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Minutes of Planning Commission Meeting & Public Forum, 10/12/2021

AGENDA: Planning Commission Meeting & Public Forum

RECEIVED 10/20/2021 12:28pm
Kathleen R. Miserendino - Redding Deputy Town Clerk

Redding Planning Commission
Regular Meeting Minutes
October 12, 2021 – 7:30 pm
Redding Community Center – 37 Lonetown Road

Present: Planning Commission Chair Toby Welles, Dan Barrett, Regina O’Brien, Steve Gagnon, Chuck Cilo, Phyllis Rhodes.
Also Present: Aimee Pardee, Land Use Director; Julia Pemberton, First Selectwoman
Audience attendance.

The Chairman brought the meeting to order at 7:30 pm., seating Mr. Cilo for Commissioner Anda Cummings.

I. Approval of the Minutes of the Meeting of September 28, 2021: Dan Barrett made motion to approve; seconded by Regina O’Brien. Passed unanimously.

II. Blight ordinance discussion
Opening remarks by Chairman Toby Welles:
This proposed ordinance was originally brought to attention of the commission in Jan. 2021. Due to its broad spectrum, the commission felt it was important to share this with people in Redding during a public forum to hear different opinions from members of the Redding community.

The Chairman clarified that the Planning Commission’s role is to advise the Selectmen on this topic: the commission does not decide, but instead gives opinion on validity. Depending upon their referral, a potential public meeting and a town vote could happen at a later time.

The Chairman said that he would first speak about surrounding issues regarding ordinances in general, then aspects of the blight ordinance, and then open the floor to public discussion, in 5 minute increments, allowing for a second time to speak if time allowed.

The Chairman also provided context for his process. He explained there are other ordinances and regulations that govern the town, some state and town: from state building codes that define hazards and non-compliant situations, to health codes. There are non-governmental components as well such as insurance companies who may deny coverage to those who don’t live up to their standards. It is important to understand context: that standards exist.

The Chairman shared his research on how one drafts a good ordinance and offered a series of standards of what good ordinances include:
–is there significant and ongoing demonstrated need that negatively impacts a substantial portion of the citizenry in the town or causes substantial negative impact on nearby properties?
–are there wholly objective definitions of conditions that constitute a violation?
–is there clear legal footing for enforcement?
–is there clear and just process for application and appeal of enforcement measures?
–is there a legally empowered fairly constituted body to apply enforcement?
–are there other ways available, prior to enforcement actions, to encourage compliance?
–could the ordinance be deliberately abused or unintentionally applied for the wrong purposes in the future?

The Chairman said that, in the case of Redding, ordinances do not use judgement and should not be arbitrary or capricious: there is an obligation that ordinances leave no ambiguity. He noted that a single comma can change the meaning and intention; therefore, there must be care with the language.

The Chairman expressed his concerns about this particular ordinance:
1-in the absence of a newspaper, how do we draw upon the full breadth of Redding’s residents’ voices?
2-we need wholly objective standards—this blight ordinance in many places, the verbiage is subjective
3-unfair to the disadvantaged: the elderly, those of modest means, who can’t afford to rapidly take care of their property or can’t work too quickly
4—legal enforceability, especially when issuing fines and will cost the town a lot of money and time, lengthy legal wrangling

The Chairman said that he does not regard Redding as a blighted town.

The Chairman invited comments from the other commissioners:
Mr. Barrett asked Mr. Welles to explain to the audience how this came about.

The Chairman stated that a group named Enhancing Redding’s Future or ERF, put the document together, feeling the ordinance was necessary due to certain conditions of blight in town. Most of the verbiage was taken from Ridgefield’s blight ordinance.

According to the Chairman, there is a long history of blight ordinances and that they have been used more extensively in urban settings than in rural settings. He shared a short piece by a Yale legal scholar named Andrew Tutt about blight ordinances, as being the last line of defense between the state and property owner. The statement suggested that blight upsets constitutional order and suggests ownership should be denied to those who participate in “blight” activity. That both aesthetics and opinions are subjective.

The Chairman said that, while the ordinance does not tell people how to paint one’s house, it does suggest some kind of “ineffable” community standard.

