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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Planning Commission – THEY’RE BACK!

After short hiatus, Platner and her Planning Police come back on July 25 to long agenda
She's back!
By Will Collette

NOTE: given tonight's very light Town Council agenda, your Progressive Charlestown team will cover it later. The Wednesday Planning Commission meeting has a lot more juicy stuff in it.

On Wednesday, July 25, Charlestown’s premiere legislative and regulatory body[i], the Planning Commission returns to duty. They usually formally meet twice a month, but they cancelled their July 5 meeting and have not met since June 27.

They have a full dozen agenda items listed on Clerkbase, although many of them might simply be “placeholders” – slots reserved just in case Planning Commissar Ruth Platner wants to discuss items without overtly violating the Open Meetings Act.

We can be pretty certain that where there are documents linked to an agenda item, that item will actually be discussed at the July 25 meeting.

Let’s take a look.

Refund of Road Bond.

On the surface, this item seems pretty mundane. The town discovered it is holding $4800 it received in 2003 from a housing builder for a road bond for Oak Hollow Lane. Oak Hollow Lane has since been incorporated into the town road system. The town confirmed the matter with the builder and now, if the Planning Commission agrees, the town can refund the $4800 plus interest.

What makes this item potentially interesting is that the builder is Evelyn Smith, or more precisely, J.F. Smith Builders, Inc. The Oak Hollow subdivision was one of the last projects the Smiths built.

John Smith passed away recently but Evelyn has been an active part of Charlestown political life for a long time. She currently chairs the town’s Affordable Housing Commission. When Evelyn Smith steps up to the microphone at Town Council meetings, Council President Tom Gentz visibly cringes because he knows he is about to get taken to school by Evelyn, who with her encyclopedic knowledge of Charlestown land regulations has often caught Gentz (and Platner) in gross errors. Gentz frequently – and rarely civilly – cuts Evelyn off as she eviscerates his positions.

There is no love lost between Evelyn Smith and Commissar Platner, so even though Charlestown owes Evelyn $4800 plus years of interest, Platner’s planners have to sign off. The question is, will they? And with how much snark?

Next to the Town’s Home Rule Charter and Code of Ordinances, Charlestown’s Comprehensive Plan is the town's most critically important document. This is Charlestown’s road map for the future and it is now due for its periodic updating by April 2013. Under the Town Charter, the Planning Commission is responsible for leading that process.

In the past, this process was a major undertaking that involved lots of town commissions, citizens groups, meetings and hearings. The update process last time started in 2006 and the product was finally approved by the General Assembly in 2008.

Technically, we’re late, unless Platner figures she can complete the process and get it in shape for state approval by next April. She could do that if she continues her standard practice of simply ignoring or disregarding all the other commissions and simply writes what she and her CCA colleagues want to include in the update to the Comprehensive Plan.

Don’t be too surprised if Platner produces a draft Comprehensive Plan sometime prior to November 6 for the CCA-controlled Town Council to vote on before the elections.

Some things to look for: how Platner addresses housing for working families with children, open space, regulation of design standards in homes and businesses across Charlestown, the “Platner Principle[ii],” and the powers of the Planning Commission.

Town Planner Ashley Hahn-Morris’s memo to the Planning Commission on the process for updating the Comprehensive Plan is very helpful.

Lighting Left-Overs

When the Town Council finally passed the 3,756th draft of the lighting ordinance, they amended it on the floor to strike the height limits for commercial lighting pending some further research on the subject. During the debate on the ordinance, it was pretty clear that the 15 foot limit proposed by the Planning Commission was arbitrary – more or less a guess for what they think was not too tall but not too short. But that wasn’t good enough, so out it went pending a better idea of what Charlestown needs.
Charlestown Wine & Spirits - designed to be dark-sky friendly
but taller than 15 feet

Again, Ashley did the homework[iii] and took a look at three places with presumably dark-sky friendly lighting – the new Cross Mills Fire Station, Charlestown Wine & Spirits and the Post Office. All three have lights over 15 feet, ranging up to an estimated 22.5 feet. Yet all three have been touted as models for dark-sky friendly lighting. One variable Ashley noted is that often, commercial lights are mounted on cement bases that add at least a couple of feet to their height.

But based on Ashley’s survey, it seems that Charlestown business owners were right to object to the 15 foot limit as unreasonable. What height is the right height? It looks like it’s somewhere between 18 and 23 feet, at least based on Ashley’s examples.

Inconsistent Open Space Zoning

Shelter Harbor Golf Club: Open Space in Charlestown, 
commercial in Westerly
This issue came up during the Town Council’s July 9 session when they were asked to grant a change in zoning to the widow of Richard Heaver, whose large farm was mis-zoned as open space/recreation. Planner Ashley told the Council that she found a lot of Charlestown properties that may also be mis-zoned. 

The question was what to do about this – i.e. how big of a problem is it, and what does the town need to do? Those questions were bucked by the Council to the Planning Commission, and here it is. It’s listed as a discussion, and Ashley’s report is jumbled in with her memo on the light pole height issue.

As I noted in my analysis of Ashley’s report to the Town Council, the worst inconsistencies are those that allow a small handful of powerful business interests – the Shelter Harbor Golf Club at the top of the list – to escape paying their fair share of taxes. Their tax savings get passed on to everyone else. Memo to the CCA: how about THIS is an example of discriminatory taxation?

In the Westerly portion of Shelter Harbor, the land is zoned and taxed as commercial. In the Charlestown portion, Shelter Harbor is zoned and taxed as open space/recreational.

Updating the zoning ordinance on waste water treatment standards

Now that Rep. Donna Walsh has succeeded in fulfilling Charlestown’s long-dreamt of change in DEM standards for new septic systems, opening the door to the use of a wider variety of on-site waste water treatment systems besides the much dreaded $30,000 standard de-nitrification systems, Charlestown needs to get its own house in order.

To take advantage of the opportunity Donna Walsh created, Charlestown must make sure that its zoning ordinance and waste water regulations allow Charlestown homeowners to make use of the expanded options. Otherwise, nothing has changed.

Since the DEM changes have been in the works for months, it would have been nice if the process to change town rules had begun earlier. But better late than never, I suppose. Since the DEM rule-changes are set to expire in two years, we’d better get cracking.

See this memo from the Planning Commission’s consultant.

[i] Under the Town Charter, only the Town Council is supposed to write town legislation, but since the CCA took control of town government, the Planning Commission has become the body that writes most town law. Also under the Town Charter, the Planning Commission’s powers to regulate are severely limited, but the CCA has changed that too, making the Planning Commission one of Charlestown’s most powerful regulators. Arguably, the CCA has enabled the Planning Commission to illegitimately seize enough power to make it the most powerful part of town government.
[ii] The “Platner Principle” – under Charlestown’s zoning ordinance, you are forbidden to use your land and property in any way unless it is specifically and expressly permitted. If it’s not on the use list, you can’t do it. Period. I’m not making this up.
[iii] Ashley’s brief memo is jumbled in with another memo she wrote on inconsistencies in Charlestown’s Open Space zoning, which is also on the agenda as a separate item.