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Former Zoning Chairman Speaks to Changes in Commission, Other Issues

By Jay Weintraub

To the Good People of Canton:

After over 24 years as a volunteer member of the Canton Zoning Commission (first appointed 1988), including about 6 years as its chair, the Board of Selectmen has decided to not reappoint me, Jay Weintraub. Similarly, the reappointment of Kathy Hooker, also a 24 year veteran, was rejected.  Last year, Peter Clark (26 years) and Mark Podesla (about 7 years) were refused reappointment. That power to appoint or not appoint is certainly within the Selectmen’s purview.  I am appreciative for the first Board of Selectmen that appointed me as well as for the five later Boards that expressed their continued confidence and trust in my ability and my contributions as a Zoning Commission member and, later, as its chair. I am proud and honored to have been permitted to serve the good people of Canton for these many years. 

Canton is a wonderful town full of intelligent, creative, and hardworking people.  They deserve outstanding governance and leadership. They also deserve transparency; and by that I do not mean the transparency of the pretextual excuses for not reappointing four Canton Zoning Commission members who have given selfless dedication and service for more than a combined 80 years.  Not reappointing one or two of the four commissioners, as an isolated action, is not terribly eventful. What is significant to me as a Canton resident and taxpayer and what should be important to all the good people in Canton is, as Selectman Lowell Humphrey stated, the integrity of the process.

From my recent conversation with Dick Barlow and the December Canton Patch article quoting various selectmen, two general reasons have been offered with a third more specific reason for the changes. The good people of Canton are not deserving of the process nor the results. There is a much wider agenda than some of the selectmen have revealed.

Dick Barlow told me that the Board’s greatest concern was the lengthy process to rewrite the Canton zoning regulations. I have appeared in front of the entire Board to answer questions about that process and I have addressed that issue on occasion with individual Board members. They are well aware of the myriad causes of delay, none of which had anything to do with Kathy Hooker or myself or any other individual commissioner. The rewrite process started in 2005 under the guidance of another land planner. She was forced to resign and an interim land planner was hired while a search was conducted for a permanent land planner; a search that led to the hiring of our current planner, Neil Pade.  A professional consulting firm was also hired in 2005 to provide outside drafting and guidance. That consulting firm’s product was so poor that we lost 2 years, a couple hundred hours of wasted volunteer time, and dozens of hours of wasted paid land use staff time.  

The Zoning Commission does not hire or fire land use planners or professional consultants. The chief administrative officer has that responsibility with the advice of the Selectmen. The Commission works with whoever they hire. Often overlooked in this time frame, Canton has had 3 CAO’s during the rewrite process. Once underway, scheduling extra meetings to review and discuss the zoning regulations rewrite became problematic. Often when a meeting was scheduled, we lacked a quorum. To resolve that issue I created a subcommittee of the 3 members who could be most relied upon to attend rewrite meetings including Kathy Hooker, Sandra Trionfini and myself.  Thereafter, we met almost every month. With current regulations of 174 pages and new regulations of about 250 pages, even that proved insufficient so we scheduled 4-5 hour monthly meetings.

The 3 subcommittee members each left their respective jobs and family responsibilities to gather at the Town Hall to complete the best zoning regulations we could deliver. Most commissioners work a full-time job, many out of town. I do not fault any who cannot make those extra meetings. And for 2 of the 3 subcommittee members who never missed a meeting, no reappointment.

“Canton needs to be a more business friendly community.”  This is not a new refrain. I have heard some selectmen sound this charge. News articles have occasionally printed this charge made by others. Unfortunately, no one to my knowledge has ever defined what they mean. Is “a more business friendly community” a euphemism for rubber stamping applications? Is it a cliché for not adhering to the rule of law and compliance with current regulations and statutes? Are they buzz words for acting on incomplete applications submitted a day or two before a scheduled meeting?  

The extent of commercial development in Canton makes this cry a fallacious one. During my tenure the zoning commission voted (I believe unanimously in each instance) in favor of:

  1. The Shoppes At Canton, a hugely successful lifestyle center with significant patronage originating in Litchfield County and beyond;
  2. A new CVS (and approval for more than 40,000 additional square feet on the same parcel);
  3. A Lowe’s (which has not been built because of the timing of the most recent recession when most Lowe’s on drawing boards around the country were cancelled);
  4. Many new bars, restaurants and other businesses in Collinsville that has led to a revived, vibrant community that has garnered regional attention;
  5. Mixed use zoning for the Collins Company sites; and
  6. Dozens and dozens of other new businesses.

