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Thursday, December 29, 2011

“Peter Got Stomped by a Horse”

Planning Commission struggles with reasons why they can’t finish the lighting ordinance
By Will Collette

Very testy. Very snippy. At the December 29 Planning Commission meeting, Commissar Ruth Platner was clearly upset that the effort to get the Dark Sky lighting ordinance to the Town Council for enactment seemed bogged down in a hopeless SNAFU. Read the draft ordinance here. Listen on Clerkbase here.

Platner repeatedly noted how upset she was at Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero and Town Building Official Joe Warner for raising objections to the Planning Commission’s July draft “Dark Sky” ordinance. She thought their concerns had been discussed and resolved after a September 8 meeting.

Platner took out her anger on Town Planner Ashley Hahn and the attorney standing in for Ruggiero – Ruggiero has been hobbled by an injury - as Platner put it “Peter got stomped by a horse.”

Warner has been out sick.

Since neither Ruggiero nor Joe Warner were present, it fell mostly to Ashley and to Ruggiero’s proxy to be the bearers of bad news - and the recipients of Platner's ire.

Both Ruggiero and Warner objected to the draft ordinance, concerned with “legality and enforcement” and with “monetary consequences.”

Clearly exasperated, Platner and her fellow commissioners complained the issues had been discussed and resolved. And, if the Commissioners were mistaken and the issues really were not resolved, the recent messages they received from Ruggiero and Warner were too vague and unproductive.

At one point early in the discussion, Platner was so angry she said that perhaps the Planning Commission should send the draft ordinance to the Town Council anyway.

She claimed the last Town Council would not pass this ordinance and perhaps there was some mysterious force at work in this current Council aiming to kill the ordinance. Commissioner George Tremblay echoed her sentiments, saying “I think this was swept aside – by somebody.”

“If the ordinance is going to be killed,” said Platner, “let the Town Council kill it.”

Besides, Platner noted, the full force of the ordinance would not kick in until 2018. She said that maybe the Council might agree to pass a flawed ordinance assuming somebody could figure out how to enforce it before 2018. It's not like this Planning Commission and Town Council haven't passed flawed or unenforceable ordinances before. For examples, see here, here, and here.

But both the Town Planner and the Town Solicitor’s proxy said it was unwise to send the Town Council a proposed ordinance opposed by both the Town Solicitor and Town Building Official.

So Platner got talked off the ledge. Rather than push the ordinance onto the Council agenda where it faced defeat because it might not be enforceable or even legal, Platner backed off.

Saying she was “sorry to be so cranky,” Platner conceded to the suggestion of other Planning Commission members to urgently request detailed remarks and “constructive recommendations” for remedies from both  Ruggiero and Warner .

Ideally, they would like answers from Ruggiero and Warner, as well as a face-to-face meeting of all the key people, before their January 5 Special meeting. However, Platner said this was unlikely, given the short time frame.

Commission members rejected Ruggiero’s suggestion that Charlestown abandon its own draft in favor of the ordinance in place in Tiverton. They had a number of reasons for their dislike for Tiverton’s ordinance, mainly that Tiverton's ordinance addressed different concerns and priorities than Charlestown’s.

This discussion ended with an instruction to Planner Ashley Hahn to notify Solicitor Peter  Ruggiero and Building Official Joe Warner about the Planning Commission’s interest in a rapid response to their concerns.

But there was one last outburst from Platner. She said she wants to know whether Joe Warner's concerns were new or the same as before. She noted there are "sheds and even entire houses" being built without permits. She stated Warner never goes looking for potential violations. However, for some reason, he was treating the lighting ordinance as though it was different. She did not clarify whether she was saying that all or most of Charlestown's zoning and land use ordinances were not enforced or that Warner was biased against the lighting ordinance.

Platner raises an issue - actually she confirms a point - I've written about before. Charlestown has many ordinances - and the Planning Commission has more in the pipeline - that are unenforceable, not enforced or capriciously enforced.

As recently deceased political commentator Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law.” He wrote this without ever having visited Charlestown.

So, go watch Ruth’s favorite movie, “The City Dark.” Or, if you actually want to do something to protect Charlestown's dark sky, use Progressive Charlestown’s article on do-it-yourself  Dark Sky lighting fixture installation. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the Planning Commission to do its job.