Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Urban Dilemma and other topics at Planning and Zoning - Nov. 12

Planning and zoning commissioners met Wednesday in Council Chambers to discuss the future of Middletown's residential downtown, to discuss the organization of the commission for the next year, and to review several land use proposals and a zoning text change.

Many residents of downtown came to speak about the proposed Plan of Conservation and Development, a document which will guide Middletown's land use decisions for a decade or more. Tonight's public hearing was on Chapter 8: Addressing the Urban Dilemma and Statement on Alternate Modes of Transportation. Residents spoke passionately about the joy of living within stroller distance of so many amenities, from Russell Library in their heart to MacDonough Elementary School at one end and Wesleyan at the other. Jennifer Alexander set the tone for all the comments when she urged the commissioners to change the name of the chapter from "Urban Dilemma" to "Urban Opportunity". All urged the commissioners to adopt language and policies that would celebrate and strengthen the vitality of Middletown's urban neighborhood.

The comments from these self-described "new urbanists" ranged from detailed suggestions for zoning and enforcement changes to more global policy changes. Ruth Veleta, in a letter read by Jennifer Saines, spoke of the effect on safety and the appearance of neighborhoods when cars and trucks are parked on the tree lawn (snow shelf) between the sidewalk and the house. Ed McKeon, another downtown dweller, requested enforcement of ordinances dealing with nuisance crimes like speeding, noise violations, parking on sidewalks. Ms. Saines spoke of the need to establish urban design guidelines and the need for civic buildings that foster a sense of community. Ms. Alexander spoke of the importance of finding the right balance between the number of owner occupied and and number of rental properties. For Ms. Alexander, it was not clear what the ideal balance would be, but she felt that the current ratio, which is less than 50% owner occupied, was far too low. She pointed out that renters are less likely to be invested in the quality of the school and other long term issues of the neighborhood. Both Mr. McKeon and Ms. Alexander decried the high number of properties that are devoted to social services such as alcohol and drug rehabilitation houses, half-way houses, and other group homes. They both stated that Middletown was home to vastly more of these than is warranted by our size. Mr. McKeon said that the current language in the POCD "got a bit mealy mouthed" regarding social services housing. Alexander concurred, "The city must take the strongest stand possible in limiting any future development of group homes within the traditional residential neighborhoods of downtown."

Transportation was also discussed, and again residents wanted a different title. Beth Emery suggested that the title be changed from "alternate modes of transportation" to "meeting the transportation needs of the citizens of Middletown". She urged the Commissioners to have both short term and long term goals for the city and the region, ranging from regulations on the number of bicycle racks required, to education of employers and businesses. John Elmore spoke philosophically about the role of Planning and Zoning Commissioners, "You can make a difference, you can require bike racks. Your job is to appeal to our better selves."

A Zoning Code text amendment was also the subject of a public hearing. Josh Eddinger applied to add the R15 zone to the list of zones that would allow year round farm markets (R15 allows residential lots of 15,000 square feet, about 3 houses per acre). This change would only apply to actively farmed parcels of 20 acres or more that are on a state highway in Middletown. Currently, the only property that meets these criteria is owned by Mr. Eddinger, on Randolph Road. Mr. Eddinger, who owns several farms in Middletown, and raises plants and bushes in greenhouses and in the ground, expressed his desire to open a year-round farm market. He pointed out that such markets make farming economically viable, and therefore preserve farmland, open space, and the rural character of our city. He also said that farms pay taxes on both land and structures, and do not use many city services such as education. However, several neighboring residents spoke in opposition to the amendment, expressing fears that a farm stand would be popular, and that it would be inappropriate near their houses. One of those neighboring residents, Sebastian Giuliano, who gave as his addresses both Maple Shade and DeKoven Drive, told the Commissioners that if they adopted this zoning code text amendment, it "would open the city to a lawsuit for spot zoning." The zoning code text amendment failed to pass, receiving only 4 Yes votes.

Also on the commissioners' agenda was the annual election of officers. Perhaps reflecting tension over this election, the commissioners began the meeting with a testy debate over the protocol for seating alternates on the commission. Commissioner Les Adams requested a change from the customary pattern of rotating the seating of the possible alternates, and instead requested that an alternate from the same political party as the missing regular member should be seated. Chairwoman Barbara Plum insisted that the normal protocol be followed. The commissioners agreed to disagree for the moment, and postponed the election of officers until the December 10th meeting.


Anonymous said...

It is heartwarming to hear that so many care enough to sit through long meetings and voice concerns on behalf of us all. Thanks for the report.

Ed McKeon said...

I hate being quoted accurately. Yes, I called amended language about specialty needs housing in Chapter 8 "mealy-mouthed" because it failed to call for action against the concentration of such houses in certain neighborhoods, and certain in our city.

Here is the complete text of my prepared remarks:

I believe that we owe it to those with insurmountable problems of poverty, mental health issues and substance abuse, to address those problems as directly and effectively as possible. I contribute to agencies which address these problems; I empathize with them; I applaud them, my wife works for one of these agencies, and I actively help her solicit funding for that agency. I have helped to produce films which explain how these agencies help our communities.

We all need to take care of those around us who are incapable of taking care of themselves.

But when I say, “we all,” I mean “we all.”

Middletown cannot be the only town in Middlesex County which accepts the graduates of the concentrated state and private mental health and substance abuse programs into its neighborhoods. Middletown, and other struggling urban centers, like Meriden and New Britain cannot continue to be the only places where responsibility for the “least among us” is taken seriously.

Other neighborhoods, other communities must embrace the problems the way we have. Haddam, East Hampton, Saybrook, Clinton, Glastonbury, Farmington, all need to do their fair share. But they won’t, unless urged to do so. And some communities have already resisted, and will continue to fight to avoid the responsibility, unless they are obliged to.

So how do we accomplish improvement?

First, we must make an honest assessment of the situation. We must understand the real magnitude of the problem. What is the extent of the concentration of specialty needs housing in Middletown. How does it compare, on a fair comparison basis (per capita for example), to other towns in Middlesex County. What kind of specialty housing are we talking about – Group homes (which typically have round-the-clock supervision), transitional and supportive housing (some temporary, some more permanent), and sober houses and halfway house (with little on-site supervision, scant regulation and a dismal recidivism rate). How much of each kind is Middletown already hosting?

The social service agencies need to be honest with Middletown about the challenges they face, and explain why it is easier for them to place housing here in Middletown then elsewhere. They also have to be willing to admit to the problems they face with their clients. They are not all well-adjusted, well-behaved individuals. They are people with lives full of challenges, and we all need to understand that. The community must accept and embrace housing which is well-run, and which contributes to the well-being of the neighborhood.

When we have answered some of these basic questions, we can start talking about solutions, and I’m afraid that the only real solution with teeth is setting limits on the concentration of this kind of housing in any one neighborhood, in any single section of town, and in any one town itself. Incentives can be offered to other communities, but until they are obliged to participate in responsibility for this underserved population, they will continue to give lip service instead of real service.

Middletown does more than it’s fair share. I’m not suggesting we disengage from our responsibilities, I’m suggesting we ask the state to engage other communities in their responsibilities.

Madam Nirvana (Molly Salafia) said...

here here! i like your thinking ed! but could not put it into words- thank you for putting it so well-