In fact, the records will show that in the past 20 years or so there have been, literally, only a handful of applications that have not been approved and approved unanimously. In each, rare instance where an application was denied, there was fierce and contentious debate by the public with significant opposition.

So, how is the zoning commission not “business friendly”? Occasionally an application’s approval will take an additional month or two. Any delay is not to be taken lightly and usually the delay is the result of either the enormity and complexity of the project, the need for referrals to other agencies or commissions, the lack of preparedness of the applicant, or other factors beyond the control of the commission. If the selectmen attended more of the commission’s meetings, they would have observed how hard the commissioners worked to shorten the process and still adhere to the regulations and statutes they are sworn to uphold.

The third criticism levied is that the regulations do not contain business uses that may be granted without a public hearing with the commission, so called “as of right” uses. The “as of right issue” is just another pretext for the evisceration of the Zoning Commission. The current zoning regulations were adopted in 1982, long before any of the recently terminated members were appointed.  There have been amendments and minor tweaking in the past 30 years but “as of right” uses were never fully developed in the regulations. Although Dick Barlow served on the Zoning Commission for several years in the 1980’s and other Selectmen occasionally attended zoning meetings, I never heard one selectman complain to the commissioners about the “as of right issue.” As town residents, we should all ask ourselves, if this was such an important issue, then why did not each selectman who shared that concern, or, the Selectboard as a whole, draft and submit an amendment to the commission adding “as of right” uses?  Any person, resident, the Board of Selectmen or an individual selectman may submit an amendment at any time. Indeed, the commissioners periodically needed to interrupt their work in rewriting the entire zoning regulations to address amendments that were submitted or requested for pressing, current needs such as purchase of property for a town garage.  Incidentally, the new regulations, almost complete, contain many proposed uses as of right that will, hopefully, short circuit the approval process for many new businesses.  Not one of the terminated commissioners objected to incorporating many as of right uses into the new regulations. In fact, the recently terminated commissioners all embraced the concept enthusiastically, mostly out of fairness to business; as a collateral benefit, it means a bit less work for the commission.

It is difficult to discern what is truly driving the Selectmen’s actions. Is gutting the zoning commission the leadership that the good people of Canton deserve?  It takes little intelligence, creativity, or work to tell a volunteer that she or he is not being reappointed. The effort to wag the finger of blame takes about as much exertion as, well, moving one’s index finger. Undertaking a quest to find real and lasting solutions requires a bit of exercise of the gray matter upstairs.  If our leaders believe there is a problem, then work to fix it. Propose amendments to regulations. Lobby our State legislators to change state zoning requirements. Educate the business community about the zoning approval process and the regulatory reasons for the timing issues.  Educate the public about the uniqueness of Canton topography, its geographically limited business areas, and the proximity of business to residential areas. Speaking of which, what about our residents who do live near business zones. Does anyone seriously believe that zoning commissioners should not be concerned about lights and noise spilling over into residential areas? The Commission has spent countless hours in front of impatient applicants trying to find a balance for these very issues. 

A more subtle consequence of recent events is the change in the political makeup of the Commission. It has always been a source of pride to me that in my 24 years of service the commissioners have been fairly evenly split between both major parties with an occasional unaffiliated member. For 24 years there has not been one vote, of the hundreds and hundreds taken, that was split along party lines.  No observer of the Zoning Commission, unaware of commissioners’ political affiliations, could have accurately identified each commissioner’s political leanings. With the Selectmen’s four new appointments, the zoning commission currently consists of four Republicans and three unaffiliated members. There are no Democrats. The one member who resigned in protest is a Democrat (Sandra Trionfini’s term was to expire January 2014 so this Selectboard had not yet had the opportunity to not reappoint her). I hope our selectmen are not trying to emulate the extreme political partisanship on the national level. The good people of Canton deserve better and should insist on a more diverse Commission.

As a Canton resident and one of the longer serving former commission members, I have a few words for the remaining and newly appointed commission members. 

