Despite the best efforts of some determined to educate their fellow citizens and Town Council regarding the pitfalls surrounding new-age zoning tools and the very questionable and possibly corrupt new “Official November 2019 Comp Plan Working Draft,” our Town Council would listen to none of it. It also exhibited a stubborn arrogance to ignore the Town Charter, Code and Zoning Ordinance or demand that more than a year’s worth of mysteriously missing Planning Board meeting minutes be posted on the town’s official website, post haste. Apparently, it prefers abdicating its authority to the wisdom of professional outside influencers, staff, appointed and hired officials, few of whom know much of the true character and culture of Westerly or special interest operators, whose uninhibited hijacking of Town Hall froze out the very ones left to live with their ugly consequences.
In the February 2018 Comp Plan Draft, the one that got dumped with no explanation, Westerly residents prioritized town character, culture, maintaining existing zoning districts, no mixed uses in residential neighborhoods, preserving cherished natural resources and focusing on a commonsense approach to achieving a balance between economic growth and conservation, all under the watchful gaze of the Open Meetings Act. The 2015 council-appointed Citizens’ Advisory Committee honored their wishes. They also considered the regulatory tool, Form-based Code (FbC), among the latest high tech tools, but ultimately rejected it because it could not promise Westerly citizens what they wanted or expected for the orderly growth of their community.
Not so the present powers-that-be, who, like bulls in as china shop, pushed brainwashing local business and organizational establishments on the virtues of FbC , even resorting to at least two clandestine invitation-only Planning Board Meetings at the library and another meeting sequestered with the Economic Development Commission to accomplish their goals. It wasn‘t important that they understand FbC, because no one did; what mattered most was just to get it and other techniques adopted into the Comp Plan and Zoning Ordinance. The professionals and land use attorneys would make sure it got put to good use. Sad to say, from the onset, this council favored businesses over citizens or appointing advisory committees to help with amending the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance.
Fed up with hearing about Form-based-Code and its mirror twin, the 19 new neighborhood plans, on the final night of the public hearing for adoption of the 2020-40 Comprehensive Plan, after all seven Councilors embarrassed themselves when asked if they knew what FbC was and not one responded in the positive, the term “Form-based-Code” was summarily removed from the Terms and Concepts Glossary at the end of the Plan, as if that would eradicate FbC from the Plan. With the just-adopted Comprehensive Plan and previously adopted Zoning Ordinance essentially premised on that nasty term now infiltrating and causing havoc throughout both documents, do you really think that by simply removing the term FbC it will go away? The dumb keep getting dumber when they don’t listen to those who do their due diligence.
If you don’t think FbC hasn’t already caught on and begun its insidious inroad to changing the character and culture of a neighborhood, think again. Just last week a developer initially presented a 32-unit, 16-luxury-duplex development and private road then trimmed it to a 26-unit, 16-luxury-duplex development with a private road and providing five low/medium housing units on 7.6 acres of land, an acre or so of unbuildable steep slope having to be subtracted from the total land area. That leaves him with about 6.6 acres to construct his 26-unit project with private road. The familiar straight subdivision in his MDR-15 zoning district, now referred to as a “yield plan,” might get him maybe 18 or so units, including the low/medium income housing or a nine-duplex development with public road, far fewer than 32 or 26 housing units and much more in character with the surrounding neighborhood.
So, I guess you knew there would be a huge hue and cry from neighbors claiming significant erosion of the character of their neighborhood and traffic congestion, say nothing of potential loss of property value. Two of those neighbors in opposition are two town councilors who also live on East Avenue where the project is located. At last week’s Planning Board meeting, one, the council president, said the project conflicts with the new Comprehensive Plan and its emphasis on trying to maintain neighborhood character. “I don’t understand how this project has got as far as it has.” Hey, if you allow it, how are you going to stop it?
Maybe the best way to maintain the existing character of the neighborhood is to maintain the existing zoning. In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. With density increase one aspect of FbC, why would a developer agree to single-family residential lots when he can make a lot more money and less hassle during the application and permitting process when FbC and its ilk are going to make Westerly “a much more business-friendly town.” That’s the banner they’re flying under, anyway.
The writer is a resident of Westerly.