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Sunday, March 16, 2014

“Abuse of Process”

Planning Commissar Platner and Commission blasted for outrageous demands
By Will Collette

Platner gets the bird
Rarely to you ever see the most powerful politician in Charlestown, Planning Commissar Ruth Platner (CCA Party), get publicly taken down for her typical abuse of power…and then see her back off. But that’s exactly what happened at the February 26 Planning Commission meeting. The occasion was Part Two of the Planning Commission’s auto-de-fe of Arrowhead Dental which is before the Planning Commission with its plans for a major expansion.

You can watch this whole exchange on Clerkbase (click here and go to the five minute mark. It runs till 1:22). If you find you can’t make the link work, you may made to use the “secret” fix to get around this flaw in the system. For a description about how to get around Clerkbase’s access flaw, click here.

Most Charlestown residents know about Arrowhead, one of South County’s largest dental practices located near the junction of South County Trail and Route One. Cathy and I have been happy and loyal patients of Arrowhead (and specifically of Dr. Nectara Stefano) since we moved to Charlestown eleven years ago.

Arrowhead is one of Charlestown’s largest employers. They were the first recipients of Charlestown’s Hometown Hero Award for their annual Dentistry from the Heart Day where they treat hundreds of local folks for free. Their practice is sleek and modern. Their interior is pleasant and comfortable. Their grounds are beautifully landscaped.

So naturally, that makes them a great target for Platner and her plucky Planning Commissioners to rake over the coals now that they want to expand. They are also being used by Platner as the first big test case for the town’s controversial dark sky lighting ordinance.

In January, Arrowhead founder Dr. Bruce Gouin was peppered by Commissioners with challenges and “suggestions” about the plans for the expansion. Gouin explained that he needed the extra space not only to grow the practice, but to also provide his administrative staff with more comfortable alternative work space to their current cramped and sunless basement work stations.

Gables, gables, gables...we want more gables
What ensued in January was trademark goofiness by the Commissioners as they tried to impose their own concepts of architectural design on the project, such as adding gables, lots more gables, and other goo-gaws to the plan. These “suggestions” would not only add to the expense, but were outside the scope of the zoning ordinance and thus outside the scope of the Commission’s authority. It was also clear from Dr. Gouin’s reaction that he thought these suggestions were pretty awful.

A group of Copar Quarry neighbors were at the January meeting to ask the Planning Commission to fix some flaws in the mining ordinance the Commission had drafted so they got to wait through the Arrowhead segment. They told me they were shocked at how Dr. Gouin was treated by the Commission and amazed at the nit-picking issues the Commissioners raised.

Nonetheless, the January meeting segment on Arrowhead ended amicably with the understanding that Dr. Gouin and his design team would go over the plans and attempt to accommodate the Planning Commission, which they did.

But they were in for a big surprise at the February 26 meeting. Unbeknownst to Arrowhead, the Planning Commission apparently decided to make them the first big test for the town Lighting Ordinance and their foil for expanding their authority beyond what the law requires. Commissar Platner had acting Town Planner Jane Weidman contact lighting engineer Joe Holquist and asked him to do an analysis and report on the outdoor lighting system – existing and proposed – at Arrowhead to see if Dr. Gouin’s lighting was more than was absolutely necessary.

Holquist responded that he needed more information such as full detail on the existing lights and a detailed lighting plan for the proposed addition. Arrowhead’s attorney Maggie Hogan was not notified of this until right before the Commission meeting.

The first twenty minutes of the Arrowhead segment on February 26 consisted of Holquist reporting on what he found – that it the lighting looked OK to him, but that he needed a lot more detail, especially about the existing lighting. When he was finished testifying, it seemed clear that the Planning Commission was about to order Arrowhead to come up with a detailed, comprehensive lighting plan that accounted for every light on the property, including those already in place.

Arrowhead attorney Maggie Hogan stepped up to the podium and the skies opened up and lighting and thunder came down. She blasted the Commission for blind-siding her and her client by failing to give them notice that they were going to a lighting engineer – and making it very plain that they were not going to pay the bill for Holquist’s services.

Maggie said that her understanding from the January meeting was that there were a few minor lighting details that Arrowhead needed to review – this is verified in the official minutes – and not the elaborate top-to-bottom analysis Holquist and the Commissioners had just discussed.

She was irate at the lack of professional courtesy that actually amounted to a denial of Arrowhead’s due process rights.

Adding to the “abuse of process,” Maggie pointedly noted that the town’s controversial dark sky ordinance specifically exempts existing lighting. She read the legal definition of exempt to underscore her point that the Planning Commission was exceeding its legal authority by reviewing these exempt lights – which are, for the most part, dark sky compliant anyway – and calling for a comprehensive plan that included those lights.

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggeiro interjected that, well maybe the Planning Commission did the right thing since they have general jurisdiction over the entire site. Attorney Hogan spun on her heel to confront Ruggeiro, telling him “of course, you would say that” and then proceeded to spell out why he was wrong.

She described the political and legislative history of the dark sky ordinance which we covered extensively in Progressive Charlestown. The ordinance started out as a far-reaching, detailed and draconian measure that would have affected every outside light fixture in town – except those on government property – commercial or residential. It was a classic case of Platner destroying community consensus in favor of a good concept of preserving our beautiful night time vistas through over-reach.

This overreach by Platner provoked the predictable backlash that finally led to a greatly watered down ordinance that only covered new commercial lighting or major repairs or replacement of existing commercial lighting. 

None of those circumstances applies to Arrowhead’s existing lighting.

Gordon L. Foer
Bad night for Gordon Foer
At one point, Attorney Hogan said that if the Planning Commission was so hell-bent to expand the scope of their authority under the lighting ordinance, why not go after conspicuous violators, such as the flood-lit Town DPW Salt Barn right behind Town Hall.

Platner was caught trying to expand the authority she could not get through the open legislative process by trying to see if she could get away with it on Arrowhead. My favorite part of the Clerkbase video is the reaction by Platner and Commissioner Gordon Foer to Maggie’s thundering critique (punctuated by Maggie slamming her fist on the podium).

Foer did an awkward verbal backtrack, complimenting Arrowhead for all its efforts to produce a good design that was environmentally sound and compliant with the law. He said that all the Commission was doing with Arrowhead was “holding a dialogue” rather than the Spanish Inquisition.

Actually, I think Gordon wanted the meeting to be over quickly, because his expression indicated he needed to change his underwear.

Here's a short video interlude, after which my coverage will continue:

Commissar Platner’s reaction was to come out with some of her most unintentionally funny verbal gymnastics. She said that the Town’s action in consulting the lighting engineer was actually done for Arrowhead’s own good. She said that it was just wonderful for all concerned that Holquist reported that he saw no problems with the lights.

Attorney Hogan dismissed this revisionist view saying again noting the abuses of process by the Commission.

When Dr. Gouin took the podium, he was clearly shaken by this episode and not comfortable with the conflict. He tried to quietly lay out how he intended to meet the letter and spirit of the law and be a good neighbor. He noted some of the design changes that he and his team had made in response to January’s “dialogue” and which he rejected (gables, gables, gables).

From this point forward toward the end of the segment, the Planning Commission, chastened by Maggie Hogan’s fury, trod very softly and voted unanimously to move this project on to the final stages.