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Sunday, October 6, 2013

In case you missed it: Monday night, the Council takes up measure that will affect local businesses

New shrubbery ordinance triggered by ANY project that requires a building permit
Charlestown in the good old days - aerial view shows Route One (bottom)
and 1a (middle). Notice all the lush forest and shrubbery
By Will Collette

Charlestown has 9.4% unemployment and fewer and fewer local jobs as small businesses close or move because of the town's notorious anti-business reputation. 

Just what Charlestown needs are two more ordinances designed to make life hell for small business as Planning Commissar Ruth Platner (CCA) pursues her vision of Charlestown in the "good old days" (whatever and whenever those were).

She can’t get away with simply passing an ordinance banning all businesses in Charlestown, so instead, she uses these ordinances to inflict a death by a thousand cuts.

In this article, I’ll give you a summary of what happened at the September 9 Council meeting on two new ordinances (one on shrubbery, the other on parking) and will get into the detail behind the first of the two, Ordinance #359 which I call the “Shrubbery Ordinance” (yes, I know it's officially called "Landscaping," but I never miss a chance to do a homage to Monty Python).  

I’ll do the same for its companion, Ordinance #360 on Parking in a separate article tomorrow. Both ordinances will come up again at the Council's next meeting on October 7.

Some general observations – you can tell that an ordinance is going to be bad when you see Platner and her lapdog, Council President Boss Tom Gentz try to sneak it through. These two ordinances will hit Charlestown small businesses like a truckload of organic mulch. 

Plus, the Shrubbery Ordinance will actually be counter-productive because it kicks in whenever a business owner wants to make any improvements that require a building permit, even if the improvements have nothing to do with shrubbery. And we know that no one in Charlestown would ever do some construction requiring a permit without completing the proper paperwork and getting all the inspections.

Every business owner in Charlestown has a direct stake in this and should be prepared to weigh in when the Council meets again on October 7. That’s one week earlier than usual meeting day due to Columbus Day.

Faulty public process

Boss Gentz says "you don't need to know and I don't
need to listen."
Even though the CCA Party claims to be devoted to open and transparent government, their town leaders, especially Ruth Platner and Tom Gentz, use every trick in the book to sneak bad decisions past the taxpayers and voters.

These two ordinances amend Charlestown’s existing zoning ordinance. However, they were published for the September 9 Council meeting without showing what was actually amended. Usually, the advertised versions of such ordinances show what language in the current ordinance is being changed or deleted through cross-outs. New language is shown in bold.

But not this time.

Platner’s ordinances simply showed the existing ordinances crossed out and the new language presented as if it was all new. That’s unfair if not downright dishonest and perhaps even a violation of the state Open Meetings Act. Not that this matters to the CCA Party officials who lead Charlestown town government. They've racked up lots of open government violations.

There wasn’t time for public comment and Council debate because these items were held until the very end of the agenda. Despite the late hour, Boss Gentz tried to force the Council to vote to pass these ordinances – either by cutting short public comments and Council debate, or by extending the meeting until they were finished.

Other Council members objected. When Gentz attempted to make his Council colleagues agree to extend the meeting, the other Council members voted him down, 3-2. For the first time in my memory, the Council rejected an initial time extension to go an additional 15 minutes.

To listen to the debate on both ordinances and the surprising rebellion of the Council against Boss Gentz, click here and listen all the way through to the end. It's an eye-opener.

So these ordinances are now scheduled to be debated at the October Council meeting, which will be held on October 7, one week earlier than usual due to the Columbus Day holiday.

Read the ordinances to judge for yourself

Residents should actually read these ordinances. Town Planner Ashley Hahn added a color-coded version at the end of the advertised version - you can see the "before" and "after" with the "after" version showing the language the way it should have been presented in the first place.

Click here for Ordinance 359, the “Shrubbery Ordinance” and click here for Ordinance 360, the “Parking Ordinance.” 