The Chairman opened the meeting for Public Comment:
Janet August, 60 Seventy Acre Road
She asked an open question: Is there a blight problem and to what extent and what proof does ERF provide for need of this ordinance?
Roger Van Ausdal, 21 Orchard Drive
(From ERF.) He stated that ERF is mostly interested in commercial districts. He brought up two examples: the Calise building on Main Street in Georgetown which he said is not inviting or conducive to business. He also noted another building: the old Gail’s Station House in West Redding is not inviting.

Robert Dean, Black Rock Tpke.
Responded to Mr. Van Ausdal. Mr. Dean explained he was member of Planning Commission for 20 years, now he is on the Board of Finance, and an architect. He said that the buildings mentioned (2) are in flood plains and are both in bad condition. He suggested we have to look at public policy and regulation to address this problem. Georgetown needs sewer and parking. In West Redding, a flood plain area needs to be addressed. It’s not the owner’s fault that these situations exist. He read a letter he shared on social media. He opposes the blight ordinance or a board to address this. He said that blight ordinances generally share a very negative history. Redding has a few blighted properties but does not have a blight problem. Redding is a caring and generous community.

Michelle Van Steinberg, Mountain Road
Opposes blight ordinance. Believes it will divide us and will not connect community.

Dottie DeLuca, Fleur de Lis Design in West Redding Center
Lives across the street for the last 10 years from a blighted property (3 Station Road). She claims it brings down property values in the vicinity. Ms. Deluca described her personal experience looking at that property. She redirected her focus to Julia Pemberton about cost of attorney fees for Cross Highway property (Nancy Burton), relating her issue with this property. Julia responded that yes, litigation is very expensive.
Ms. Deluca continued to discuss 3 Station Road and mentioned about its tax liens, etc.
Mr. Welles repeated that the planning commission’s role is not to police this space.

Julia Pemberton, 159 Umpawaug Road, First Selectwoman
In answer to 3 Station Road comments: the Tax collector, Pat Moisio, is responsible for collection of taxes and if the town doesn’t receive payment, Ms. Moisio can have a tax sale. Also, if there is a building issue that’s a life threat, the building inspector Shaun Donnelly or even the Fire Marshal will deal with that.

Howard Sherman—44 Stepney Road
Mr. Sherman asked many questions about the Planning Commission: when the last ordinance was created by Planning Commission, the last ordinance (demolition delay, 8 years ago), suggesting that it is a failure of the Planning Commission.
He asked about the blight ordinance and how a committee would be created. He suggested that there are lots of ways to assist people, much of which would be by charitable organizations.

Mr. Welles responded: If none of the help is codified, and just suggested, the board cannot enforce. Unless something is written specifically, it is not a viable component of an ordinance. In terms of volume of ordinance creation, it is neither a mark of success nor lack thereof on the part of the Planning Commission. Creating ordinances is a very exacting and difficult process that needs to be carefully considered: to measure the Planning Commission’s performance on the number of ordinances created is a ridiculous assumption.

The chief weakness of this ordinance is that the language is ambiguous:
Words & phrases like: Welfare, conducive to business, dilapidated, the general welfare of the community, adequately maintained, seriously damaged, missing siding, excessive amounts of garbage or trash, these are just a few of the words & phrases that are ill-defined. He summarized that the town cannot enforce an ordinance that has wiggle room as it will result in litigation.

Robert Dean clarified a mischaracterization of what he said. He said the ordinance has no legal specificity and sets no qualifications for those enforcing the ordinance.

Roger Van Ausdal chimed in again. Welcomes town attorney to review their ordinance. He spoke to authorities in Ridgefield, Brookfield, Newtown, Guilford and they expressed that their blight ordinance helped their communities. He said that, in 70% of cases, just the “threat” from the blight board solved issues.

Mr. Welles stated that Brian Platz, the Blight Enforcement Officer in New Canaan, said only 1 in 8 of the blight grievances he receives is valid. The rest of complaints come from neighbors getting back at neighbors. A source of conflict.

Nancy Pelz-Paget, 100 Redding Road
Part of ERF. In Redding since 1985. Observed a philosophical level; that Toby responds on an emotional level, not a legal and productive one. Said that the more specific you are with the language, the less successful you are. That you need a latitude. There is another point of view.

