P&Z proposal for commercial permits sparks heated debate
They say if it, works don't fix it. But whether it's working depends on who you talk to.
Differing perspectives on a proposed text amendment that would first require a permit to occupy any commercial space in town collided Thursday during a sometimes emotional Planning and Zoning Commission debate.
While two commercial landlords vehemently objected to the change, which Planning and Zoning Director Larry Bradley said would make things easier for his department, there was disagreement among commission members themselves over the proposal.
"This is something that the staff has asked for ..." P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens said, "and I think we've had a couple of sore examples of what happens without something like this."
He asked Bradley to recount for the meeting the violations of zoning regulations found at a Post Road East property. "There are been multiple complaints," Bradley said, including unauthorized automotive use and sign violations. He said there has been no zoning permit in existence for the property since 1985 and that certain violations have not been addressed.
While Stephens specified that the address not be revealed unless someone asked, as it was public record, it came to light later in the meeting that the property is owned by Michael Calise, who had been outspoken against the text amendment at the Jan. 22 meeting.
"Clearly this is an unnecessary regulation," said Calise, who at the meeting denied knowledge of any violations on his property. "It is an overreach of what this department is supposed to do ... It takes up people's time, it costs money and it solves nothing."
He and commercial landlord Roger Liefer both said some rental transitions are completed in one day and that the proposed process of obtaining a permit could cost them business.
"With all due respect, Larry, you can't get a zoning permit in a week," Liefer told Bradley. "You can probably do it in a month ... and you probably can't do it without professional help."
Calise proceeded to criticize a departmental memo on the topic, which he called "shocking" and "absolutely disgusting."
"It says that commercial property owners are only thinking about their profits," he said, adding that he took offense at that observation.
Stephens then pointed out that Calise's property was the problematic example discussed, and added that despite being issued more than a dozen infractions, remains in violation. "You've got multiple violations on that, Mike," Stephens said to Calise. "It's an example of what we're looking at."
P&Z Vice Chairman Jack Whittle interceded at that point. "That's wrong," he said. "I think we're in inappropriate territory here."
Whittle also did not see eye to eye with Stephens on the proposed amendment, triggering sharp back and forth between the two.
"How do you know if somebody put a tool shed in a setback?" Whittle asked. "They're not supposed to. There are rules ... They'd still be subject to a zoning enforcement action."
"You're speaking to it, Jack," Stephens said. "If this were required, we're hoping people would be on the up and up and get these things done."
"You are essentially asking the authorities, the police, to stop people on the highways that are not speeding," Whittle said.
"That happens with DUIs," Stephens said. "They stop people all the time."
"I'm not (of the mind) to lay unnecessary regulations on commercial properties in town ... That makes no sense to me," Whittle said.
"The idea is that by having this regulation in place it gives us the ability to monitor these things so we can tell if they have a violation," Bradley said.
"There's really no record to go back and check ... It supports our ability to enforce the regulations," he said.
"It's a bit of a surveillance tool," Whittle said.
Regarding the referenced Post Road East property, which Whittle called "a total violation nightmare," P&Z member Andra Vebell questioned how the regulation change would affect such properties.
"It's been reported," she said. "There's been many complaints ... so having one get one more permit involved for somebody like this, it doesn't seem logical that it's going to change them ... if there's no teeth to enforcement to begin with."
"It's easier to enforce the absence of a zoning permit ... than to identify the breach of the regulations," member Alan Hodge pointed out.
Bradley said the data is also useful when properties go up for sale and potential buyers need confirmation on regulations compliance.
"We have no way of knowing that, (but this) makes it very easy."
"Is it fair to say that you recognize that the Planning and Zoning Department itself has a very busy caseload?" Hodge asked Calise.
"That's my belief," he said.
"So what do you think their motives are ... in looking for this regulation?"
"Frankly, I'm not so sure it's coming from staff ... I think it's just reactionary," Calise said. "I think somebody got angry and decided that we need to do something."
The P&Z took no vote on the proposal, and the issue is expected to be on the commission's April 9 agenda.