Friday, June 20, 2008

A plan of development in need of dentures

For the second time in two months I sat through a presentation on the update of the Middletown Plan for Conservation and Development, developed and written by Middletown's town planner Bill Warner. Warner should be commended for his command of Middletown planning history, his hard work in assembling the package, and his willingness to present the plan before 13 groups, according to his own accounting.

You can read the plan here, and read it you should.

Warner is enthusiastic about Middletown's advances in preserving open space, through a variety of strategies and purchases, and about planning alternative transit plans for the town. He is also fully aware of the problems in neighborhoods adjacent to Main Street (though he doesn't acknowledged that the re-development of neighborhoods East of Main Street, and the building of the Richman Group project - which Warner backed enthusiastically - have fueled a rapid degradation of neighborhoods West of Main and North of Washington Streets.) Creating good housing for all - particularly those who are impoverished and underserved, is essential. Creating that housing by pushing the problem to other neighborhoods is simply ignoring the core problem

Warner acknowledges the source of many of the problems - lack of home ownership, absentee landlords, increased vehicle traffic, and he offers good solutions to the "urban dilemma," but fails to acknowledge that some of the tools to address these problems - zoning enforcement, police intervention, are already available, and under-used. He mentions the "two family" limit for housing in the Village District, and in the Grand and Liberty neighborhoods, but I know from personal experience that conversion of two family homes to four or five apartments is ignored by those in charge of zoning enforcement, and that complaints don't register. There are three homes on my block of Pearl, and a recent conversion on Court Street, and all a zoning officer would have to do is count the mailboxes to know that code is being broken.

Warner, who seems to know every street and property in Middletown, is a font of knowledge. The downside is that while he asks for input, he's often defensive about accepting suggestions, sometimes immediately dismissing ideas with a list of reasons why they won't work. I've seen this occur at both presentations I've attended.

Warner should also refrain from digressive public comments which reveal his own feelings about how dangerous Main Street is after dark, and how much of a pain it is to the process when the public shows up to contest development issues. The first statement is not completely accurate, and was refuted by a former mayor at one meeting. The second statement shows a disregard for the democratic process.

By his own admission, the Plan of Conservation and Development is a document without teeth unless there are zoning codes which align with the plan.

So, while Warner is the author of the draft, and by his admission, the draft will come before a public hearing before it is adopted, I would suggest we all get involved in being sure that the plan will serve us, and Middletown for the next ten years.

Here are some of my suggestions:

- Have the final draft reviewed by the public and by appropriate commissions.
- Be sure that all suggestions for changes to the draft be available for viewing by the public and the commisssions
- Create a video presentation of the plan which can run repeatedly on cable access (the town has the right to demand this kind of broadcast)
- Make sure the plan is right, reflects the views of the city, and then create zoning code which complies with the plan
- Include actual wording about "new urbanism, smart growth and smart code" instead of simply nodding that it will be a future consideration
- Invite appropriate state legislators to the public hearing so they are familiar with the plans and concerns to the town
- As part of the plan, create separate departments of Planning, Development and Conservation, so there is a check and balances system instead of the very powerful department which exists now

Warner says he is open to suggestions. My suggestion is to be sure that any ideas you have are made in writing with copies to the Planning and Zoning Commission and to the mayor.

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