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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ordinance #349: All Power to the Planning Commission

Planning Commissar Platner plans to consolidate her control over Charlestown property owners through new Ordinance Council is likely to adopt at Monday June 11 meeting
By Will Collette

Read prior articles, Part One HERE and Part Two HERE

There is a new color-coded version of Ordinance #349 posted on Clerkbase. Click here to read it. 

This ordinance is purported to clarify the existing process for site plan review (already in the Zoning Ordinance) and make it fairer to applicants.  Oh, pulleeze. 

What it does is put the Planning Commission firmly in charge of making the rules and also of judging who meets those rules and standards and who doesn’t.

Charlestown's Route 1A under Ordinance #349
Their first step is to move the design standards for the historic village district from the site plan review section to the historic village district section, and send every non-residential construction, addition or demolition directly to the Planning Commission for review. 

They have also clarified that the Planning Commission is not actually the Historic District Commission, or even acting as the Historic District Commission, but they are nevertheless exercising all of the authority that state law gives to historic district commissions.  Well, that’s certainly a clarification, if not an improvement.

Their second step is to apply the existing rules and development standards and apply them only to projects being reviewed by the Planner, and to send all other projects to the Planning Commission who will then apply the rules and development standards in their own self-created Subdivision Regulations. 

The Planner will review only those projects that involve less than two acres, less than 20 parking spaces, and less than 2,000 square feet of new floor area, and even those may be referred to the Planning Commission for a host of vague reasons. 

As for those that will be reviewed by the Planner, they will now also have to “meet all applicable requirements of the Subdivision and Land Development Regulations.”  Well, that’s certainly clearer for the Planning Commission. 

They won’t have to remember if they’re playing by somebody else’s rules (that is, the Zoning Ordinance) or by their own rules.  They will be playing by their own rules, all the time.  And if they don’t like the way things are going, they are free to change the rules.

So how do the rules for development review under the Subdivision Regulations differ from the current rules in the Zoning Ordinance?  For starters, Zoning site plan review by the Planning Commission is now a one-step process:  pre-application, application, then one public hearing. The fee is set at $300.00 plus ten cents per square foot of floor area in excess of  2,000 sq.ft. 

Be prepared to spend a lot of time looking at
Joann Stolle's shingle sample books
Major Land Development Project review is a four-stage process:  Conceptual ($150 fee, no time limit for review), Master Plan ($250 fee, up to 7 months for review including a public informational meeting), Preliminary Plan ($1,000 fee, up to 6 months for review including a public hearing) and Final Plan ($500 fee, up to 45 days for review of engineer’s mylar plan for recording in land evidence records.) 

Even if you believe Planning Commissar Ruth Platner’s entreaty that all this ordinance is intended to do is to tidy up a messy town code – which our analysis has shown to be a blatant lie – this ordinance stands as an extraordinary example of the extent to which the town of Charlestown tries to control how Charlestown property owners use their property down to the most minute level.

Take a few minutes and run through all of the design standards listed in Ordinance #349.  We didn’t realize until looking into the proposed ordinance that all of these outrageous requirements are already in the Zoning Ordinance. 

With site plan review even as it is, you almost don’t need an architect or designer to help you figure out projects around your business or home. All you have to do is simply plug in all the minute details and – voila – out pops the perfect colonial village-style building. 

Maybe what the Town Council needs to hear is that they should repeal any requirements that allow the Planning Commission to substitute its judgment for that of the property owner on aesthetic issues that do not impact on the public health, safety or general welfare.

In part, Ordinance #349 lays out the Planning Commission’s intent to focus its most meticulous attention to buildings in the Historic Village District. Woe betide the business owner in Charlestown’s historic “downtown” who wants to do anything new to that business. There’s a section held in reserve for residences to be added later. Poison goes down better a little at a time.

Then Ordinance #349 addresses “non-residential activity” in the rest of Charlestown without specifically defining what that means. Clearly it means businesses. And buildings owned by non-profits, such as the Fire Districts, the Grange and churches. But it can also mean single-family residents, too.

Even though Commissar Platner claims Ordinance #349 simply consolidates without changing existing law, that’s just not true. For example, Ordinance #349 eliminates three uses formerly exempted from site plan review:

  • "Construction of one or two family dwellings, ordinary accessory structures and related activities."

  • "Alterations or additions to an existing residential structure which do not change its nature or use."

  • "Interior alterations that do not change the nature of use in a commercial or industrial structure."
Want a backyard garden shed/greenhouse?
Hire a lawyer (maybe two), an architect
and fasten your seat belts for a ride
through Planning Commission hell
Under the “Platner Principle,” it’s only fair to conclude that these three formerly exempt uses are now regulated under Ordinance #349. How else can we interpret the act of striking out the exemption?

If a business does remodeling on the inside of the building, they must be covered under Ordinance #349. If a homeowner adds a home office or an otherwise permitted accessory unit such as a garage or a shed, they must be covered under Ordinance #349. If this is not true, then why are these exemptions deleted from the town code?

Charlestown is long overdue to have a serious public debate over the extent to which we want the town to control our lives.

Here in one single proposed ordinance, we see the clear intent of the CCA-controlled town government to torture town businesses to death and to impose the kind of minute, regimented control over town residents that only George Orwell or Aldous Huxley could have dreamed.

Ordinance #349 is wrong on so many different levels.

Don’t believe the dishonest way this Ordinance is being packaged. To claim that it simply re-shuffles the deck is like saying that it really doesn’t matter that, in the re-shuffle, Ruth Platner gets dealt four aces while everyone else gets dealt a pair of threes.

This ordinance reflects the core beliefs of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, so you can expect they have lined up their Council reps Boss Tom Gentz and Deputy Dan Slattery.

As usual, Council member Lisa DiBello will hold the deciding swing vote. The question is whether she will vote with the CCA on Ordinance #349 or with town businesses and homeowners.