Council enacts 6-month moratorium on large-scale retail
|Dennis Canario presides as Gary Crosby reads the moratorium.|
The Portsmouth Town Council this evening heard vigorous pro and con discussion on a six-month moratorium on retail buildings larger than 55,000 square feet, eventually voting unanimously to implement the cap. The only major change to the language proposed by the Town Planning department was setting a fixed end date. rather than allowing any potential extension. Nearly 80 people endured the three-hour session in the sweltering Middle School auditorium, and fully a quarter of them took their turn at the mike.
Assistant Town Planner Gary Crosby led the group through the proposed language, which, he stressed, was not intended "to morph into a store size cap," but rather, provide space for a thoughtful review to take place. "Think of the town review procedures as Louie Escobar's Corn Maze," said Crosby. The maze, or process, is designed to be sufficiently challenging but successful applicants can navigate it and exit with a permit. "This moratorium," he said, "Is a sign over the entrance saying closed for repair. But we put in a door that's maybe 4.5 feet high. If you're short enough to go through the opening you can go in and have fun," but, he stressed, "you still have to go through the maze."
At the end of the process, said Crosby, at least three things could happen: the Town might decide existing permitting procedures were sufficient and remove the "door," they could leave the leave the restriction in place after determining that "we could not make the maxe sufficiently challenging to let full size people to go through," or they might even create a new entry to a "more challenging part of the maze."
To facilitate the decision-making process and to gather maximum input from everyone, the Planning Department will hold a "charette," an evening of intensive, small-group discussion, August 23rd at the Portsmouth Senior Center. In addition, Crosby proposed creating an ad-hoc working group of stakeholders and citizens to wargame a Target-like application through the entire zoning process, to assess the robustness of existing regulations and discover any weaknesses. The important thing, he stressed, was to do this expeditiously.
Town Council President Dennis Canario opened the meeting for citizen comment, and especially given the sensitive nature of the subject, the remarks from the floor were orderly and respectful — with one notable exception. The Portsmouth Economic Development Committee's (EDC) Roger Moriarty accused "organized agitators" of putting the moratorium together "on the back of an envelope." That certainly didn't make it any easier for EDC chair Rich Talipsky to present the group's official position [see comments for full text], a more moderate note of caution about "sending a significant negative tone" to potential developers and avoiding over-reliance on "a specific limit like size" rather than treating applications on the merits.
The two main prongs stressed by anti-moratorium folks — and they were plentiful and eloquent — were fairness to all taxpayers and belief that the maze is sufficiently difficult. It was argued that groups we have monitoring the process (Zoning Board, Design Review Board (DRB), etc.) have the tools they need. Bill Clark, Director of Economic Development said, "This not a rubber stamp activity. A special permit is required for ANY building over 5K square feet, even allowed use in appropriate zone." He contrasted this with many other towns, where, "If it is an allowed use and no variances, they can be ready to build in short order." The risk, he said, was not so much Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) as "BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Near Anything."
"There are in place adequate boards and committees to protect all citizens," said Allen Shers, a member of both the EDC and the DRB. Further, he said, "One charge of the Town Council is the protection of the inherent rights of all its citizens, and ensuring that all citizens are treated equally."
|Vern Gorton addresses Council.|
"If you're one of the kids that can't get into the maze, you're going to be pretty ticked off," noted State Senator Chuck Levesque. And attorney Vern Gorton, representing the Marshall Properties, picked up that same theme, "I go to the corn maze with my kids and pay Louie the money and he grabs the last kid and says you can't go in. If he asks why — he's the same age, same grade, he's better behaved — there's no reason, it's just an arbitrary rule. We all have to agree this is inherently unfair. It's such a drastic measure, and we have the regulatory scheme in place."
Former Council candidate Mark Katzman acknowledged the concerns, but urged caution: "We have an exhastive book of rules and regs," he agreed, "But our system has never been tested. And you don't get a redo. Once they build a Target, it's there." DRB Chair John Borden seemed to concur, "Yes we probably could have gotten through Target okay. But there are things that need tweaking. We don't have a section of our guidelines for big boxes."
There was general consensus, even among those supporting the moratorium, that moving quickly was important — and there were folks ready to help. Teresa Crean of Aquidneck Island Planning Commission and Peter Roos of the Newport Restoration Foundation offered the support of their organizations for the process, as did Vern Gorton on behalf of the developers he represents. Conni Harding of Preserve Portsmouth said, "We're not BANANAs," and talked about bringing Stacy Mitchell of www.newrules.org to town on September 13 to help inform the discussion.
The Council was clearly in favor of the moratorium. Said Len Katzman, "Let's convince ourselves as a community that we have the systems in place. We need the freedom of a little bit of breathing space. Property owners have rights, I respect that, but those rights, like every other right we have must be balnced against the rights of others."
I don't often agree with Pete McIntyre, but he was spot on tonight, supporting the moratorium but raising this same point. "If I owned 16 acres and paid tax on it since 1967, as long as I keep within the rules and regs I should be allowed to build."
For Jim Seveney, the issue was risk: "We can't afford to make a mistake with this. When you're not quite sure, it's good time to stop and think." But he was firm that he would not vote for any language allowing extensions. "Six months and that's it, so all the property owners have a defined time horizon."
Tailgunner Gleason wasn't happy with the time limit, "I don't want to be rushed," she said, "I don't want anything to intimidate or pressure me." Then she wandered completely off book: "We have adequate boards," she admitted, "But at some of these meetings, amendments have been made. We have rules and guidelines. We need to be very careful to follow what it is on paper and not to make exceptions for special interest groups or developers." See why I love having Tailgunner around? I can always depend on her for an unsubstantiated accusation like that. Like her statement earlier in the meeting that "We could have 200 buildings at 55k square feet." Show me where, in Portsmouth, those mythical 200 buildings are possible, because I'm looking at the map and I'm not seeing it. But I digress.
Katzman proposed and Seveney seconded a version of the moratorium striking the language for a 5-month extension, and this passed unanimously.
I agree with those who urge quick action, and not just for the sake of fairness to property owners. We went from 200 people at the June 11 meeting to only 80 tonight, a number that could have fit comfortably in Town Hall. Once you take away the bogeyman of Target, I have real concerns about maintaining critical mass. August 23 can't come soon enough.