CHARLESTOWN — Members of the Town Council approved a motion Monday to have the town solicitor draft a resolution that would commit to a review of the recently approved community Comprehensive Plan.
Council members voted unanimously to have Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero, an attorney with Ruggiero, Orton & Brochu, draft a resolution “in support of a review by the Town Council of the 2021 Comprehensive Plan upon receipt by the council of the survey results for the purpose of incorporating said results into the Comprehensive Plan as may be appropriate.” The review process, under language agreed upon by council members, would need to occur no later than 6 months following receipt of survey results.
The approval came following discussion of language in the resolution, with Council President Deborah Carney and Councilor Grace Klinger each seeking stronger language to promise appropriate action and amendments to the Comprehensive Plan. The plan was approved a week ago following a nearly four-hour final deliberation after a public hearing that began in April drew to a close.
Carney, who had asked that the resolution come before the council, said she was concerned an amendment eliminating the word “mandatory” from the resolution — the change was presented by Councilor Cody Clarkin and approved by a 3-2 margin — and a second to add the word “consider” that failed, would render the promise to residents useless.
“With this language, one could then argue that we considered it, decided not to do anything and we’d have met the letter of the resolution without meeting the intent,” she said.
Clarkin said that, as the town's governing body, a resolution was already a significant step toward identifying future goals and committing to a fair review of the community survey and public goals.
The council also agreed unanimously to conduct the review of surveys with the intent of determining and establishing a plan that accurately reflects the long-term development goals supported by the community as a whole. Councilor Bonnie Van Slyke’s motion called for the council to use the exact language from within contracts related to the administration of the survey, which identify clearly that the survey is “to evaluate public support, attitudes and perceptions towards town services, programs and capital assets to guide the town’s budgeting priorities, service delivery and investments in buildings and structures.”
The commitment comes following a contentious end to an ongoing public hearing that saw the town’s Comprehensive Plan pass the Planning Commission unanimously before narrowly being approved by the Town Council on a 3-2 vote. Carney and Klinger were each opposed.
The plan, as presented, seeks to implement policy that will encourage strong, healthy long-term development and growth for the community. The lengthy plan includes measures that seek to protect natural resources and open space, enhance recreational opportunities, preserve historic and cultural resources, and identify future land use and changes needed with zoning and regulations.
During the course of the meeting, both councilors had expressed concerns about the comprehensive plan being passed in advance of the upcoming survey, which will be sent to all town residents to solicit feedback.
Each said they had issues with parts of the plan, including that it did not do enough to protect compensation for landowners when the town acquires property and that it was passed both before the survey has been conducted and before formal approval of any changes by the National Park Service, which has a governing responsibility to review any plan changes for Ninigret Park.
“I don’t believe we should be approving any plan until we have the results of the town-wide survey,” Carney said. In our history, the Comp Plan has been amended once, and it had to do with a zone change, so I am not optimistic that once the plan is approved, there will be any appetite to make any amendments.”
Members of the Planning Commission said they believed the plan had been reviewed thoroughly over a lengthy, multi-year process and that it was inaccurate to characterize the plan as rushed or incomplete.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Ruth Platner and commission member Frances Topping each noted that the Comprehensive Plan has been on the agenda countless times and has been available to the public in some form for over 16 months now.
“We have a responsibility to do this, and we have done it deliberately and thoughtfully,” Topping said. “We are not going to please everybody; there are differences of opinions throughout town. It’s time the town gets on with its business.”
Both Van Slyke and Clarkin expressed disagreements with criticism that the plan was rushed, saying that it had gone through an extensive process and that, after careful consideration, it was time to move forward.
Van Slyke said not doing so would leave the town operating with an expired plan, which creates a different set of liabilities and potential issues. Clarkin also noted that, despite the town’s history, the council could move forward with proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan without Planning Commission approval.
“There is no evidence, in my view, that there are any inaccuracies in the plan or that any materials are missing,” Van Slyke said. “It will protect the town, whereas not having a plan in place puts us in jeopardy and is irresponsible.”