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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Planning Commission yanks out more fingernails

Take two aspirins and watch if you dare
By Will Collette

My colleague Tom Ferrio attended the Planning Commission’s November 3rd “workshop” to hear Council President (and CCA Secretary) Tom Gentz explain his plan to destroy affordable housing in Rhode Island.

I decided to watch it on Clerkbase. I don’t know which approach to the tedious task is better. While watching the Planning Commission from the comfort of home has its advantages (not the least of which is being able to make rude sounds and gestures at the screen), it’s still pretty bad.

"And the Academy Award for cinematography goes to..."
For example, the video is awful (see photo) – a fixed camera mounted in the back corner of the Town Council Chambers. The audio is bad, too, for the PC in a workshop setting. At a regular PC meeting, they sit at the podium and speak into the mics (though one Commissioner likes to finger-drum on the mic stand). When it’s a “workshop,” they sit at the front table with the microphones scattered about. Much of the discussion is inaudible (which is both good and bad news) and there is an annoying hum throughout.

But let’s review the substance, such as it was, of the Planning Commission’s two hours' worth of ruminations on parking, lighting and shrubbery.

The Planning Commission spent a lot of time with its consultant from the Cape Cod-based environmental consulting firm, the Horsley-Witten Group. The consultant had provided the Commission with two draft ordinances, one on parking at residential and non-residential developments and one on shrubbery, not to be confused with the town’s public tree ordinance.

The consultant began by noting that the drafts his company provided were the “most proscriptive” language they customarily write for their clients. Of course, that’s perfect for Charlestown’s Planning Commission, which would love to see a Town Charter change that renames them the “Proscriptive Commission.”

The consultant also noted that it’s always an open question whether to include minute details in town ordinances or deal with them through regulation. Generally, the fine points go into regulation, but the Charlestown Planning Commission wants every minute detail codified into town law. And tattooed on each resident.

Tomorrow's growth market in Charlestown
Dealing with some of the “highlights” of the proposed parking ordinance, a lot of time was spent trashing retailers. The consultant said “retailers are the biggest abusers” and singled out supermarkets and big box stores as the worst. What this has to do with Charlestown, I don’t know, but it seemed to make all the Commissioners feel better to get that off their chests.

The Commission favors chopping back as much parking as possible throughout the town – they also think medical practices and schools are terrible abusers.

Planning Commission says don't park this in Charlestown
Among the changes the Commission hopes to see written into law is that all parking lots will need to be made of “dust-free” materials, although then they had to talk for 20 minutes more about what that means and what types of materials are truly dust-free (e.g. Ruth Platner pointed out that not all gravel driveway material is really dust-free).

Every parking space will need a parking block. Every space. I think somebody on the Planning Commission must have stock in park block futures since this will mean a boom in business for sellers of concrete (or rubber or plastic) parking blocks. Except Charlestown makes it very hard for new businesses to start up, so the parking blocks will probably come from some out-of-town purveyor.

PC wants you to buy something like this
New commercial/retail pavement has to be “permeable” and that is also a less-than-crystal-clear provision (except the Commission is clear about hating asphalt).

And the size of parking spaces – “don’t make them too big,” demanded Ruth Platner to a chorus of approval. Not so many spaces and make them small. The consultant demurred, saying that planning spaces that were designed for compact cars used to be in vogue with environmental consultants such as him, but that proved to be unworkable.

Given the number of Charlestown households with trucks and SUVs, maybe that’s not too workable here, either. Not that compact cars aren’t a good thing, but as the Planning Commission keeps saying, “we’re rural” and driving a SmartCar, Austin Mini, mountain bike or Vespa scooter is not practical for all households.

From the Planning Commission Field Guide:
This is a mobile home
But the thing is, our Planning Commissioners don’t really understand a lot of that stuff. There was an embarrassing exchange where Gordon Foer (at least I’m pretty sure it was him – sorry if it wasn’t) asked about whether it was forbidden or permitted to park mobile homes in the same residential lot as a home. As he got deeper into it, it started to become clear that he didn’t really know the different between a mobile (a.k.a. manufactured) home and a recreational vehicle. When he started talking about driving the mobile homes around, other commissioners clued in to his confusion and straightened him out – that you can park an RV on your property, but you can’t live in it.

And this is a "recreational vehicle"
The Horsley Witten consultant asked a question that led to an awkward silence. He asked about the status of the lighting ordinance.

Errrrrrrrr, well, it’s with the staff, said Ruth Platner. The lighting ordinance that was such a big deal, such a big achievement for this Planning Commission – and popular, too – is sitting in staff limbo, says Commissar Platner. Maybe, she said, it might make it to the Town Council in January. Maybe.

OK, let’s move on to landscaping (cue the Knights Who Say Ni!).

We want landscaping. We want a lot of it. We want it to be nice. We want it to be native. We want it to stay healthy. And we ought to have a minutely-detailed ordinance that says exactly what developers and commercial businesses must do to keep their land pretty.

I have to admit total frustration with this section of the Commission “workshop,” because the conversation drifted all over the place. Read the ordinance and see for yourself if this draft ordinance is (a) a good thing for everybody; (b) a business killer or (c) something else. Then let us know by e-mail

Platner: affordable housing means
more kids and she hates kids
As for the section on Tom Gentz's secret plan to gut the state's Affordable Housing law, I yield to Tom Ferrio's analysis (and Tom also sat through this meeting in person). I do agree with Tom's observation that it sure looks like Ruth Platner is the real author and drive behind this initiative. Her excited defense of Gentz's proposal and passionate hatred for affordable housing is very interesting to hear. In her usual code, Platner made it plain that she will fight any affordable housing that brings working families with children to town. 

There are two saving graces to the Planning Commission’s ongoing efforts to expand its power to control the lives of Charlestown property owners. The first is that they are terrible at getting the job done. They don’t know how to move their agenda – they just have one, a radical anti-people “whatever it is, we’re against it.”

Second, when they do finally get new ordinances written, these ordinances are generally unenforceable and impractical when applied to existing properties.

But the Planning Commission’s political agenda, now locked in because Commissioners are elected to six-year, staggered terms, is to block anything new. No new homes, affordable or not. No new businesses.

The Planning Commission is, in my opinion, incompetent in all aspects of its duties under the Town Charter. But they have developed one remarkable talent that needs more discussion: they have mastered the Power to Obstruct.