code changes on all of Middletown.

The Democratic Primary Election
This primary election is between me and 3 candidates endorsed by the city's Democratic party insiders, running as a monolithic bloc.

When the primary was scheduled, I saw it as a unique opportunity to emphasize the importance of the Planning and Zoning Commission. I assumed that each of the other candidates would share my desire to educate voters about the importance of land use decisions for the future of this city we all love. The city would benefit from an election in which each candidate had articulated his experience with land use decisions, and the philosophy which would guide his decisions on the Commission.

I have done this in dozens of articles in The Eye, in a radio appearance last week, and in interviews with The Middletown Press and The Hartford Courant.  I eagerly accepted an invitation to a debate on Planning and Zoning. Unfortunately, the other 3 candidates have been utterly unwilling to engage in a discussion relevant to Planning and Zoning.  I repeatedly told the chair of the party's insiders that I would like to have a joint appearance with the other candidates, even suggesting that he serve as moderator. He never responded.

His decision to avoid any discussion about Planning and Zoning has left the group of 3 candidates running against me without an opportunity to articulate their experience with land use decisions, or their philosophy and vision about how they would govern on the Commission. Despite spending over $5,000 on the campaign, voters have not seen anything specific to Planning and Zoning from the group of 3 endorsed candidates.  Instead, voters have been subjected to vague slogans, and angry attacks on my Democratic values.

Voters will choose between Devoto on Row B, and the group of 3 on Row A. I ask you to vote on the basis of what you know about how each of us would govern as a Planning and Zoning Commissioner.

Vote Devoto, Planning for ALL of Middletown.

The above is an opinion piece. The Eye has extended an invitation to ALL candidates to write an opinion piece. 


Anonymous said...

I just got a call from "Sean" calling on behalf of the Democratic Party to remind me about the three candidates running for the P & Z tomorrow. I said there are four. Why did you just lie to me? What canditates have actually attended meetings? He then said he'd "put me down" as going the other way. Sounds like intimidation to me. Way to go.

Catherine said...

It is nice to finally hear a candidate share his thoughts about the topic he's interested in. I look forward to future thoughts about how each area listed could grow. I hope you would encourage a joint study of the Aetna site with our neighbors, Cromwell and Berlin, as they would be affected by changes to this site too.

I hope you include Main Street and the downtown neighborhoods into your image of the city. Downtown is the not only a model for a sustainable place to live, its neighborhoods offer time-tested solutions to improving other areas of the city.

Last, I hope you encourage the commission to have training sessions to educate themselves about planning ideas, explore what other cities are doing, and get input from a variety of sources. How are new ideas going to be introduced into each commissioner's world unless it happens at P&Z meetings?

Please note: a project's potential tax revenue may not enter into the decision to approve or deny a zoning application.

The Design Board is supposed to advise the P&Z on select projects or anything the P&Z would like them to consider. However, Design Bd decisions are rarely ever shared with the P&Z! Neither a member common to both boards nor a planning department staff person has ever come from the Design Board down to the P&Z meeting to announce the approval or denial of a project (when a project is before both boards the same night). I am not sure why we have such a board if their valuable input isn't shared. If you can correct this one thing, you will have made an advancement for the city and for mankind.