WESTERLY — Work to bring the municipal Comprehensive Plan, which guides development and sets preservation priorities, into compliance with state law is continuing and could result in adoption of a new plan by the end of the year, officials say.
The project, which started in February 2015, was initially intended to update the plan, but grew in scope to accommodate new standards adopted by the Statewide Planning Council. Town Planner Rui Almeida, in a recent memorandum to the Town Council, said changes to the standards caused "a substantial increase in the scope of work necessary to produce, not an update, but a rewrite." Almeida is the third in a succession of town planners who have worked on the project in the last four years.
Early work on the project involved seeking community input through workshops that focused on specific topics such as Westerly's distinct neighborhoods. The workshops were facilitated by Mason & Associates, of North Scituate, a consultant hired to work on the update. The firm also reviewed the plan and made revisions, which were turned over to the Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee in June 2016.
The committee reviewed the plan and the draft submitted by Mason & Associates and addressed parts of the plan that the consultant had left for residents, such as the committee, to address. The committee completed its work in February 2018. The Planning Board started its review of the committee's work in October 2017, beginning with sections of the plan the committee had completed.
Since last July the Planning Board has conducted more than 10 workshops concentrating on the plan's goals, policies and action items. The board is expected to complete its review in March, according to Almeida's memorandum.
Along the way, comments from the state Division of Statewide Planning have been incorporated into draft versions and the appendix has undergone a preliminary review by the town's planning and zoning attorney.
Over the next several months the town's planning staff will update data points and work with the town's information technology department to incorporate map updates. A completed draft version of the plan is expected to be made available during the first week of July. The draft will be posted on the town website.
Town staff members have recommended seeking public comment on the plan during a joint meeting of the Planning Board and Town Council in August. The Planning Board is expected to to conduct a final public hearing in October before submitting a final version of the plan to the Town Council, which must later conduct its own final public hearing. The council must then adopt the plan and submit it to Statewide Planning for approval.
Gail Mallard, chairwoman of the Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee, said the length of time taken by the Planning Board likely reflects its commitment to the project.
"They certainly have the right and the responsibility to go through it and make it their own," Mallard said Wednesday. "They're taking the time they feel is necessary to review it and revise it."
The committee, Mallard said, focused on delivering a draft plan "that was internally consistent and that was clear and concise and to the extent the Planning Board makes changes, I hope that is what they do."
The committee's version of the plan can be found on the town website.
The current Comprehensive Plan was designated by the state as having expired in November 2016. State officials have said that municipalities with expired plans have little grounds to oppose state projects that might affect local communities. The lack of an approved plan is not uncommon in the state. According to the Statewide Planning website, 28 of the 39 municipalities in Rhode Island currently have plans that are expired or that were rejected by the state.