Mr. Welles: If we want the commission to have expertise, then the ordinance needs that specifically stated. Most of arguments are around the vagueness of the language. Specificity is a double edged sword—if you become specific, you limit breadth and scope of legisltion, but you are also open to court interpretations —lots of time and money. Counterproductive. Ordinance needs to live for 20, 30, 40 years. Should not have unintended consequences. Making it vague makes it open to different interpretations.

Eric Lazo-Wasem, Poverty Hollow Road
Described his house. He said it would have been considered blighted when he bought it but that he had carefully restored it over years: he said that circumstances drive situations. He also discussed St. Patrick’s church on Blackrock Turnpike. He said it took a once in a generation fundraiser to fix this mold-ridden, blighted structure: it has now been saved and is a beautiful historic structure.

Laurie Heiss, Cross Highway
Home-owner in Redding, was in Greenwich 30 years (no blight ordinance), was in Hilton Head (no blight ordinance). Current property has multiple broken windows, spends substantial amount of money to maintain property, helped found Redding Preservation Society , FFC Preservation Network, 2 barns on CT Register. She claims would not pass the blight ordinance but further noted the picturesque nature of the property. You can’t have respect for historic homes that grace this town on a scenic road like Cross Highway and turn around and throw this at the community. It assumes one is not a great caretaker when the reality is the opposite.

Peter Bonfanti, Umpawaug Road
Described motivation behind effort. Looked at Calise/old Pilot building. Claimed it is the definition of blight and it serves as the entry to town. There is a sign on the building that says some pool company is coming. Not true. Wanted to help Julia Pemberton to get putty and paint onto the building. Just wants to help, to give the town a head start.

Cole Tucker-Walton, Newtown Tpke.
Not clear of powers and consequences of what a blight board would be, between commercial vs. home. Opposes ordinance in current form.

Alexander Pardo, Black Rock Tpke.
Believes the blight ordinance would push things backward. Redding is different from surrounding towns. Should not focus on ordinance but on codes. There are plenty of them. Not a time to propose a new ordinance. Work by ERF was noble but not what we need right now.

Mary Bailey, Poverty Hollow Road
There are 4 blighted properties in Redding all are for sale so the situation is working itself out. She shared her experience in Chautauqua, NY. Eventually those tired Victorian houses eventually get sold and fixed. Examples are slowly working themselves out without a blight ordinance.

Jonathan Hopkins, Little Boston Lane
Opposes blight ordinance. Believes it is subjective and exclusionary. Exacerbates negativity.

Dottie DeLuca spoke again
Planning Commission is responsible for encouraging development in commercial areas. You either just keep looking at dilapidated buildings or do something about them.

Planning Commission Discussion
Toby Welles did a brief recap. One concern: that this might be limited to commercial properties and mentioned Gilbert & Bennett. Julia Pemberton chimed in that municipalities are exempt from blight ordinances.

Steve Gagnon
Apologized to Toby for the negative comments made during the discussion from some of the audience regarding the commission that were without basis. He thought it was unfair. Regarding the language, the document was reviewed and commented on several times in which the common comment was the ambiguity in the language, re: a barn and the way people perceive it as an old dilapidated barn is a beautiful, cultural icon or a piece of junk. Another problem with the ordinance is that could supersede other ordinances; a homeowner could put legal mean against us. Also the Planning Commission’s obligation is to encourage business but is not mandate. He commended the work of ERF.

Dan Barrett
Commented that we are talking past each other and not to each other. Do we need an ordinance at all or do we need this one the way it is worded? Not convinced we have a blight problem. It’s like using a sledgehammer solution for a push-pin problem. If he supports it, it should be for commercial properties, not residential. He also asked if we have addressed all other options? Evaluated all other ordinances? Codes? Thinks this could be exclusionary. At the moment, we have .1% affordable housing, should have 10%. He opposes the ordinance in its current form.

Mr. Welles made a motion that we accept this blight ordinance as written to hand over to the Selectmen for consideration. The motion failed for lack of a second.

The Chairman stated that the planning commission cannot recommend the ordinance as it is currently written to the Selectmen. He said that the ball is back in the court of whoever wants to redraft it with the issues raised tonight.

III. Chairman’s Report
There was no discussion under this agenda item.

Motion to adjourn by the chair; seconded by Steve Gagnon. Approved unanimously.

Meeting adjourned at 8:50 pm.

Submitted by:
Alice Smith

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