Transparency and public accountability seemed to be the central issue once again at a Planning & Zoning Commission meeting that concerned age-restricted housing regulations (AROD). At last night’s P&Z meeting, after several weeks of public hearings on a proposed amendment to place a moratorium on certain AROD applications, the commission voted 5-3 to deny the moratorium.
The controversial AROD topic has been highly debated by residents for more than a year and has often prompted criticism of how the P&Z commission and department has interacted with residents. Members of the public have called several events into question since the initial AROD regulation was first proposed in the spring of 2016, among them:
So too did last night’s meeting end with members of the public vocally angry about what they perceived to be a sort of “bait and switch” situation–that the resolution adopted by the commission to deny the moratorium and put into the official record of events didn’t accurately reflect what was actually discussed by commissioners at the meeting. They also were unhappy with what they perceived to be less-than-transparent procedures allowing the most recent AROD application submitted by Jim Fieber for 183 Ridgefield Rd., scheduled to be heard that evening, to be continued for a third time, until Dec. 11, alleging that the commission tried to withhold certain items from the record and from the public.
Chairman Joe Fiteni asked the commissioners to share which way they were considering voting on the moratorium proposal.
Commissioner Scott Lawrence led off by saying that while discussions around the moratorium as proposed by Ridgefield Rd. resident Patricia Frisch had raised “cogent, legislative reasons” for waiting to consider any AROD legislation until after the town had gone through the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) process. The conversation that occurred in the wake of the moratorium application, Lawrence said, had allowed important issues to be raised to show that much more needed to be considered and studied if AROD applications came in front of the commission–things like traffic, demographics, and the water and sewer use plan. However, he felt that to do so didn’t require a moratorium, which he said, “might create more problems than solve.”
“I don’t think we need it to evaluate applications that come before us,” he said, noting that even though the public hearing process of considering the moratorium “seems like we’ve been at this forever…We’ve learned a lot from it. I don’t think we’re worse off for their efforts.” He said that he would vote against the moratorium because he believed the POCD process should be considered before moving forward on AROD, noting, “We don’t need the moratorium to wait.”
He was joined by other commissioners who said they planned to vote to deny the moratorium amendment:
Doris Knapp said she would be “…uncomfortable stopping people from doing what they could be doing, stopping people from submitting applications. Our job is to rule on applications, and I’m not comfortable telling people they can’t do it.”
Rick Tomasetti said, “My belief is that I have all the tools in which to make a intelligent decision about any application, and I don’t need the moratorium to do so. I understand it, I think Ms. Frisch did an exceptional job highlighting the rationale. I don’t need the moratorium to understand AROD. I agree with Scott, we’re better for all of this, as painful as it’s been. I don’t need the moratorium to understand what I’m going to do.”
Sally Poundstone said,”I do not believe we need a moratorium, it’s just delay, delay, delay; meanwhile the world marches on, the world changes, and I think we should deal with what we’ve heard, of course, but I do not think we need the moratorium.”
Fiteni agreed, saying that the commission has the tools to decide AROD without a moratorium, which would tie the hands of future commissioners. Instead they would be able to use their legislative and policy decision making powers to take action.
The three commissioners who said they’d vote to support the moratorium were:
Andrea Preston, who said that for the benefit of the town, the question of where AROD was appropriate should be put off until after Sept. 2018, and wait until after the POCD process;
Peter Shiue, who said he’d “…like to see a full stop and go through the POCD process to understand what the town wants. I still think a moratorium gives us the ability to take a deep breath and figure out where we need to go with this;” and
Tierney O’Hearn, who like Fiteni and Preston, would be leaving the commission after last night’s meeting (with newly elected commissioners coming on before the next meeting on Dec. 11), a situation that seemed to free up O’Hearn to speak a little more liberally. He noted that the AROD question has “held this commission hostage for the last year, and we have spent a great deal of time on it. I’m thankful to the town for coming forward and making us aware of so many things. When this whole thing was rescinded, it was from a fatal error Patricia Frisch found. We never addressed the public notice, which didn’t list the three roads, so no one from the public came, they never had an opportunity to deliberate prior to this time.” He complimented Frisch, who he said did a “fantastic job” researching the issue, and was amenable to making changes when the commission asked. He was in favor of a moratorium, because, “I think we need to hit the pause button. There’s a lot more we can learn from the POCD process. It doesn’t tie our hands as much as we think. The commission can vote or change it as it sees fit, but we need to take a breather to see what we’re doing and look at the appropriateness of Ridgefield Rd. or where AROD would fit, but that’s not where it’s being proposed.”
Because it seemed that many commissioners on both sides of the opinion felt that waiting for the POCD process would be beneficial, Lawrence suggested inserting another clause in the resolution to reflect that the moratorium was being denied because the commission found it appropriate to wait for the POCD process to better understand planning issues. It was briefly considered, but no language was suggested that would satisfy everyone that it wouldn’t bind the hands of future commissions, and Fiteni said such a clause would be “contradictory” to any denial of the moratorium.
There was a slight confusion during the hand vote, when commissioner Poundstone seemed to keep her hand up after voting as one of the five commissioners to say, “yes, to deny” the moratorium; she continued to keep her hand raised along with the three commissioners who voted, “no” against denial the moratorium, drawing ire from residents in the audience. [Editor’s note: that’s why the main image with this article shows four hands raised to vote against denying the moratorium, even though there were only three who really voted against denying it.]
Even though the vote denied the moratorium, the majority of residents in favor of the moratorium seemed to be relieved at what most of the commissioners expressed–that waiting for the POCD would be beneficial before any AROD legislation would be considered.