  1. Treat every applicant and their consultants with respect (though occasionally that is not reciprocated);
  2. Treat every applicant fairly and impartially;
  3. Treat every member of the public respectfully (though occasionally that is not reciprocated);
  4. Follow the letter and spirit of the zoning regulations; 
  5. Follow the letter and spirit of the State Statutes and common law;
  6. Do  not discuss with or even listen to anyone outside the zoning commission meeting concerning the subject of pending applications; maintain independence from all Town board and commission members except as required by law.

I have always strived for myself and fellow commissioners to follow these tenets. The good people of Canton should be proud of that. As a resident and a Canton taxpayer, without a trace of regret and with malice toward none, I urge the three remaining commission members, four new members and any new volunteers to continue to maintain the integrity and independence that has marked the Canton Zoning Commission for the 24 years of my service.

As for the Board of Selectmen, it should be the rule and not the exception that our leaders directly communicate the extent of their displeasure with any volunteer’s actions. Only Selectmen Lowell Humphrey went on the record objecting to the extreme actions of the Board. Dick Barlow and Steve Roberto have voiced concerns to me about the lengthy rewrite process and the perception by some of a commission that is not business friendly. But, not one Selectman found the time to discuss with me (or other commissioners) the they were so troubled by the commission’s actions that they may need to take such dramatic action as throwing out more than 80 years of dedicated service.  At least five different Boards of Selectmen appointed and reappointed Kathy Hooker, Peter Clarke, and myself. Other than the rewrite process, what have these commissioners done in the past few years that is different from what they did in the 20 or so previous years when they voted, repeatedly, in favor of business applications? How many people have demanded that the majority of Commissioners not be reappointed? Who are they? How many of these persons are business people? How many are residents only and not business people?  Are the complaints legitimate? Our Selectmen have not honestly told us, the citizens of Canton, what really caused the Selectboard to take such unprecedented action.

Lowell Humphrey January 17, 2013 at 11:09 AM
My personal apologies as a selectman to those dedicated volunteers who were treated so shabbily. Our last newsletter displayed a prominent call for volunteers to fill our many commission vacancies even as residents qualified, willing and able to serve are unilaterally disposed of, without the opportunity to face their "accusers" and defend their record. Canton should be so much better than this.
Nancy January 17, 2013 at 12:29 PM
This well composed and thoroughly presented request to have transparency on this issue definitely needs an equally thoughtful public response from the Board of Selectman.
Wyatt January 17, 2013 at 02:37 PM
Excellent and well-written letter. I'm glad you shared your concerns and it is refreshing to hear another viewpoint. You make some excellent points. Thank you for your service.
Mike January 17, 2013 at 02:50 PM
I have the utmost respect for volunteers who donate their time and expertise to the town. However the adage, diapers and politicians should be changed regularily for the same reason, may fit in other situations as well. Perhaps the time comes when the old is replaced by the new.
Mark Penney January 17, 2013 at 05:21 PM
Excellent and well written article that sheds yet more light on an, excluding Mr. Humphrey, opaque and obtuse BOS. Jay and other volunteers, your time, service, and expertise are valued by many in town. Shameful!
Hrico January 17, 2013 at 10:38 PM
So wait a minute... Are you not one of the Selectman that participated in this whole process?
arnie January 18, 2013 at 01:34 AM
With all due respect to all our volunteer public servants, consider who has repeatedly asked: "Does Canton really need another __________ (insert a type of business) ______business?" The utter impropriety of publicly asking that question may explain in part, why this has occurred. Applying the regulations without bias means never asking, or allowing to be asked, such a question.
Sarah Faulkner January 19, 2013 at 07:59 AM
I am embarassed for our town that our Board of Selectmen has been silently retrofitting our Boards -- and it is not limited to Zoning -- with politically oriented appointees who appear to be following a hidden agenda of embracing development, regardless of its impact. In doing this, we are losing our best and most experienced Board members, of which Mr. Weintraub is a wonderful representative. He, Mrs. Hooker, Mr. Clarke, Mr. Podesla, Mrs. Trionfini, and others have brought balance, thoughtfulness, and wisdom to Zoning Commission, as well as experience with the complicated application of laws and regulations. I think very few residents have any idea how much time and effort such volunteers put into these positions, and how lucky we are to have them willing to serve us. I urge our Selectmen to stop this removal of our talented commissioners, and to consider all the residents of the town, the long-term goals of the town (which are not all monetary and business-oriented), and the importance of transparent governance as they conduct our town's business.

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