Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
McCoy unilaterally launches zoning rewrite

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
August 19, 2011

VERNON — In a surprise announcement Thursday, the Planning and Zoning Commission learned that Republican Mayor Jason L. McCoy has chosen a law firm, to rewrite the town's zoning regulations and have a draft ready by next week.

But David H. Blackwell, a former Republican state representative and partner in the Manchester law firm of Blackwell, Davis, and Spadaccini, said today that his firm has yet to sign a contract with the town.

"There will be an engagement letter going out shortly. If the client, the town of Vernon, signs that letter, it would be formal," Blackwell said.

Blackwell's law partner, Louis A. Spadaccini, is the Republican mayor of Manchester and neither he nor McCoy is seeking re-election this November.

At Thursday's PZC meeting, Town Planner Leonard K. Tundermann said McCoy expects a first draft to town staff by August 24, a second draft for the commission by Sept. 15, and a final version on Oct. 20.

PZC members at first expressed surprise and disbelief at the news that the extensive regulations document would be overhauled in the next few weeks.

Commission Chairman Chester "Chet" Morgan said he was under the impression that the PZC would first finish revisions to the 10-year Plan of Conservation and Development and then move on to updating the regulations.

"We will discuss this enormous document in one or two meetings?" Morgan asked.

"I think that's a fair assessment," Tundermann replied.

Commission member Walter Mealy questioned how and when the PZC would contribute to the document.

"It seems that a bunch of lawyers are getting together to rewrite the regulations and there's going to be no input from us," Mealy said. "Are we going to have input into these regulations or not?"

"According to the timetable that's presented to me, it doesn't look like you could have much input," Tundermann said.

Blackwell said his firm met with the town about a week ago to discuss updating the zoning regulations and get an idea of what needed to be changed. When asked what the town was looking for his law firm to do in terms of revisions, Blackwell cited client confidentiality.

After an agreement is signed, "at that point we'd like to ask the town of Vernon what we shall disclose," he added. "We haven't even been authorized to represent the town yet."

He did say that the firm had only been asked to rewrite "portions" of the regulations and "I don't think the revisions that they're requesting are so dramatic as would require an extensive amount of time."

As for PZC members, "their input will come," Blackwell said.

Firm member Justin Clark would likely take the lead on the project and has already met with Tundermann, he added.

Blackwell said he didn't know whether the Town Council would need to sign off on the agreement or just McCoy, and McCoy did not return phone calls today.

The firm has done zoning regulation revisions for other communities, Blackwell said, and though they would tell the town if they needed more time, "we will make every effort to comply" with their target date. Knowing that the PZC was given a timeline for the project, "makes me feel very comfortable that they are going to sign the letter," he added.

But Ann Letendre, who has been involved in land use issues on multiple boards and commissions since the 1970's and currently serves as chairwoman of the Open Space Task Force and is on the Hockanum River Linear Park Committee, expressed concern.

"Typically this is a process that takes a lot of time and a lot of thought and several public hearings," she said. "I'm just very surprised."

Letendre attended Thursday's meeting but left before Tundermann announced the regulation changes because it was not listed on the agenda.

It is unknown how much McCoy has offered to pay the firm for its services but, "it's public money," Letendre said. "The terms and the conditions of this contract should be open and in view of the public."

All of the discussions between McCoy and the law firm should be public as well, she added, and the commission shouldn't be cut out of the process.

Town Attorney and Republican Town Committee Chairman Harold Cummings said today that this is a "routine process" and "I think there is a little bit of overreaction going on here."

He said money was set aside in the budget to update the regulations and it's up to the PZC to approve any changes.

Town Finance Director James Luddecke could not be reached for comment today, but the Town Planner's budget lists a $20,000 fee account to "update codes and regulations."

Anyone can propose a regulation change to the commission, and Cummings said that this situation is no different — even if it's being done with public funds — because town employees like he and Tundermann are also paid with public money.

When asked why he or other town employees were not doing the work to update the regulations, Cummings said he does not have time and this is preferable to trying to do updates piecemeal.

"Is the administration supposed to go ask permission from everybody in town to try to do something innovative and creative and forward thinking?" Cummings said. The PZC. members "certainly control their own agenda and can schedule what they want to schedule, when they want to schedule it."

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