The Westerly Town Council has embarked on an extensive effort to amend the zoning code and update the Comprehensive Plan at the same time. During the protracted process, town officials have employed less than effective disclosure methods in its attempt to inform the public. Failure to adequately inform and engage the public early in the extended and complex process served only to invite suspicion, speculation, criticism, and pushback.
To further complicate matters, town officials imparted a sense of urgency that appears to be driven by the town’s desire to expedite the disposal of the former BDA mill property. The town does not have title to the BDA property, but the town did obtain the Court’s permission to sell a portion of the distressed property. The subdivision Parcel A portion of the property was sold to a developer with conditions. For his part, the developer sought certain concessions from the town. The acceptance of these concessions, by the town, was demonstrated at several public meetings conducted by the Town of Westerly Planning Board. At these public meetings, that were conducted in July, October and November 2019, the developer made so-called informational presentations of his plan to develop the Parcel A portion of the mill property. In the plan, the developer incorporated the mixed-use zoning concept that has not yet been adopted by the town. Acceptance of the developer’s proposed mixed-use zoning by the town was demonstrated when the Planning Board responded favorably and without question to the developer’s plan at its November meeting. It should be noted that in addition to presentations made at public meetings the developer also met privately with town officials.
The proposed zoning code and comprehensive plan have not yet been adopted by the town. The proposed zoning amendments incorporate the mixed-use zoning concept, a blending of residential, commercial, and institutional use into one space. To ensure that the zoning amendments agree with the Comprehensive Plan, the mixed-use zoning designated districts should be included in the updated version of the comprehensive plan. Hence, the need to address both the zoning codes and the comprehensive town plans at the same time, given the sequence of events.
The undertaking of amending the zoning code while updating the Comprehensive Plan at the same time is a large undertaking. At the onset, involving the public in a meaningful and informative way may have been viewed as being premature. However, once the developer’s proposed plan addressing mixed-use zoning was introduced to the public, it should have signaled that it was time for a more open and informative approach.