Make sure you read through to the color-coded section. As you will see, you learn very little about the proposed changes by reading the advertised version which was all that the public had going into the September 9 Council meeting.

You may also discover, as Beth Richardson noted in her comments from the podium on September 9, that Charlestown already tries to micro-legislate plantings and parking in its current ordinances; the proposed changes take that approach to a far greater extreme.

Here’s a run-down on what Charlestown will expect from business owners and subdivisions if Ordinance #359 is passed. Most of the narrative is my interpretation of the obtusely written text. If you see words below in quotation marks, that’s quoted directly from the proposed ordinance.

Ordinance #359: An Ordinance in Amending Chapter 218 – Zoning: Landscaping

One of the volunteer corps of Platner's Plant Police
§ 218-74-A-(1) Subdivision developers will have to landscape and plant throughout the subdivision, not just to screen the plat and provide trees along roadways. Unclear: whether the people who buy homes in the subdivision will be able to do any landscaping, or whether they will have to get Ruth Platner’s permission before putting in a garden or before changing the landscaping the developer was required to install.

§ 218-74-A-(2) and (3) Commercial property not being used for the business must be left in its natural state or must receive prior approval for a “planting plan” that is part of any application. This also applies to any part of the property that is disturbed by construction but ends up not being used for business buildings or infrastructure. There will be a potential bonanza for landscape architects to draw up these required plans.

§ 218-74-B (1), (2) and (3) All plants used must be resistant to drought, wet, salt, “urban conditions” (whatever that means), bugs and other stressors, must need minimal care, and not need watering, pesticides, fertilizers. Alternatively, you can buy some artificial shrubbery at the new Michaels in Westerly. Look up permissible plants in the URI Coop’s “Sustainable Trees and Shrubs.” You may not use any plant on the Rhode Island Invasive Species Council’s list. A big, foreseeable problem with this section is that none of the terms are actually defined – maybe we’ll just have to let URI decide.

§ 218-74-B (4) through (7) Minimal measurements when planted: shade trees at least 12 feet high; ornamental or fruit trees at least 10 feet high; evergreens at least 6 feet high.

§ 218-74-B (8) For lawns, fine fescues are preferred though not required. Just imagine how much fun Ruth Platner and her colleague Gordon Foer will have torturing applicants over the extent to which they are seeding with “fine fescues.

Make sure you have at least two inches of natural mulch or you
will be subject to citizens' arrest
§ 218-74-C. (1) (a) and (b) Topsoil must be restored and cultivated to at least a 6 inch depth and (c) covered with at least two inches of mulch. Mulch should be “natural, unpainted, unstained, and designed to retain moisture where applied.” This provision will provide great fun for competitors or hostile neighbors…they can measure your mulch and turn you in if your mulch is short of two inches. Building Official Joe Warner just loves getting pulled into these kinds of feuds.

§ 218-74-C. (2) (a) and (b) Lawns in commercial areas are only allowed in the front of the property and must be at least six feet in width. Exceptions: turf is allowed over areas “reserved for utilities, grass swales, or alternative parking surfaces.” Beth Richardson questioned this provision at the September 9 Council meeting, asking if this meant a business couldn’t have a picnic area for employees to eat lunch out in back of the property. She didn’t get an answer.

§ 218-74-C. (3) (a) If there is no existing forest, trees must be included as part of the development plan.

§ 218-74-C. (b) Trees shall be spaced approximately 30 to 40 feet on center along streets, but shall not be located within 30 feet of intersecting right of way lines. I don’t know what this means.

§ 218-74-C. (c) Dig a hole 2.5 times the diameter of the root ball and deep enough to cover it. Duh, I thought all you had to do is drop the tree on the ground and it’ll grow. (d) Make sure you stake them. (e) Make sure they don’t hit overhead wires or, when you dig, you don’t hit underground utilities. If you can’t understand these instructions, read “Tree Planting for Total Idiots.”

