Zoning board debates role of public opinion

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.