Someone in the gallery asked for the actual resolution to be read. As is common practice, P&Z staff had prepared two resolution drafts in anticipation of the vote–one if commission members decided to approve the moratorium and one if they decided to deny. When it was read after the actual vote, residents in the audience erupted angrily, shouting accusations that what was in the pre-written resolution didn’t reflect what commissioners had actually said during the evening’s discussion.
Shouts of, “Shame!” and, “That’s a joke!” were heard. Residents were angry that the resolution drafts hadn’t been made accessible to the public before the vote, nor had it been read out loud before the vote–it was only read to the public after. As anger grew, chair Fiteni abruptly called a recess and closed the matter. It didn’t stop members of the public from commenting.
Following the outbursts, moratorium applicant Patti Frisch spoke with GOOD Morning Wilton. She described why she was so angry with the evening’s proceedings.
“If you listen to the deliberations of the commission members, it was well-considered, well received, seriously considered. I understand the vote, and I’m not angry at the vote, I respect the vote–I don’t respect the resolution. The resolution doesn’t bear any resemblance to what any of the commission members said in the deliberation, and it doesn’t bear any resemblance to what was said in any of the prior hearings. So where did those resolutions and whereas clauses come from? Who drafted them? and if that’s what those commission members believed, why didn’t they say that in their deliberations?
“The disconnect between what they said and how they voted and what that resolution says is so wrong. Who wrote it? Who wrote it and put it in front of them? Why is it that when one person thought that maybe they would amend it to put it more in line with what he was thinking, that that was just cut off, as, ‘You can’t really do that.’
“I don’t understand that process. I actually called Mr. Nerney’s office and asked if I would be able to see the draft resolutions prior to the meeting, and I was told I could not. Nobody in the public saw what that resolution was, and there is absolutely no way that anybody listening in that room would say that that resolution reflects what those people were thinking.”
Frisch points to several of the “whereas” clauses that she says are not reflective of what commissioners said at Monday evening’s meeting:
Vicki Mavis, Frisch’s fellow Ridgefield Rd. resident who has also led the effort to block high density development on their road, suggested that the draft resolution might have been drafted by someone other than the town planner or a town official, as is usually the procedure.
“Who drafted it? That’s the real question here too,” Mavis said. “This was not drafted by our town planner.”
Frisch agreed. “I can’t believe that [Wilton town counsel] Ira Bloom would have drafted this, it’s so egregiously wrong. I think if I wanted to challenge this whole decision I could. None of these WHEREAS clauses are reflected in the record. I’m so upset by this. This is not the vote.”
Further upsetting Frisch, Mavis and many of the residents in the audience was that the vote was taken before the draft resolution was read out loud. While the commissioners did have the drafts ahead of the meeting of both possible resolutions–one denying the moratorium and one approving it–it wasn’t something that the public had access to or heard before the vote.
“They claimed to have read this, but we didn’t know what they were voting on,” Frisch said, adding that she practices law in front of Planning & Zoning Commissions in other towns, including Greenwich, where the commissioners there work on the resolutions themselves during meetings. “They talk about it, it is read before they vote, they tweak it.”
The current AROD application submitted to P&Z by developer Jim Fieber that had been scheduled to be heard at Monday’s meeting but was postponed yet again to Dec. 11 will now be heard by a P&Z commission with a different makeup, as newly elected commissioners will be seated on Dec. 1. Gone from the commission will be Fiteni, Preston and O’Hearn, while four new commissioners will take their seats.
Frisch suggested that the real reason behind the continuance was the “numbers game” of the vote, saying Fieber hoped that new commissioners would vote in his favor once he began to realize that most of the current members seemed to favor waiting on any AROD decisions until after the POCD.
When the commission discussed the request to postpone Fieber’s application earlier during Monday evening’s meeting, Frisch objected that only two letters the commission had received regarding the postponement request were read into the record, noting that many more had been sent and received by the commission, letters which, “raised important procedural and substantive issues about the effect of granting the requested continuance, including the gross prejudicial effect the continuance will have on the public and on the next commission which will be sworn in on Dec. 1, 2017.”
Fiteni initially resisted having them read, but relented when other commissioners spoke up to suggest they should be read. In an email to GMW after the meeting, Frisch questioned Fiteni’s handling of the matter.
“The law requires that Planning & Zoning Commission meetings be held in public for a reason, but, Mr.Fiteni, at every turn, has shown his hostility and contempt for the public who dare to demand better from him or dare to disagree with his prejudgement of matters before the Commission,” she wrote.
Frisch requested that GMW publish both an email she sent to the commission as well as a letter she and Mavis had sent the commission regarding the postponement–which wasn’t read and entered during the meeting until Frisch pushed for it.
To the members of the Planning & Zoning Commission:
I respectfully request that you consider the attached opposition statement from myself and Ms. Vicki Mavis and deny 183 Ridgefield Road LLC’s request for yet another continuance of the public hearing.
I note that the Applicant’s request for a continuance preceded my filing, on Wednesday, November 22, 2017, of letters responding to the Applicant’s consultant reports dated October 10, 2017. These letters are not reason to further delay the public hearing any more than the Applicant’s October 10 filings by the Applicant were reason to delay the October 10, 2017 hearing.
The applicant has asked for continuance after continuance. It has brought us to this position. Any further continuance would be grossly prejudicial to the interests of the public. If the applicant does not want to proceed with its application, it has the right to withdraw. It does not have the right to a continuance, even if it chooses not to appear.
As I was advised by the Chairman of the commission at an earlier hearing on another, related application, that right belongs to the Commission, and the Commission alone, not the applicant.