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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Beach facility bingo

This land is your land, Part 3
By Will Collette

This is the third in an occasional series on Charlestown’s regulation of land and property. Read Part One here and Part Two here.

A commenter named T.J. Kahr recently wrote “The Charlestown Planning Commission in action is just so painful…I would rather have my fingernails pulled out one @ a time.”

Yup, that pretty much sums up the experience, whether you go in person or watch the Planning Commission on Clerkbase.

I’m not sure which is worse. In person, you get to see the worst that government has to offer in awful living color. On Clerkbase, you get to watch it was the ceiling mounted camera that shows the “action,” such as it is, as if it was happening a mile away. And you get treated to one Commission member’s habit of finger-drumming on the microphone stand (I think it’s George Tremblay, but I’m not sure). Whoever it is, he’s no Keith Moon.

But moving on to more substantive matters, the most recent Planning Commission meeting (October  26) actually produced a tangible result, though not without a lot of torn-out fingernails.

The Commission, under Ruth’s Platner’s unique style of leadership, held its second “public hearing” on the building plans for new beach facilities at the two town beaches. These plans were approved by Charlestown voters last June, against opposition from the Charlestown Citizens Alliance. Prompt approval of the designs could mean the facilities will open in time for the beginning of the 2012 beach season.

Or not. This second hearing was made necessary for two reasons. One was that someone screwed up before the first hearing and didn’t assign the right plat numbers to the right facility leading to a public notice concern. Second, the first hearing was so disorganized and non-germane (i.e. the discussion deal mostly with tangential issues) that they couldn't have finished even if they didn't have problem #1.

What the Planning Commission would like the beach
facilities to look like
So another month of potential building time was lost. Personally, I think the Planning Commission is doing what they do best: stall, stall, stall and hope the project in question dies of old age.

The second hearing went a lot like the first. As usual, I hope readers will not simply buy into my interpretation – look for yourself on Clerkbase. Almost two hours went by and little of that time was spent discussing the actual facilities.

Instead, it seems like the Commissioners decided to show off their prowess at landscape design as they talked about moving the facilities 100 feet this way and 100 feet that way. They talked about rearranging boulders as if they were pieces on a checkerboard. One Commissioner offered to donate boulders from her land to give our Public Works Department more material to work with. And so much talk about shrubbery, I thought I was stuck in a Monty Python movie.

What the non-resident beach property owners would
like to see surrounding the beach facilities
They talked about the pros and cons of fences and heard Town Administrator Bill DiLibero say that rather than expensive fencing and the costly task of moving boulders around, they would plant prickly vegetation such as beach roses (actually an invasive species in Rhode Island), barberry, bittersweet (also invasive), etc. to rope off the beach parking lots. Shrubbery.

All this was in response to angry beach property owners – the same folks who tried to kill the beach facilities last spring – who really don’t want anything or anybody at their beaches. After all, they didn’t come all this way from Connecticut, New York, Florida, etc. to share the beach with riff-raff. If they had their way, the town would install a mine field and razor wire to ensure that nobody would ever dare to step on private property which, in their minds, includes both town beaches.

"Excuse me, can you direct me to Blue
Shutters Beach?
The battle seemed to be especially intense at this hearing to defend Charlestown Town Beach properties from incursions from the invading hordes. One out-of-state resident stood up and was given the floor by Commissar Platner for a seemingly endless monologue about the merits of moving the Charlestown Town Beach facility to a different spot. The guy admitted his comments were last minute – he says this was the first time he had even heard about the beach facilities – but he wanted the town to follow his recommendations anyway. Where the hell was he when this all started last spring?

He also seemed worried about an after-hours crime wave on the beach and seemed to suggest the only solution to the need for beach toilets was to let people piss in the dunes.

Ruth Platner let him yammer on. She gave him a bubbly response saying the beach facilities would only have toilets that were locked after hours and cold showers outdoors. She said – and I swear I’m not making this up – that fortunately, because there will only be cold showers, “people from western Connecticut won’t be driving to our beaches to use the showers.” Oh my God, I never realized things were so tough in western Connecticut.

Typical August traffic on East Beach Road
Then there was the issue of crowding and traffic jams. Now, I’m not a big summer beach fan – I like the beaches in off-season – but my colleague Linda Felaco is a devoted beach goer and she has often expressed her amazement at the talk of crowds, crowds that she’s never seen.

Nonetheless, the Commissioners and audience members accepted the premise that hordes descend on the beaches, and they all drive not less than 75 mph going down the beach roads. We already make the beaches hard to find unless you know where they are. And we have those handy dandy “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here” signs up and down the beach access routes. What else do we need to prevent beach carnage?

Answer: speed bumps. Let’s put a bunch of speed bumps up and down the routes to cut traffic speed. Again, this “public hearing” is supposed to be about the design of the beach facilities, not traffic or boulders or land mines or barbed wire or crime waves, but there it was. The Commissioners compared their views of different sizes, heights, shapes, quantities, colors and composition of various types of speed bumps and finally settled on three for Charlestown Town Beach.

There’s just a few little problems. Speed bumps tend to break the town’s snow plows. Plus, the out of state guy, the one with  the crime wave at Charlestown Town Beach, said that when a vehicle hauling a trailer, such as a boat, hits a speed bump, it will make such an incredible racket  that it will rock him out of his slumber.

Finally, after indulging many more extraneous comments from non-resident beach property owners, Platner apologized profusely to the audience that, reluctantly, the Planning Commission couldn't listen to their silly ass whining (my words, not hers) forever. She put Planning Commission approval of the two town beach facilities to a vote.

And they were both approved, with attached conditions and recommendations  roughly the size of a Providence phone book. But, no, WAIT! Linda Fabre got confused and after a soliloquy about how she had a “gut feeling” that something was wrong, that somehow there were safety issues they had missed, the Commission froze like a deer in the headlights. What to do? The bubble of consensus had burst!

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero intervened and asked Fabre if she wanted to change her “yes” vote to a “no.” Fabre said yes, she wanted to vote no. So Ruggiero told Platner she needed a “motion to reconsider,” which she eventually got, and that motion passed. Then they voted again, with all in favor, except Fabre, who went with her gut, and voted no. Lots of bloody fingernails littered the floor of town hall.

Beth Richardson recently wrote a comment saying she wasn’t sure if replacing Platner on the Planning Commission would help. I agree – I think the entire planning commission, or at least a majority of them, need to go ASAP. Beth also said she thinks the problem is that the Planning Commission is hamstrung by an array of other town, state and federal laws and regulations. I don't agree. Watching this meeting, I saw this fiasco as solely a product of our Planning Commissioners bizarre way of carrying out their duties.

If anything, what I saw in the video of this meeting is consistent with what happens at most Planning Commission meetings: the Commissioners stall and dawdle, get distracted and go off in tangents but, worst of all, THEY MAKE STUFF UP. They assume powers they do not have. They poke into matters that are outside their purview.

What I saw at the October 26 Planning Commission meeting was an effort by this Planning Commission – all of them elected under the CCA banner – to accomplish through abuse of process what they could not accomplish at the polls last June, and that is to try to drown the beach facilities in their own composting toilets.