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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Nothing plus nothing equals nothing

Tallying the Charlestown Planning Commission’s achievements
By Will Collette

As an avid watcher of the Charlestown Planning Commission, I find it fascinating that they can spend so many hours in meetings and accomplish so little.

I realize that the Planning Commission, under the leadership of Commissar Ruth Platner, isn’t really set up to accomplish anything – only to block things – but their record is pretty amazing.

To review, the Charlestown Planning Commission, the only such body in the entire state to be elected, is clearly in favor of two things – open space (can’t get enough) and power (can’t get enough of that, either).

The Planning Commission stalled the Cross Mills Fire Dept building
for months....because they didn't like brick or a building big enough

to actually hold modern fire equipment.
If you follow the Planning Commission, you will see that almost every other meeting is dominated by one of those two topics. They’re either finding ways to kill project to expand on the almost 50% of Charlestown’s land mass that is currently open space. Or they are working on ways to expand the power of the Planning Commission as a quasi-legislative and regulatory body beyond what our Town Charter allows.

We also know what they are against. It’s a pretty long list and includes: kids, cats, affordable housing,
lights, signs, for-profit developers, nonprofit developers, construction companies, asphalt, cement, sports, wind energy, biofuels, brick, a wide variety of colors, toilets at the beach, other town commissions, small businesses, families with kids, the Narragansett Indian tribe, sandwich boards, parking and any construction of any kind unless it is done with 17th century materials and construction methods.

But Pat's Power, just down the road, with its wild, wild West styling
was just fine with Platner and her plucky planners
They like to nitpick projects to death, quibbling over colors, materials, shrubbery and the applicant’s shoe size. I am not exaggerating – read about their last-minute attempt to delay completion of the new toilet facilities at Blue “Shingles” Beach here

The volume and scope of matters these Planning Commissioners are willing to deem objectionble - and grounds to stall or scuttle a project - is both breathtaking, and illegal.

But what are they for? For one thing, they like to write ordinances. As Council member Gregg Avedisian told the Westerly Sun, they have set themselves up as a “second legislative body,” a role you won’t find written in the Town Charter. 

Pretty soon, Planning will require
property owners to do this before
getting a building permit.
If you judge the Planning Commission by this self-appointed task, they don’t do very well as a legislative body.

I went through the record for the current term of this Commission. I noted their conspicuous failure on one of their top priorities – their long and winding journey to nowhere as they have tried to craft a workable lighting ordinance to preserve Charlestown’s remarkable dark sky vistas.

In addition to that conspicuous failure, let’s look at three ordinances that were crafted by the Planning Commission during its current term  and enacted into law by the Town Council.

These include an ordinance to allow the creation of Income-Restricted Accessory Dwelling Units (I-RADUs). Passed the same day (February 14, 2011) was an ordinance that amended the 2009 ordinance that permits the creation of Accessory Family Dwelling Units (AFDUs) 

These two ordinances were years in the making. Before this Planning Commission’s term, the Affordable Housing Commission, Conservation Commission and Planning worked on them together, starting several terms ago. Rules for these two types of affordable housing were signed off on by the Affordable Housing Commission, along with Inclusionary Zoning, but Planning pigeon-holed them, seemingly forever.

They emerged for Council review and approval in early 2011, minus inclusionary zoning.

The third ordinance initiated by Planning and adopted by the Town Council was the infamous Residential Wind Turbine ordinance that codified what homeowners need to do to take advantage of this emerging green energy source. This ordinance was enacted on November 14, 2011 after a year-long battle, the echoes of which are still resonating in town.

Since the I-RADU and AFDU ordinances have been on the books for more than a year, and the residential wind ordinance for almost six months, I checked to see how the town is doing in actually putting these ordinances into practice.

To what extent did the I-RADU and AFDU ordinances help ease our town’s almost complete lack of affordable rental units, for example?

I filed a request with town Building Official Joe Warner for the statistics on the actual number of people who asked about or received permits for I-RADU or AFDU units. According to Warner, none were requested or approved.

Responding to my request for information, Warner e-mailed me on April 26 to report.

He said, “I have had some requests for detached AFDU’s that are not allowed pursuant to 218-53 of the ordinance.  The new I-RADU ordinance allows the structure to be detached. However, there is a list of requirements the applicant would have to meet to comply with this ordinance.  Everyone who has requested a detached AFDU has been provided with the necessary information to apply for an I-RADU. However, I have not had any further correspondence resulting from such requests.”

This, in essence, is the Catch-22 that was built into both ordinances. To get a permit for an “Accessory Family Dwelling Unit,” the unit must be attached to the homeowner’s home, but most homeowners aren’t that keen about having the mother-in-law or whoever relative in the house.

But the requirements to get a permit for an Income-Restricted Accessory Dwelling Unit – which can be a detached structure – are too restrictive.

When Planning Commissar Ruth Platner took these two ordinances before the Town Council for their approval, she volunteered without being asked that she didn’t expect anyone to apply nor to qualify, and she expected no new units of housing to be constructed as a result of enacting the ordinances. She also said that she didn’t think the ordinances could be enforced anyway.

But she asked the Council to enact them, and they did. So while Platner gets an “A” for her prediction, she gets an “F” for putting two more useless, frivolous laws on the town’s books.

When the Planning Commission was pushing its version of the ordinance to “allow” homeowners to get permits to install small wind generators, I dissected the ordinance and pointed out how ridiculously restrictive it was

I called the ordinance a ban on residential wind energy in every respect except its name. Commissar Platner and her henchman George Tremblay, wrote a piece in the Westerly Sun claiming that the ordinance was a reasonable and prudent way to allow the technology while protecting the public interest. They absolutely denied it was a ban on residential wind energy.

[This is the same George Tremblay, BTW, who decided to blacklist a totally qualified local candidate to do some data collection and analysis on affordable housing. Rather than contract with her, Tremblay wants the town to spend up to three times more than she would have charged to hire a consultant from some national firm yet to be identified}

So, the law has been on the books just under six months. How many Charlestown homeowners have tried for permits?

Again, I asked Building Official Joe Warner for statistics and he answered: “I have not received any enquiries, applications or even had any questions regarding residential wind generators.”

Here's an idea for Planning to consider: combine public transportation
and open space for a Green-Green effect.
Now Platner and Tremblay and their CCA masters will say that no one applied because no one really wants to install a home wind generator. But, come on, that just doesn’t make sense. Wind power works, and home wind turbines can be an inexpensive do-it-yourself project. But under Charlestown’s restrictions, it’s no surprise that no one bothers to try to get a permit that is simply unattainable.

Three ordinances. Three duds. Or perhaps more accurately, three examples of cynical and deliberate decisions by the CCA-controlled Planning Commission to create laws that are shams. These three ordinances – plus the Planning Commission’s embarrassing performance on their pet project, the “dark sky” lighting ordinance – underscore how inappropriate it is for the Planning Commission to act as a self-appointed second legislative body in town. And as a self-appointed regulatory body. And as the body that has the right, indeed the duty, to regulate every aspect of life for every property owner in Charlestown.

It’s time to rein in the Planning Commission and set them back to doing what the Town Charter says they should do, not what Planning Commissar Ruth Platner thinks they can get away with.

This November, five members of this Planning Commission, which is the only elected Planning Commission in Rhode Island, will go before the voters on their record. Among these five is Commissar Platner herself. Don’t forget – nothing plus nothing plus nothing equals nothing.