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Monday, July 30, 2012

New Scam in the works for Comprehensive Plan?

Planning Commission considers faking it on Comprehensive Plan
"Trust Me!"
By Will Collette

On July 25, the Planning Commission met after a month-long break.

I’m going to cover this meeting in two parts. This first installment deals with the biggest new issue to come out of the meeting.

It now appears that Charlestown Planning Commissar Ruth Platner (CCA) plans to come up with a brand-new Comprehensive Plan by April 2013 even though she has allowed Charlestown to fall way behind schedule on this legally mandated and critically important duty assigned to the Planning Commission under the Town Charter.

In a separate article, I’ll deal with the several “B-List” items the Planning Commission covered on July 25.

Here’s part 1:

Charlestown’s Comprehensive Plan was the main event of the meeting. The current plan is due to expire in eight months, in April 2013. Town Planner Ashley Hahn-Morris had prepared a straightforward memo describing what needs to be done, which she gave to the Planning Commission and cc’d to the Town Council.

The discussion that followed was easily the strangest and most troubling part of this meeting and right up there among some of this Planning Commission’s most bizarre.

Ashley was questioned about the appropriateness of sending a copy of her memo to the Town Council, since state law and the Town Charter requires the Planning body to be the group that initiates work on the Comprehensive Plan.

Ashley tried to explain that she was simply keeping the Council in the loop. She didn’t need to say that she understood from recent past experience what happens to town employees who don’t. She had to repeatedly explain that she fully understood the law and the Planning Commission’s primacy. Council President Tom Gentz (CCA), Council liaison to Planning, was present and could have halted this browbeating at any time, but chose not to do so.

Once Platner was satisfied that she made the point that Planning is supreme on the Comp Plan, the rambling conversation moved on to even murkier subjects.

Time is running out

The underlying problem is Charlestown is running late. For some unexplained reason, the Planning Commission waited until this late date to get started. They seem to have forgotten that the last 5-year update process started in 2006 and finished in April 2008.

Now, there’s only eight months left. The most sensible option is for Charlestown to produce another five-year update to its Comprehensive Plan by April 2013. That would suit the requirements of the law and might even be possible to do within the short time available to fully involve town commissions and citizens.

But if Charlestown chose that simpler, expeditious option, the “five-year” extension would have to be replaced in 2016 by a new 10-year Comprehensive Plan that conforms to recent changes in state law.

So the question is whether to use this short time frame – eight months – to do a 5-year update that will only be good until 2016 or to try to pull off a new 10-year comprehensive plan three years ahead of schedule.

At the July 25 meeting, Platner loved the idea of producing a new 10-year plan, claiming Charlestown is already so far advanced in its planning methodology that it already meets the new state standards. Really, she said, doing a five-year update is the equivalent of doing a new 10-year.

Of course, the problem is that due to Platner’s dalliance, there really isn’t enough time to do a good job at either option. But Platner asserted she can pop out either an update or a new 10-year plan in the time available.

I’m sure that’s possible if Platner writes the plan herself, follows her usual practice of ignoring all other town commissions and people she doesn’t like, and has it ratified by the CCA inner circle at their undisclosed clubhouse location.

Even Tom Gentz got nervous

Even Town Council Prez Gentz could see this is going to be trouble
At this point, Council Boss Gentz got alarmed and pointed out that while creating a new Comprehensive Plan may seem similar to doing a 5-year update, it is a world of difference in public perception and in the amount of community involvement that would need to be mobilized.

Platner put out mixed signals throughout this discussion about how much public participation she thinks is really necessary. She pointed out that the Planning Commission sent its consultant to talk to the other town commissions during the 2006-08 update process. So much neater to hire someone to talk to those other commissions, and so much easier to dismiss what they say.

She said that very few people got involved beyond that in the 2006 5-year update.

She noted that when the first plans were written, many people came out to participate – she nostalgically described how times were so different then, when people read newspapers and really cared about their community. She expressed doubt that anyone will really care this time around.

This free-form debate/discussion drifted toward the idea of getting to work at some point soon (errr, eight months and the clock is ticking) to produce a five-year update, BUT if they liked the way it turned out, and it met the state criteria, they might just submit it to the state as a brand new 10-year Comprehensive Plan.

Again, Gentz suggested that “some people” might have a problem with that and it could become a political problem (no kidding). So Gentz proposed that the Planning Commission decide which approach it intended to take – update or new plan - publicly announce it, and stick with it.

This was one time I wish I was there in person to see the exchange of looks between the players, especially Platner and Gentz, as they tried to decide to what extent they will try to bamboozle the public. Gentz seemed very concerned with appearances while Platner seems confident that she could count on public ignorance and apathy.

Didn’t they learn anything from the Y-Gate Scandal?

Well, apparently one lesson they did learn was expressed by Commissioner George Tremblay, who is running to move up (or down, depending on your Charlestown political power analysis) to Town Council.

Tremblay grumbled about the idea of holding “extensive hearings,” raising the specter that “we would not want the public to whimsically overturn the Comprehensive Plan.”

At the end of the debate, Platner declared that the Planning Commission will do an update, but if time permitted, they would see if they can pack enough into the update so they can pass it off as a new, rewritten 10 year plan.

Gentz once again cautioned, “We need to be clear about the will be criticized [probably by name] if you do an update and call it a ‘re-write’.”

Platner, with support from George Tremblay, wrapped up by saying they would set a small goal (an update) but that if their work product qualified, they would send it to the state as a new Comprehensive Plan.

Platner dismissed the late date – only eight months to send a completed document to RI Statewide Planning for their approval and General Assembly ratification in April – as no big deal.

Even though the last update, approved in April 2008, was started in 2006 (and the initial Comprehensive Plan took several years), Platner said they could get the job done in the short time frame because “the Town is better at communications now.”

I don’t think she was including Progressive Charlestown in that statement.

Next steps: they will discuss the matter again in the half-hour block they have scheduled during their August 2 workshop before presenting a plan for doing the work to the Town Council’s August 20 meeting.

Prediction: This will be a bloody awful fight as Platner and the Planning Police seek to impose their will on the town. It will get a lot worse if Platner decides to play bait-and-switch by pretending to do an update when in fact she’s writing a new plan. And the broad sweep of Charlestown residents who want to get involved may have to take a pledge to George Tremblay to aver from all whimsy.