Monday, July 31, 2006

Small Town News - Cumberland Farms: the P&Z Votes

The view looking South down Main Street. Town hall is on the right, and the Cumberland Farms on the left.

The view looking North up Main St. The Cumberland Farms sign is seen as well as the Gulf gas station with one island and Coke machine. Make a left down Elm St. and within a mile you reach a highway.

The P&Z Vote

The P&Z vote was held in the downstairs meeting room at the town hall that can safely hold about 40 people per fire regulations. That night, it was standing room only and people were waiting outside to get in. Before the meeting started, it was proposed by the citizens that the meeting be moved upstairs to the auditorium that can hold 150 people, but the P&Z refused with stony faces.

The meeting was called to order. The chairman recused himself from the Cumberland Farms matter. More about that later. At some point the issue of correspondence was raised. Apparently, the petition with 350 signatures to reopen the public hearing was dismissed after the applicant’s (Cumberland Farms) Lawyer wrote a letter citing a Supreme Court case indicating that such motions are not in order. The citizens' group’s member lawyer wrote a response saying the applicant’s case was off point (and he should know, since his job entails following Supreme Court cases). The applicant’s lawyer’s letter was accepted into evidence and the citizens’ were not. So, even though no more evidence was to be accepted, the applicant’s evidence was. That did not seem right to anyone.

A P&Z member made a motion to approve the application and after acceptance of the motion the matter was open for discussion. The mostly female P&Z kibitzed endlessly and in an uninformed manner about the canopies, roof pitch, pumps, number of islands, pumps and the like. Thirty minutes were spent trying to determine how big 18 inches was. They were obviously biased for the applicant and the one dissenter was viciously attacked. It was like watching cats on a mouse. Things were said like, “Well Jane, I wouldn’t know, you’re the scientist.” They were obviously biased, bitchy, uninformed, unprofessional, and an embarrassment to the town. Everybody thought so. Our P&Z in action. Gotta love it.

I worried that they would ignore the nonconforming issue (triple the gasoline within 200 feet of a school and place of assembly on an unapproved site) and went to Joe, the First Selectman, and whispered to him about it. He said that he would mention to them during the break. Later in the meeting they did ask the P&Z lawyer about conformance. The lawyer advised that when weighing conformance one has to look at the big picture. The total conformity of the current sites versus the conformity of the future site needs to be compared. So, the proposed redevelopment will result in a single lot which is significantly less non-conforming than either of the two lots which are to be combined. The acting Chairperson smiled. She summarized as follows: the new lot will either be in compliance with regulations as to gross lot area, impervious coverage, and landscaped area, lot frontage, building setbacks, parking and delivery. The new development will be in conformance with the Greenways project, will not depreciate property values, will improve public safety by upgrading fuel systems, new traffic flows will eliminate unsafe conditions, and the two service bays at the current station will be eliminated.

I, as well as the rest of the audience, was so frustrated and exasperated by this time that I couldn’t help it and I cried out, “Yeah, and three times the gas is so much safer!” At least I got a laugh from the people around me and a stern warning look from the acting bitch chair.

It was announced that hours of operation would be from 5:00 am to midnight. There was a pained groan from the audience.

The P&Z reduced the number of islands from 4 to 3 and approved the application in a vote of 3 in favor and 2 against. So, just like that, we have a new Cumberland Farms gas station in our town.

The Appeals

Shortly thereafter, the citizens' group hired a lawyer and filed two appeals: one with the Zoning Board of Appeals and the other with the Supreme Court in our State. We had a tough time finding appellants, but we located some. The aggrieved are a couple who own a local Bed and Breakfast down the street from the proposed gas station who filed based on possible loss of business, and family who live on Elm street who filed based on loss of property value due to increased traffic from the highway to the new station, and a couple who own a business adjacent to the gas station who filed based on possible loss of business and decreased property values. The next step is waiting for Cumberland Farms to challenge our appellants. Money to pay the lawyer was collected from the citizens' group and letters for further donations were sent to people that signed the petition. More money is still needed.

