From the 2020-40 Westerly Comprehensive Plan proposal: “The Plan for the Town of Westerly (the Town) is the community land-use program that will guide all land-use and physical development in Westerly from now (2020) to the end of 2040.” “This Plan is the device by which all future proposals and initiatives — whether for conservation, development, or resiliency — shall be measured. Each proposal or initiative will be evaluated based on whether it advances the vision of the future as expressed in this Plan.”
These phrases should pique interest in all who live in and cherish this community. The Comprehensive Plan’s “vision” establishes nine overlay zones, a new terminology for neighborhood building type and density, prospective urban and sewer expansion areas, and an airport overlay that will potentially place avigation easements on over 500 properties.
Given the plan’s “urban approach,” extensive zoning overlays and ill-defined zoning terminology, it presents a highly subjective vision that deviates radically from the current zoning framework citizens currently understand. (See Part III Mapped figures of the Plan.)
The Comp Plan’s zoning section epitomizes the tension between intensification of development and the quality of life in our community. Compounding that tension is a set of zoning criteria that are new and ill-defined. The recent concerns voiced in letters and opinion pieces submitted to The Sun underscore the community’s unease over vague terminology in the plan. Some examples of this are:
“Form Based Code, a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high quality public realm for people by using physical form, rather than a separation of land uses, as the predominant organizing principle.” and
“Smart Growth, an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, and community engagement.”
Who decides the right “form” and who interprets “Smart Growth in our neighborhoods?” These are highly subjective and open to various legal or “administrative” connotations. Zoning stability and security have always been fundamental to a resident investing in a neighborhood home.
There is more in this plan’s vision that is unclear to the average citizen. Terms like “micro lofts and micro apartments” and “converting a mix of residential uses into mixed use districts”— these are new and unfamiliar zoning parameters in the neighborhoods of our community.
What good does it do to move a Comp Plan forward that is vague and poorly understood by the community? In fact, the plan, itself, stipulates the need for a “community education” program. It states: “(Town Government should) clearly communicate with residents, stakeholders, and others to provide transparent information in a diverse range of outreach activities that will enhance everyone’s trust and confidence in this endeavor.” The committees have done extensive work on the plan. Now the work of educating the community about the plan’s reformative zoning objectives needs to take place.
It is my strong recommendation to the Town Council, on behalf of the citizens of Westerly who have struggled enough during these dark and stressful days of COVID, that before any further motions to pass this Comprehensive Plan occur, the council establish a “public information plan” that will provide, as stated, a “clear communication and transparent information to the citizens that will enhance everyone’s trust and confidence in this endeavor.” I am sure a Citizens Advisory Group could be formed to help in this endeavor.
The writer is a member of Westerly Residents for Thoughtful Development.