Zoning board debates role of public opinion

File Photo: Residents packed a Planning and Zoning Board meeting last year to share their opinions on a building proposal, which the P&Z Board ultimately voted down.

File Photo: Residents packed a Planning and Zoning Board meeting last year to share their opinions on a building proposal, which the P&Z Board ultimately voted down.

In the past few months, people at public meetings have accused board and committee members of not listening to their opinions.

Some parents accused school board members and officials of not acting in accordance with their opinions when they split the elementary schools into grades K to 2 and 3 to 5 three years ago. Residents made similar charges at recent zoning board meetings when housing developments were proposed that they didn’t like.

This week, several members of the Planning and Zoning Board debated about public opinion and when it should influence a vote, and then the board voted in favor of a development that a majority of the public had spoken against.

Jeanne Cervin, a member of the Planning and Zoning Board, said she “struggled a lot” when it came to voting on a proposal that many residents spoke against. She made her comments at a P&Z meeting Tuesday as the board prepared to vote on a zone change request that would allow a developer to build a 48-unit apartment complex on West Main Street, one that many neighbors said was too dense, out of character with the historic area and likely to increase traffic. (See related article on the board’s vote.)

Cervin said she takes residents’ comments into account, as she does other information about a proposal, before casting her vote.

Chairman Ben Gettinger was adamant that public input should be paramount.

“What’s the point of having public comment if we ignore what the people say?” Gettinger asked.

Member Ed Mead said that there are sometimes opinions on both sides.

“What about the people who spoke in favor of it?” Mead asked.

When the West Main Street apartment was being discussed, two residents did speak in favor of it, though they were outnumbered by those opposed.

Gettinger was still troubled.

“We should be honest with the people,” Gettinger said, suggesting it isn’t fair to ask for public comment and to suggest those comments matter if the board’s vote ultimately doesn’t concur with the residents’ opinion.

Cervin, struggling for an answer, said the board members have to use their knowledge about zoning regulations to discern and make an appropriate decision. The board members listen to public opinion, but they can’t make their decision solely on public opinion, Cervin said.

“It’s hard; it’s just plain hard,” Cervin said, “but you can’t make your decision just on public comment.”

One board member said the board cannot always follow the masses.

Gettinger countered that the board shouldn’t ignore its neighbors.

After the discussion, the board voted in favor of the zone change and apartment project that many people opposed. Cervin said she didn’t see a density problem because there is open space at the adjacent Daniel Wasson ball fields. She also said the neighborhood is a mix of buildings, an “eclectic area” that she does not see as overwhelmingly historic. She also said that if the board denied the project, the developer might return with a state-sanctioned affordable housing plan that could be even larger and denser.

Cervin said she thought the proposal was “the best of what could go there.”

Board member Jim Quish was the only member to vote in opposition. He objected to approving a zone change without clarification on when changing a zone is appropriate.

Gettinger agreed with Quish, but he voted in favor of the apartment complex, saying he thought he’d be doing a disservice to the residents if he voted against it and then a bigger project was approved under the state’s affordable housing laws.

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  • No_Simple_Solutions

    Don’t just refer to who is behind the plan for a larger apartment complex as an anonymous developer.
    Isn’t Richard Smith the same one that built many of the oversized buildings around downtown?
    The Prospect Street development and the new condos across from the Boatworks that are 3 times the size of the neighboring homes are examples of his work.

    Before Milford updated their website, Planning and Zoning’s page used to have this mission statement:
    “The Planning and Zoning Office ensures the health, safety and welfare of the community.
    Responsible growth and development.
    An attractive built environment
    Preservation of Milford’s unique character and natural environments”

    PZ needs say no more often or at least get projects scaled down.
    If they can’t, then MIlford needs stronger regulations.
    If Milford is worried about affordable housing being put in if we don’t grant a permit, join together with other small cities to challenge how that State regulation is used.
    Otherwise it raises suspicions if the public’s input counts for nothing against a developer.

  • Richard Platt

    A few years ago a previous PZ member stated that he wanted to hear “expert testimony,” not emotional statements from the public.

    What is an “expert”? I am an expert on my neighborhood. My family has lived there for many years and I know such things as where the water table is and where the water will flow during a storm. When Platt Lane and Pullman Drive were extended, the storm drains emptied into the swampy area next to Stiles Street, where those areas already drained. The difference was that now the water would get there faster. So what was the solution provided by the “experts”? A berm on the north side of Stiles Street. If we get another huge rainstorm like we did in 1982, that area will become a huge lake.

    My other classic example of local resident experts being ignored was when the new Milford Public Library was being proposed back in the early 1970s. Dr. Helen Langner and Les Burgess, both longtime residents of the downtown area, both testified that the library should not be put where it now is, across from the pond next to the Memorial Bridge. If the river floods, they said, it would go right through where the library is. They were ignored and the “experts” said it was OK to put the library there. Then, during the 1982 flood, the lower level of the library was washed out. My papers from the 1976 Bicentennial, which I had given to the library, are now somewhere out in Long Island Sound.

    So, listen to the public, especially the neighbors who know their neighborhood. The “experts” can be wrong.

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