Thursday, April 3, 2008
Flinging shit at the ZBA
When I'm home, there's little that will get me to turn from Keith Olbermann's Countdown (with the exception of the host and a guest discussing some entertainment world tidbit about American Idol or the starlet of the day). Tonight Olbermann was discussing our president's involvement in ordering torture, but something drew me to another channel.
When I turned on the TV I saw a packed room at Middletown's Council Chambers for a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting. Under debate was a cease and desist order issued by the ZBA against the Hill Farm for hosting weekend equine events at their Maromas farm. The Hills were challenging the order. On the other side of the argument was Ron Borelli, and his legal counsel. Borelli, a neighbor of the Hill farm, has argued against the farm as being a commercial operation in a non-commercial zone. This dispute has been before town boards, and in court, for years.
The Borelli counsel argued that horse events at the farm, at which admission was charged, amounted to a commercial enterprise. The Hill counsel, and dozens of people who packed the room argued that farming, is, in essence a commercial endeavor, and that horsing events fit into the definition of agricultural operations.
The debate was impossible to turn from as impassioned horse owners shredded the arguments of the opponents, and the opponents returned to fire volleys back.
And the simple back and forth about piles of horse manure was fascinating, really.
But the meeting was a train wreck, thanks mostly to the ZBA chair Annabel Resnisky who seemed to be having trouble, under the circumstances, running an orderly session. Resnisky, who has apparently been on the board for years, seemed to be very defensive and intimidated by the large turnout, often accusing those giving public testimony of personally challenging her decisions. ("You looked at me when you said that," she accused one of the Hill Farm owners. Where else was he to look? The public podium faces the chairwoman.) She repeatedly warned speakers to cut their remarks short.
After the public session, Resnisky seemed incapable of calling for a simple motion or vote, (in fact Robert's Rules of Order seemed to be a foreign topic) and the commission discussion which began informally, off-the-public-record and barely off-mic as some members discussed making an appeal to the opposing parties for compromise, when the meeting was not actually called to order, degenerated into a confused discussion of the duties of the board, and definitions of agriculture, though the board seemed unclear as to what those duties and defintitions were - frequently turning to Town Planner Bill Warner for advice. Warner often needed to remind Resnisky where they were in the proceedings ("I think we need a motion," he would stage whisper, or "There's a motion on the floor, you need to call a vote.") The discussion by board members was laughable with each sucessive comment suggesting that members had little idea of the real arguments on either side of the issue which had just been placed before them.
The board eventually managed to call a vote on a resolution to uphold the cease and desist order. The resolution was passed 4-3.
I know this is citizen democracy in action, but in a city the size of Middletown, on a board where important decisions need to be made, it's important to have committee members willing to listen and consider all debate, and discuss the matter coherently.