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Friday, April 27, 2012

UPDATED: Planning Commission Review: NOTHING old, nothing new

Plus a dozen odds and ends
Town plans to buy Planning Commissioners I-Pads
By Will Collette

UPDATE: I listened to the whole 2-hour-long meeting on Clerkbase. Those are two hours I'll never get back.

As I noted in my preview (click continued to read), the Planning Commission had no new business and no old business on their agenda for the first time in memory. The agenda was so devoid of serious content that three of the seven members didn't show up.

Yet somehow, they managed to fill two hours with some of the most amazingly banal stuff you could ever imagine.

Some "highlights": It's all Town Clerk Amy Weinreich's fault that two different copies of the proposed dark sky lighting ordinance were handed out at the April 23rd Town Council meeting, according to Planning Commissar Platner....We don't really have a Historical District Commission, which really takes a load off my mind....The Planning Commission wants to get an intern to cook affordable housing data from Charlestown and nearby towns, rather than hire a consultant....Our plucky planners are still worried about two stalled, possibly dead, pieces of state legislation promoted by the RI Builders Association....And Charlestown is planning to buy our plucky Planning Commissioners seven i-Pads.

I would consider that last item a good investment if the i-Pads are loaded with good games and the Commissioners play Angry Birds for the duration of their meetings.

Now, if you have the stomach for it, you can compare my capsule review with my preview. Or if you're really a sucker for punishment, you can watch all two hours of it by clicking here.

Originally published on April 25th:

If you look at the Planning Commission’s agenda for tonight (Wednesday, April 25), you will see something more rare than a planetary alignment. The Planning Commission agenda lists no old business and no new business.

So how will they fill up their usual three-hour gabfest, lacking proposed developments to block or mischievous new ways to control townspeople’s lives? 
Will they still hold the meeting, even though they lack the usual array of pet issues? Will they perhaps take a little time to meditate on why it is that they can spend so much time and accomplish so little? 

Or maybe they could do a little macramé project together? Or look through books of shingle samples?

Probably not. Despite the lack of both old and new business, they still have a list of 12 agenda items under “Planning Issues and Concerns.”

Here they are:
A.   Review of deficiencies in approved Site Plans
C.   Affordable Housing Advisory Review
E.   LMIH Analysis
F.   Discussion/Review  House Bill H7866  & H7804
G.   Charter Review Board
H.   Rewrite of Subdivision/Land Development Regulations & Zoning Ordinance
I.    Public Comments Specific to Agenda Items
J.    Planner Comments
K.   Solicitor Comments
L.   Workshop (time allowing)

As you may notice, there are document links for only three items. Two of the three documents with links tell you very little about why these items are on the agenda.

The third link, under “Planner Comments,” is a memo from Town Planner Ashley Hahn-Morris that implores the Planning Commission to endorse her interest in attending what looks like a relevant and useful training conference.

What makes this agenda item strange is that the Planning Commission is not, at least technically, Ashley’s boss. But given the role played by Planning Commissar Ruth Platner in directing the CCA purge of the Town Administrator, the “Kill Bill” campaign, the memo seems a reflection of the new reality faced by town staff that they must walk on eggshells around Platner in particular, and the CCA in general.

Except for B and D, there are no documents behind any other agenda item, even though several of them are potentially controversial. These include the “Affordable Housing Advisory Review,” the “LMIH Analysis,” the “Discussion/Review  House Bill H7866  & H7804,” the “Charter Review Board,” and the “Rewrite of Subdivision/Land Development Regulations & Zoning Ordinance.”

I think the Planning Commission is right on, if not over, the borderline of violating the state Open Meetings Act by failing to adequately describe these items, or provide supporting document links. 

It is certainly a violation of the CCA’s hollow pledge about open and transparent government to Charlestown. Bear in mind that each and every one of the Planning Commissioners ran under the CCA banner, except JoAnn Stolle who was appointed at Ruth Platner's recommendation.

Reading the tea leaves, here’s what I think some of these items might mean:

  • The “Affordable Housing Advisory Review” might be a response by Planning to the Affordable Housing Commission’s expressed interest in occasionally commenting on comprehensive permits that might include some affordable housing. Under the law, Planning has the jurisdiction over comprehensive permits, so they will have to decide whether they want advice from the Affordable Housing Commission. Under Platner, Planning has rarely cared what any other town commission thinks. 
  • LMIH Analysis” is an ongoing project idea, the brainchild of Commissioner George Tremblay, to hire a consultant to collect and collate data from Charlestown, Richmond, Hopkinton and Exeter on how affordable housing needs and efforts compare. The town put out a request for proposals but Tremblay was not satisfied with the results, so Planning may try some other approach to finding a person they can trust to cook the data so it comes out the way they want. Such as hiring one of those planes that fly over the beaches to haul a banner advertising the gig.
  • “Discussion/Review House Bill H7866 & H7804” deals with the Planning Commission’s ongoing fear that the RI Builders Association might get some legislation passed that might affect Planning’s ability to block most if not all for-profit developments. 
H-7866 (click here to read) was due for a hearing in March, but on March 30, the bill’s sponsor asked that the hearing date be postponed indefinitely.

H-7804 (click here to read) has been “recommended to be held for further study.” That phrase is usually means the bill is either stalled or dead.

  • The “Charter Review Board” item is intriguing since Planning Commissar Ruth Platner joined with several other Commission heads and town department directors in speaking against the proposed Charter changes offered by what the Town Charter calls the “Charter Revision Advisory Committee” and what its members call the “Charter Revision Advisory Board.” Because there are several up-and-coming CCA supporters among the membership of the CRACed CRABS, I wonder if Ruth is planning to start supporting their half-baked proposals as a way of pandering to CCA’s political base. But, due to complete lack of clarity in the agenda description, and the lack of supporting documents (love that openness and transparency!) we’ll have to wait and see. 
  • Then there’s the Rewrite of Subdivision/Land Development Regulations & Zoning Ordinance” agenda item. The Planning Commission has had a number of agenda listings like this over the past months. Usually there were supporting documents to at least give the public fair notice, though often they are only available on the website of their consultant, the Horsley Witten Group. But again, Planning’s dedication to openness and transparency leaves us to guess what Commissar Platner has in mind for this agenda item. 
Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of what they plan to do on May 3 when they conduct a joint “workshop” with the Town Council. Of the three agenda items listed for that May 3rd workshop is that same “Subdivision/Land Development Regulations & Zoning Ordinance Re-Write” language they have on today’s agenda. But this item also lacks any detail in the description and, at this point, there are no supporting documents.

Also missing from this month’s Planning agenda is their perennial favorite, the dark-sky lighting ordinance, despite the fact that the rewritten ordinance is being advertised yet again for yet another public hearing in June. I think the Westerly Sun would go broke if not for having to publish and republish endless iterations of proposed Planning Commission ordinances. I hope for the sake of our tax dollars that the right ordinance will be advertised this time.

After Commissar Platner’s embarrassing performance at the Monday Town Council meeting, where two different drafts of the ordinance were being handed out – and Platner couldn’t say which was the correct one – the ordinance is still subject to more revisions. At least that’s what Platner said at the Council meeting.

So, if there are going to be more revisions, why isn’t this issue on the Planning Commission agenda? Does she plan to scribble them on the back of an envelope and hand them in for the June Town Council meeting? Is she going to wing it again?

Is this any way to run a so-called Planning Commission?