§ 218-74-C. (f) “When planted closer than seven (7) feet from the edge of any pavement, vertical barriers shall be installed to discourage the growth of tree roots into and immediately under the pavement area. Alternative tree planting methods such as the use of 'CU-structural soilTM2' to prevent damage to pavements and enhance tree growth are encouraged.” Again, consult “Tree Planting for Total Idiots.” Also ask yourself why the Planning Commission felt it was necessary to include this.

§ 218-74-D. Site protection. (a) Dig only where you must and keep the topsoil you remove nearby to reuse. (b) Remove trash, potentially harmful materials (such as plutonium or toxic waste barrels), debris, roots, stumps, cleared foliage, etc. in a timely manner. I made up the thing about toxic waste and plutonium, although if you find them, they really will have to be removed. Actually, I'm surprised Platner didn't include plutonium removal in this ordinance.

§ 218-74-D (c) Stay at least four feet away from any shrub or tree you plan to maintain. Construct a protective barrier at least three foot high to protect our little green buddies. Read a book to them or play soothing music. (d) Keep vehicles, equipment, trailers, stockpiled materials either where the permanent structures are going to be or on an impervious surface. Again, I made up the part about reading and playing music to your shrubbery.

§ 218-74-D (e) Keep all existing stone walls and work them into your site design to the maximum extent practicable. None of this is defined, nor is an enforcement mechanism defined. From comments she made at the September 9 meeting, it sounded to me like Faith LaBossiere (CCA Party) plans to volunteer to be the stone wall enforcer.

§ 218-74-D (f) If you are going to restore a disturbed area to natural re-growth you must, at minimum, grade and loam the area and seed it with wildflowers, perennial rye grass, a meadow or “conservation” native grass mix or similar varieties.

§ 218-74 E. (1) and (2) You’re going to need buffer areas around your property to protect your neighbors from any offending dirt, litter, noise, lights, signs, unsightly buildings, parking areas, odor or danger from fire or explosions. I’m not making any of this up.

§ 218-74 E. (3) You may not use play fields, stables, swimming pools, tennis courts or similar active recreation as buffer. You might be able to use pedestrian, bike, or equestrian trails, provided that you don’t remove any living trees. I’m not making any of this up either.
Building Official Joe Warner modeling the suit
he will be wearing when he goes out to enforce the
shrubbery ordinance

§ 218-74 E. (4) Required Buffers must be 20 feet if land is being used for public, institutional, or utility services and abuts a residential area. For commercial property, the buffer must be 20-25 feet, depending on the part of town and must consist of either an evergreen hedge or fence with evergreen plantings at least 6 feet high. The buffer is 50 feet for industrial use unless the industry is green energy generation, in which case the buffer must be 50 miles. I made that last part up.

§ 218-74 F. Owners must maintain the property, meaning at minimum, mowing, litter removal and pruning.

§ 218-74 G. Plan Required. A separate landscaping plan shall be required for review as part of the development review process when required or as part of the construction plan required for the issuance of a building permit. This is the Catch-22. If a business owner wants to do any alterations on his or her property that would require a building permit, the construction plan must be accompanied by a “separate landscaping plan.”

Every time. Even if the construction is something like installing new lighting in a restroom. This is similar to the trigger that Platner tried to get into the controversial dark sky lighting ordinance that would have required businesses to come into full compliance with the lighting ordinance anytime they made any improvements to their property, whether or not it involved lighting.

This provision is counter-productive since it serves as a disincentive for any owner of a business or subdivision from making any improvements since it will then lead to a landscaping plan that must not only be approved, but after installation, will require Town Building Official Joe Warner to use probes, calipers, yard sticks, measuring tape and a micrometer to measure every mulched area and every tree, shrub and plant before he can issue a Certificate of Occupancy.

In the next article, I’ll go section-by-section into Ordinance #360 on Parking.