A majority of people attending a public hearing on consolidating two land use commissions Wednesday opposed the recommendation and the Town Council voted to table a vote on an ordinance that would dissolve the separate Planning Commission and Zoning Commission and create a combined Planning and Zoning Commission.
Reasons for a combined commission are that it could encourage development by streamlining the process and it could reduce staff workload. But opponents of the proposal say those claims are unfounded and the risks outweigh the benefits.
“We haven’t got enough money for enough staff to support two commissions,” said Mike Cherry, who chairs the Planning Commission. “It allows the staff to become more focused in supporting land use and not commissions.”
Cherry said the recommendation came from a Town Charter Revision Committee that existed years ago and that the proposal was not “because of any perceived problems with the commission” and that 16 of 20 towns in the region use a combined commission.
The two 5-person commissions (both have three alternate members each) would be combined into one 5-person commission with three alternate voting members. There is no requirement nor strong indication that members currently serving on the existing commissions would volunteer for the consolidated commission.
Peter Gardner, a longtime developer and resident of Ledyard, spoke in favor of a combined commission because it would be efficient.
Nine out of 11 residents in the audience were opposed to the recommendation, including Zoning Commission Chairman Eric Treaster who said there have been no studies or estimates that support the claims of staff efficiency and enhanced development.
Paula Jackson is a member of the Zoning Commission and opposed the combined commission because of the steep learning curve and burden it would put on commissioners to understand both zoning and planning regulations. She said long meetings could also tempt commissioners to lose focus and/or rush decisions.
Naomi Rodriquez, who said she was on the most recent Town Charter Revision Committee that decided to maintain separate commissions, opposed the combined commission.
“I’m dumbfounded why we’re here today,” she said. “I really don’t think we should combine the two commissions. Speaking from my heart and my gut, it just feels like politics and I would like to separate that for the benefit for town residents.”
And contrary to supporting claims, Glen Graebner said that a combined commission would increase the workload for town employees and long meetings could result in quick denials or approvals based only on employee recommendations.
“I don’t understand the statement that it’s more efficient,” he said. “I think the idea that rubber stamping is really an issue here. You’ll have a lot of work to be done by a combined commission.”
The Zoning Commission meets twice a month for 2- to 3-hours and the Planning Commission meets once a month for 2- to 3-hours. Cherry said a combined commission would likely meet twice a month for about three hours each.
Lee Treadway, Ledyard’s former zoning official who now works as an assistant zoning official in the Town of Groton opposed the combined commission and said it would not be more efficient.
“You are obviously going to be doubling their workload,” he said of town employees. “We all know Ledyard is very unique…and the zoning is a balancing act to preserve the quality of life and encourage development.”
Planning commissioner Kenneth Koe said the reasons for a combined commission are “weak and shaky” and that, “I can’t think of any development that has been hindered or hampered by separate commissions.”
Ideally, planning and zoning commissions work as a system of checks and balances. Town planning requires a creative vision for land use and development while zoning advocates for and protects the rights of all property owners.
Bill Geer who served on the Town Council and two Town Charter Revision Committees also spoke in opposition of a combined commission and said that land use should not be about local politics.
“We haven’t had any issue with it until politics got involved in land use,” he said. “Otherwise if it’s not broke don’t fix it. Keep politics out of land use.”
Treaster said the town would lose decades of land use experience and knowledge if it decided to consolidate the two commissions. He said it could be difficult to find volunteers with sufficient knowledge in both planning and zoning regulations and/or have the time to study them both.
The vote was tabled until the next Town Council meeting on Wednesday June 27.