Citizens debate effect of temporarily giving council project review powers
A petition turning the City Council into a review board for the biggest development proposals was sent on Monday to get hearings with the Planning Board – which would lose power if the petition is approved – and council Ordinance Committee.
The proposal, in a 26-signature zoning petition by city councillor Dennis Carlone, would make “the exclusive special permit granting authority for Project Review Special Permits” for roughly the next two and a half years, until the city has completed a master plan. It would be only for “larger projects that are likely to have significant impact on abutting properties and the surrounding urban environment.”
Councillors dealt with it swiftly at the last regular meeting before a two-month summer break, with E. Denise Simmons bringing the issue forward early and asking without comment that it be referred, which councillors agreed to – also without comment.
But there were plenty of things the public had to say, pro and con, with significant debate over whether giving council review power would politicize the development process.
Toward the end of the nearly 1.5-hour public comment period, resident Thomas Klein said he’d been attending meetings at which he heard “enormous frustration that this is a process out of control, that the approval process is so far removed from the citizenry that the neighborhoods have really no mechanism to influence the process.” With talk of a development moratorium swirling, he said the Carlone petition is:
… a very positive way for the citizens to feel there is some responsiveness by their elected officials to influence the development process. It seems like an entirely positive thing to me. I don’t really accept the argument the council isn’t technically sophisticated enough to be dealing with these issues or that it won’t be able to withstand the political pressures that inevitably will arise in this.
But David Chilinski, president of the architecture and planning firm Prellwitz Chilinski Associates, said he practices throughout the state and knows of only two towns where this system is in use, including Newton – where he is forced to go through the exhausting exercise of contacting each of 23 aldermen individually to lobby for a project. “The process takes a ton of time and is literally about influencing the vote,” he said. “I don’t know how you get around that.”
As a developer, he told councillors he found the city’s Planning Board to be fair and to “give good hearing,” and that if the development process was to be changed, “you owe it to the citizens to actually do a study of the Planning Board and to really, really give it a hard look and tell us that it’s broken and actually needs to be fixed.”
Former councillor Minka vanBeuzekom, speaking at her first council meeting since leaving office in December, said the Carlone petition would lead to a “nightmare politicized process, and I really urge us to fix what’s not right with the Planning Board, not to add another layer” of development review.