P&Z should look in the mirror
Published 5:19 pm, Thursday, February 3, 2011
After the Representative Town Meeting last year overturned the Planning and Zoning Commission's approval of a plan to convert the Inn at National Hall into office space, commission members criticized the RTM and the system.
Some of the disconcerting reaction was understandable -- a P&Z decision had not been overturned in 30 years -- but most of it was not.
To its credit, even when threatened with litigation and a work stoppage, RTM members chose not to respond in kind.
This year, after what should have been a sobering 32-1 RTM rebuke of the P&Z process and its text amendment 621 on lot coverage, the P&Z is criticizing the RTM again. Criticism has come in speeches at political gatherings, comments at its annual meeting and interviews with the press. At this point, I feel a response is appropriate.
RTM critics have focused on three main contentions:
1. That P&Z won't be able to pursue major planning changes as long as the current process is in place.
2. That the RTM has insufficient rules with respect to a P&Z appeal.
3. That if the P&Z had not lost control of the "narrative," everything would have worked out.
The P&Z will move forward. As a matter of fact, in the year since the Inn turmoil, the P&Z passed a vast array of changes to our zoning regulations on subjects ranging from outdoor dining to patron bar locations to affordable housing.
The affordable housing decision was appealed to the RTM, which affirmed the P&Z decision. The P&Z had no criticism of that process.
It seems that the Sword of Damocles really didn't hold them up, and future P&Z agendas already show more changes are in the works -- including excavation and fill modifications and outdoor-music permitting.
Overall, it is not unusual to have some form of oversight and having a body looking over your shoulder often creates better results. Maybe some slowing down might actually be advantageous, allowing the public a better chance to grasp the greater implications.
As to rules:
To placate the P&Z, the first selectman last year had the town attorney draw up a clarification of the RTM's existing rules concerning appeals. Participating in that exercise were RTM Moderator Hadley Rose, Deputy Moderator Jonathan Steinberg (now our State Representative) and myself as chair of the RTM's P&Z committee.
These clarified rules make it clear to the public what to expect, were endorsed by the RTM's Rules Committee and were approved by the full RTM last fall.
During committee and RTM meetings concerning Amendment 621, the moderator and committee chair bent over backwards to give the P&Z ample opportunity to present its case, defend its position, and rebut any factual errors encountered along the way.
How P&Z members chose to use their time and defend their case throughout the process is really more responsible for the outcome than any suggested lack of rules.
They simply had no answer or credible rationale for why they approved this amendment.
Trying to make this a debate about the RTM's rules steers the focus from the real issue -- the P&Z's process.
That process in this case and many others clearly shows a rush to judgment, a lack of interest in public opinion and input and a desire to move forward at all costs.
Instead of the P&Z looking outward for something to blame, maybe it's time for its members to look inward.
It seems the P&Z members believe that if they had spun the narrative differently or better, the public would not have objected. This is not the case; the public got it.
As complex as it was, residents knew exactly what was up and made it clear from the get-go that it was wrong.
No amount of verbal hocus-pocus would change the fact that 1,100 properties would become nonconforming, especially when the P&Z initially said it was only 200. But it's not about spin or narrative, it's about what was proposed. It's about doing thorough research and, most of all, it's about listening. The latter two are something the P&Z forgot to do.
Perhaps the P&Z, after working so long on the "big house" issue, was too close to the subject matter.
Instead of taking into account what others had to say, it stridently moved forward.
Taking what had been a town-character issue and morphing it into an environmental issue was an interesting shift of concept and might well have worked, except the P&Z never proved the underlying relationship, never looked at the impact to the community and never sought out a reasonable alternative.
In fact, the P&Z's own professional staff lost confidence in aspects of the amendment and urged modification, specifically requesting that patios not be included in coverage calculation. The conservation director and town engineer agreed -- so long as patio runoff were captured. And that could be acomplished through a permit process suggested by P&Z staff.
The Architectural Review Board and the Green Task Force also went out of their ways to present letters into the record in opposition of the amendment. The overwhelming public opposition during the P&Z hearings was clear when night after night residents urged denial.
The near unanimity of the RTM vote is telling.
No matter how well intentioned an amendment is, it is the obligation of any board or commission to listen to the public, then act accordingly.
The checks and balances prescribed by our town charter have worked well and continue to serve the residents of Westport.