I served the ZBA appeal myself. I drove to the ZBA Chair’s ranch house and knocked on his door and then stepped back a few paces (as I was taught in sales school). It was a lovely day. He answered and I served him. He signed, but was grouchy. He said something like, “Well it’s summer and so no one may be around to hear this.”

I responded with, “You have a lovely garden. Are those lupines? I can’t even get them started in my garden.”

And so we talked about his garden. It turns out that he had just had a cherry tree cut down and had split the wood himself. He had humming birds coming to a feeder. His house was on a beautiful spot that I had never been to in our town.

Anyway, back to the story. After the Subway ZBA precedent, the ZBA voted that it was not their role to overturn P&Z decisions on matters. At their next meeting, they were reminded of this and although our matter was not on their agenda, they decided to drop it altogether. The town squandered an opportunity to settle this matter on the cheap. That is how I see it.

Our hired lawyer feels that we have a really solid case so long as we can get our day in the Supreme Court. So, here we sit, waiting for a challenge from Cumberland Farms to our appellants. People are talking about mediation. But we are just waiting. I will report on any action on this matter as it happens.

The Recusant P&Z Chair

By the way, the P&Z Chair recused himself because he was a town employee. About six months ago, there was a town vote on whether town employees could be on the P&Z and Inland Wetlands Commissions (as there is an obscure writ in State law indicating that they cannot). The town had voted at that time that they could not. However, the town ignored that vote and the Chair continued on the P&Z. We still don’t know why he recused himself on the night of the vote.

But, sometime later, there was another town vote held on whether town employees can serve on the P&Z and Inland Wetlands Commissions. There was heavy turn out for the vote. Of course our entire citizens’ group was there (now up to some 30 in number) and all of the town employees and Joe’s cronies. We had even turned to the anti-government group in town by mentioning it to our mailman and he made sure all of his buddies showed up to vote against it too. Networking at its best!

The meeting was held in the upstairs auditorium at town hall. Joe ran the meeting. As soon as the meeting was opened Sean moved for a written ballot. This was readily seconded and approved. Many folks were pissed because we had already voted this down. Why was Joe raising the issue again? Joe explained that he thought that the town lawyer had confused the issue the last time by indicating that it was not needed to the public and that might have been why some voted against it. But, now the town has been sued for it (it was included in the citizens’ group lawsuit since the chair closed the Cumberland Farms hearing so suddenly) and it has been brought to his attention by the P&Z lawyer who feels it could be a problem.

A citizen (from our group) asked how we could change appointments of P&Z members to elections instead of selections by Joe. Applause sounded for this comment. The town lawyer answered that that could be done by getting a petition for a town meeting and making it so, but that in her opinion that would be a mistake, since volunteers were hard to find. (Though, with enough meetings like the P&Z vote, we would not have a problem finding them, was my thought.) The citizen asked how many signatures such a petition would need. No one knew. After the meeting we found out it was only 20. The same citizen also asked how we could make the vote so that if it was decided that town employees could not be on these commissions, they could be removed, since we had already voted such, but they were still acting on the commissions. Applause sounded for this comment too. It was explained by the town lawyer that it was too late for this as the vote was already written and published, but that the town could make this happen by petition.

Discussion continued. Sean said that his concern was improper influence, loss of objectivity and fair representation for the town by having town employees on town commissions. He noted that the P&Z Chairman’s office for his town job, he assists Joe, is right outside Joe’s office in the town hall.

Sometime later, the written ballot vote ensued and took quite some time since there was a big crowd. The final vote was 40 for having town employees on the P&Z and Inland Wetlands Commissions and 56 against. The motion did not carry. Hooray!

Unfortunately, now the town is emotionally split. Town employees have taken all of this very personally since it was personal for them right from the start. The P&Z Chair continues to lead the P&Z meetings, showing an arrogant and dismissive regard for the vote of the people as if daring them to change it.

Stay tuned for the next big chain invasion next week...

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