Esslie-Frenia Law June 2023 Leaderboard

What’s the plan?


WHO HAS TIME FOR DEMOCRACY? It gets in the way of progress, makes things more complicated and needlessly encourages the public to demand information about what’s going on. It’s a huge waste of time for the folks who actually have to run things around here.

Nobody said exactly those words, but something like that attitude oozed from the recent decision by the Chatham Town Board to quietly appoint a committee to recommend changes in town land use laws. As one Town Board member put it, the board was “looking for fresh people” to serve on this new committee, which made the process sound more like a trip to the vegetable market than an exercise in self government.

I’m jumping ahead here because this issue involves the town’s comprehensive plan, and the very mention of such documents puts lots of folks into a semi-comatose state. It’s as if comprehensive plans have nothing to do with the things that instantly raise our blood pressure, like higher property taxes and unwelcome neighbors. If comprehensive plans were called: What’s About To Happen in Your Backyard and Why You’d Better Start Doing Something About It, maybe the plans would get more respect.

Chatham adopted an updated comprehensive plan last August, a very clear and easily understood statement of goals and policies for land use, development and growth for the next 15 or so years. It runs a mere 129 pages not counting maps and charts, but the print is large and it uses plain English rather than jargon to say, hey, we like this rural community and we want to keep it that way, so here are some steps to help achieve that goal.

It took six years and countless meetings, a small army of volunteers plus a professional planning firm to get it done, not to mention all the work that went into a detailed survey mailed to all residents a few years ago (I still plan to fill out that form if it ever emerges from the piles on my desk). But what truly characterized the process was its openness. People knew what was going on. It seemed like every weekend somebody accosted you on Main Street in the village, eager to brief you on the latest version. You couldn’t avoid knowing about it unless you hid in your basement.

That openness makes it all the more curious that the people charged with recommending how to translate the goals of the comprehensive plan into zoning regulations were chosen without public input. That might seem like a technicality, but it’s not.

The town already had a plan dating from 1972, and the state didn’t require an update. So what was the point of adopting a new plan? In a word, control. The courts in this state rely on a town’s comprehensive plan to evaluate challenges to local land use laws. Any zoning laws that don’t comply with the standards and goals identified in the new comprehensive plan might not hold up in court.

The comprehensive plan has no direct legal authority on its own, but it determines which zoning laws Chatham needs, or needs to amend, to preserve its rural character and provide for growth that’s consistent with that goal. And because the comprehensive plan represents a consensus about the future of the town, it seems logical that the open and inclusive process that led to the creation of the plan should also apply to the process of drafting the laws that will give the plan teeth.

Granted, it’s not as if the Town Board recruited the management of BP or a visiting delegation of Martians to take on this task. It makes perfect sense for the board to have appointed the leaders of the town Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. And the others already named to the committee deserve thanks for their willingness to serve. The problem lies how little the public knows about the selection process and how the committee will function once it begins its deliberations.

The Town Board has a legal right to appoint anybody a majority of members want. And exercising that power may seem like the most efficient way to move ahead. But that’s an illusion. The board’s failure to embrace the transparency and inclusiveness associated with the drafting of the comprehensive plan only serves to undermine the work of the new implementation committee by depriving it of what it needs the most–the public’s trust.  

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