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Friday, May 25, 2012

Platner's ultimate power grab, Part 2

First the "Historic Village District," then the rest of town
Planning Commission Review - it won't hurt a bit
Ruth Platner’s big play
By Will Collette
Read Part 1 by clicking here

Most Charlestown property owners would be very surprised if they knew the extent to which town government controls the uses of their property already. Sometimes, the only time people find out is when they decide they want to do something with their property, need a building permit, and find themselves ensnared in Charlestown’s extensive regulations.

But the Planning Commission, unintentionally, has just made it easier for everyone to see the extent to which town regulations reach into property owners’ lives, through an ordinance that will dramatically consolidate and expand their power.

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed  proposed Ordinance 349 – coming up for a public hearing and likely Council vote on June 11 – and what it will do to businesses in Charlestown’s the "Historic Village District" – as well as homes (since the section on residential review is “reserved,” and will probably be filled in later.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how proposed Ordinance 349 affects the rest of town.

The second half of the proposed Ordinance 349 says that all non-residential activities within the Town shall require Development Plan Review or Major Land Development Project Review approval before a [building] permit for such is issued…”

"Sheath thy brazen brick!"
Any non-residential property anywhere in town would have to go on the Planning Commission’s rack before any building permit is issued. This extends not just to businesses, but to non-profit-owned buildings, churches, the Grange, the Fire Districts and Ambulance service,” “All” means “all.”

This second half of the ordinance doesn’t apply only to businesses, but if you read down, it could also be applied to many homeowners across Charlestown as well.

On May 14, Planning Commissar Ruth Platner told the Town Council this proposed ordinance really does no more than tidy up the town's code of ordinances.

She paints this power grab as simply tidying up a messy town code of ordinances by conveniently putting all these matters under the jurisdiction of the Planning Commission. That is, under her.

The key factor is the Planning Commission’s move to use proposed Ordinance 349 to place virtually any and every “non-residential activity” (without a definition of what an “activity” is, not to mention that some residential properties will likely be swept up in this ordinance, too) directly under the Planning Commission’s inquisitorial control.

As we discuss the level of minute detail that Planning would then examine microscopically, you’ll understand how dangerous proposed Ordinance 349 actually is.

Let's look at some of the things that are in the second half of Ordinance #349

The level of minutia in this section is amazing. Roofs may not be flat or shallow slanted but must be “compatible with the character of the Town including gambrel, gable and hipped roofs commonly found in New England.”

You can have shingles and clapboard and can use these to “sheath fireproof construction materials.” non-residential property anywhere in town would have to undergo PC torture before any building permit is issued. This extends not just to businesses, but to non-profit-owned buildings, churches, the Grange, the Fire Districts and Ambulance service,” “All” means “all.”

I think this provision was included to make sure that never again will Ruth Platner be thwarted in her campaign against brick as she was when the Zoning Board overruled her refusal to approve the Cross Mills Fire Station. 

This provision would also make it clear that she and her planning compaƱeros can make property owners look through Joann Stolle’s books of shingle samples before they decide what color to make their roofs.

Under the draft ordinance, Planning would dictate that all vents, gutters, downspouts, electrical conduits must be painted to match adjacent surfaces. And I’m sure they have books of paint samples, too.

These are just a few of the many standards the Planning Commission would enforce under proposed Ordinance 349.

No certificate of Occupancy can be issued without conformity to the standards set out in this draft ordinance.

The Planning Commission has already been accused – and rightly so – for being Charlestown’s second legislative body.

Arguably, they are Charlestown’s primary legislative body since the Town Council members rarely seem to understand what Planning Commissar Ruth Platner puts before them. Usually, the CCA-controlled Town Council majority (Boss Tom Gentz, Deputy Dan Slattery and their ally Lisa DiBello) just pass the ordinance.

If proposed Ordinance 349 is enacted, the Planning Commission will become Charlestown’s premier regulatory body as well, enforcing the standards they have consolidated under their jurisdiction on property owners across the town.

One reader likened dealing with the Planning Commission with having your fingernails pulled out. Proposed Ordinance 349 is one Helluva set of pliers.

If you look at the Planning Commission’s agendas and meeting minutes, you’ll see the same projects come before them month after month after month.

If you listen to the Planning Commission discussion on Clerkbase, you would be amazed at the level of detail the Planning Commissions cover as the property owner dangles in the breeze.

If every “non-residential activity” that requires a building permit is going to have to go before this Planning Commission, I think the Charlestown suicide rate is going to go up exponentially.

Businesses will not only see their plans stalled, they will have to spend small fortunes on lawyers and experts to try to reason with the unreasonable. Their projects run so far behind that it not just kills the project, but also kills the business by running up costs to engage in an exercise in futility. Then Planning is “shocked, shocked” when frustrated developers start coming forward with hostile and nasty projects – like wind turbines, mega-developments and the like.

The Planning Commission’s greatest talent is their use of the Power to Obstruct. They don’t generally try to kill projects outright – they just hack it to death slowly, like the Death of a Thousand Cuts.

The only way any business will be able to go forward with a project is to simply surrender to the Planning Commissioners impeccable taste. If you don’t believe me, ask any firefighter who works out of the Cross Mills Fire Station.

Homeowners may think this ordinance only applies to “non-residential” properties – i.e. businesses. But that’s not entirely clear.

What about the effect of the "any building permit" for nonresidential "activities" language? Would residential properties be required to submit to Development Plan Review if the homeowner wants to add on a permitted accessory use that is nonresidential (e.g. home office, bed and breakfast, agricultural, etc.)?

Completely missing in this ordinance – and absent in the Planning Commission’s discussion of it – was any kind of economic impact analysis. Such as, how will the Planning Commission’s sweeping changes affect local businesses?

Naturally, the Planning Commission didn’t bother asking the Economic Improvement Commission for its opinion.

If you pay any attention at all to the Planning Commission’s proceedings, you will understand that they really don’t care about the impact of their decisions. Hey, if you don’t like the way they operate, then go turn your property into open space.

Any non-residential property owner who needs a building permit will undergo Ruth Platner’s Spanish Inquisition. Until those owners agree to wear pilgrim hats and knee britches, and to make their buildings look like movie sets for “The Scarlet Letter,” no building permit for you.

Charlestown business owners – how much more of the Planning Commission’s abuse can you stand?

Read the ordinance. Then decide. Then take a stand. The public hearing for Ordinance #349 is June 11 at the Town Council meeting.