Planning Board chairman quits ‘hostile environment’
By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — A divided City Council this week resolved to withhold further funding for preparation of the Master Plan after expressing concern that the Planning Board will fail to endorse a plan that addresses the major challenges facing the city.
Immediately after the council voted, Warren Hutchins, chairman of the Planning Board, submitted his resignation in a brief, terse letter to City Manager Scott Myers, saying he would no longer serve with the council and mayor in a "hostile environment of their creation."
The council split evenly over the resolution with Councilors Henry Lipman (Ward 3), Brenda Baer (Ward 4) and Bob Hamel (Ward 5) voting in favor and Councilors Ava Doyle (Ward 1), David Bownes (Ward 2) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6), who first indicated he would vote in favor, voting against, leaving Mayor Ed Engler, who said he cast his deciding vote "without reservation," to break the deadlock.
The resolution expressed doubt that the Master Plan would tackle "the significant demographic and economic issues" facing the city, particularly the shrinkage of the middle class population and the diminished commercial tax base. Moreover, it pointed to the unwillingness of the Planning Board to engage in "a reasonable public discourse" about a proposal, initiated by the mayor and endorsed by he council, to make changes to the zoning in the Commercial Resort District at The Weirs.
Lipman introduced the resolution on the heels of the Planning Board's decision earlier this month to summarily reject the council's zoning proposal, which widened the rift between the council and the board. But, he said the issue was not confined to zoning at The Weirs, but included the Master Plan. He said that Mayor Ed Engler "tried to demonstrate leadership" by offering the proposal as a step toward righting the imbalance in the tax base, mitigating the aging population and overcoming the poverty of the city, reducing the relatively high cost of housing and creating incentives for investment. By spurning the council's request to collaborate, he said, the Planning Board made "a mistake. I don't think we do a very good job in the way of planning," he continued."The resolution sends a message to get in sync for the benefit of the public."
Hutchins staunchly defended the position of the Planning Board, stressing that at three separate meetings altogether 29 people spoke "far more negative than positive" against the council's proposal and the board voted unanimously to scuttle it. "You really need to understand what we're doing and that we are acting in the best interest of the city." He called the resolution "the latest bomb," which he found "very disturbing." He told the councilors that the Master Plan was not something done in the council chamber or "the back office of The Laconia Sun" referring to the mayor's position as president of this newspaper, "but done in the public with all the members of the community invited to participate."
Saying that he ws "amazed" and flaggergasted," Hutchins said, "Today it's the Planning Board you don't like. Tomorrow what's it going to be, the Library Trustees? We need to stop this hostile environment," he added, then eying Hamel, said "Go ahead, smirk if you want," and returned to his seat.
Hutchins was echoed by fellow board member Hamilton McLean and Michael Foote of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. McLean, who was critical of the zoning proposal, said "It is ill-advised to start that conversation at this particular point in the Master Plan process." As for the Planning Board's decision to reject the proposal, he said that "it is rather sophomoric to come back and say I don't like this and I'm taking my ball and I'm going home. I thought better of you." Like McLean, Foote, holding a copy of the state planning statutes and regulations, emphasized the importance of completing the Master Plan before proceeding with any proposals to change zoning in the city.
Doyle found the resolution in "very poor, very poor taste" and "insulting" to the volunteer members of the the Planning Board. The message it sent to other volunteer boards, she said is "If you give us an answer we don't like, we're going to overrule it." She warned that some members of the Planning Board may choose to resign, suggesting that perhaps that is what some councilors want them to do. "I implore you to please reconsider this," she said. "It's only going to make matters worse."
"This is not a new situation," Baer said. She noted that in 2006 a team sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended redrawing the zoning district at The Weirs and more recently the council asked the Planning Board to reconsider the Commercial Resort District. She said that the major elements of the council's zoning proposal were discussed and adopted when the councilors and other city officials held a "goals setting" earlier this year. She said the councils elected by the voters to set public policies for the city and the work of the Planning Board, including changes to zoning, should serve those goals and policies.
Hamel said the last Master Plan is seven years late and "not worth the paper it's printed on." In the meantime, he said, a trailer park was developed overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee and devaluing the lot across the street, which has lain fallow for a decade. "Since then," Hamel said, "I've heard not one suggestion of 'let's fix this problem because we don't want this on another spectacular view of the lake.'" He noted that while nothing has been done to forestall a similar development anywhere at The Weirs, the Planning Board and its Zoning Task Force spent months discussing the keeping of chickens in the city.
Bownes sought to bridge the breach. "There are too many people in this room who are behaving badly," he said. "The opportunity we should be embracing here is not yea or nay, but what other ways can we explore." Scolding the Planning Board, he said that rejecting the council's proposal out of hand is not engaging in a discussion. Nor, he continued, was the answer "I'm going to take away the money." Instead, he urged both sides to "open your minds folks. Engage in a discussion."
Engler reminded the councilors that when, by a majority of five-to-one, they adopted the zoning proposal, they understood it was "a work in progress." He said that initially there was talk of a joint meeting between the City Council and the Planning Board, but that was deemed too unwieldy, Instead, City Manager Scott Myers suggested discussion begin in a smaller group of six members, three from each body. But, when the suggestion was presented to Hutchins he "flatly rejected" it.
Engler said he presented the proposal to both the Zoning Task Force and the Planning Board, noting that he met with no criticism and answered few questions. Subsequently, the Planning Board held a public hearing on the proposal, after which Hutchins delivered a harsh critique and the board voted to reject the proposal. "There were two speeches but no dialogue whatever," the mayor said. "This is no way to conduct policy.''
The mayor said when the Planning Board rejected the zoning proposal, speakers and members repeatedly stressed that any change in zoning should be deferred until the Master Plan is complete, for without there would be nothing to guide zoning decisions. But, he said no one — not the Planning Board, not the Master Plan Advisory Committee, not the Zoning Task Force — had been briefed about the plan.
The Planning Board, Engler explained, intends to contract with the Lakes Region Planning Commission to complete the plan by writing the chapters on land use, housing, community facilities and services and transportation. Yet, he said, no one can explain what information or direction has been provided to the commission. The mayor likened the situation to asking the Wizard of Oz to write the Master Plan. "We know it's going to be wonderful," he remarked, "because he does wonderful things."