Portsmouth ad-hoc citizens committee mulls planning "coup"

Committee meeting at the fire station.

Last night's meeting of the Portsmouth "Citizens Interested in the Comprehensive Planning Process Committee" saw members of this ad-hoc group voice a desire to wrest control of drafting the Town's revised comprehensive plan from Town Planner Gary Crosby.

For much of the 90-minute meeting at the conference room in the fire station, members of the 16-person committee, which was created last April by the Town Council solely to "provide comments and/or input to the Planning Board, Town Planner and the Town Council," expressed frustration at what they perceived as the slow pace of the process and the level of input they were allowed to provide.

Full disclosure: This reporter ran for Town Council against members of this committee (Harding, Kesson, Staven), which voted 11-1 to remove "all references to sea level rise projections" from the first two sections of the comp plan. That they later agreed to revisit that every five years to assess "if sea level is decreasing, increasing, or remains at the predicted level" is not something I find at all reassuring.

The committee's limitations were explicitly laid out during its creation in the minutes of the April 11, 2016 Town Council meeting: "President Hamilton stated that this is a committee to take what Mr. Crosby has drafted, review and they can report back to Mr. Crosby as a group or they can report back to the Planning Board as a group. But again, they do not have any more input that any individual citizen."

Last night, the committee ended up settling for a resolution to send several members to complain to the Town Administrator about what they see as a lack of progress, but their rhetoric during much of the meeting was significantly more grandiose.

Town Councilor and committee member Paul Kesson said, "We haven't got Gary's attention on this one, but three people [could go and] tell him. We want to take this over on our own." Kesson was clear that he understood this was not within the committee's remit: "Way it [this committee] was chartered by Town Council was to review what Gary wrote. You're talking about a coup."

Arguably, Kesson was using a figure of speech, but the positions advanced by other members during the discussion were clearly in line with the desire for a takeover. Currently, they receive the updated document a section at a time and then provide feedback to the Planning Board, which they felt did not offer them enough control over the end product.

"All we can do [now] is comment on the plan," said committee member Fred Marano. "We do not have any authority to say, 'This you haven't touched on.'"

"[We should] Take Gary's outline, go section by section, mark it up however we want. Then hire a consultant," said committee member Conni Harding. "If Gary doesn't have a section ready, we just take charge."

"I almost think we should consider starting over," said member Ann Fiore. "This group should take three comp plans we really like, and maybe we would be best suited to starting something like that."

A comprehensive, or "comp," plan is the overarching framework that controls land use, resource management, and development within a community -- as well as interactions with the State -- and the update of the document is required periodically. While citizen input is encouraged -- in fact, required -- responsibility for creating a town's comp plan is governed by RI General Law 45-22.2-8 (a)(1): "A local planning board or commission has the sole responsibility for performing all those acts necessary to prepare a comprehensive plan for a municipality."

Chair Judi Steven acknowledged "State law says it's the Planning Board's baby," but noted that there was nothing stopping the group from taking action on their own. "We're a citizens' group, we really don't have to go by any pattern," said Staven, "It's not out of the realm of possibility that we would just take the old comp plan and go through it. As a group, we have the right to go before the Planning Board and tell them how we want this to be."

After more than an hour of discussion, the group voted to empower a 4-person working party to "express our dissatisfaction with the current state of the comp plan" to Town Administrator Rich Rainer. They attempted to vote on this in principle and have one of the members provide the language to the chair later via e-mail, but took the time to draft the actual text after a reporter queried about a potential Open Meetings violation.

While the revised comp plan is unlikely to be ready in time to meet the state deadline set for all municipalities — July 1 — Town Planner Gary Crosby said in an e-mail that he believes many towns are in similar situations and that the statewide planning department is most interested in seeing progress toward delivery. As to the pace of the effort, Crosby noted that he and the Planning Board decided to tackle the three most difficult sections first: Services and Facilities, Economic Development, and Housing.

"The first two sections were 'camera ready' with charts and graphs, ready to go to the State," Crosby told harddeadlines. "Housing will be [done in a simpler fashion with] all the recommended elements, stripped down, so we can get them out a little quicker and stay on schedule."

"Housing will be published [for review] this Friday," said Crosby, "And then we'll aim to be back on schedule."