Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
McCoy’s zoning changes would change list of permitted uses

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Saturday, October 22, 2011 2:07 AM EDT

VERNON — Mayor Jason L. McCoy has presented the Planning and Zoning Commission with proposed changes to its zoning regulations as one of his final acts as town leader.

But some are questioning the procedure he followed, which has resulted in at least $6,060 in fees from a Manchester law firm hired to review and redraft the regulations.

“We have a number of items that we’re proposing to clean up some of the zoning regulations,” McCoy told the PZC on Thursday.

He cited an instance in which a food service company bought a former sign business and had to apply for a special permit to use the existing structure.

“It is much more competitive today between municipalities to fill their properties that are vacant,” McCoy said. “It shouldn’t be as onerous as it is.”

The changes primarily shift a number of uses that currently require a special permit — which necessitates a public hearing and closer scrutiny — into permitted uses, which can be approved by town staff and do not need to be reviewed by the commission.

If the PZC approves the changes, a host of restricted uses, including bars and liquor stores, restaurants, multifamily dwellings, commercial parking, and retail stores, would become permitted uses in residential, commercial, and industrial historic districts, special economic development zones, planned commercial zones, and the downtown Rockville area.

“The whole idea is to see what we can do to review the regulations to make the town a more business friendly environment,” Town Attorney Harold Cummings said Friday.

Details guarded

But McCoy has been guarded about the details, and refused to allow anyone to see an engagement letter he signed with the law firm of Blackwell, Davis, and Spadaccini on Sept. 4 until the Journal Inquirer filed a freedom-of-information complaint on Sept. 30.

Resident Jennifer Roggi also was seeking access to the contract, and she said the town violated state law at least three times in dealing with her.

On Sept. 30, lawyer Justin R. Clark confirmed that his firm had signed a letter of engagement with McCoy. Roggi said she and her husband went to Town Hall and asked to see it, but was told by an administrative secretary that Town Administrator John D. Ward would need to see a written request with her contact information attached.

The freedom-of-information act allows for the inspection of public records during normal business hours, and Roggi said it’s an invasion of residents’ privacy for the town to keep track of who is requesting information.

The second violation came when Roggi said she made a handwritten request on the spot, and still was denied access.

Roggi said she went home and determined the town was violating state law, so she printed a copy of the freedom-of-information statute and returned to Town Hall.

“We went back in and I brought the statute, which they then stapled to my FOI request,” Roggi said, adding that executive assistant and former Republican Mayor Diane Wheelock told her that everyone had to go through the same request process so it would be “fair.”

Roggi again asked to view the document, but “they didn’t even attempt to find it, they just said, ‘Mr. Ward acknowledges receipt of your request and he’ll act within the appropriate time frame.’”

State law requires government officials to respond to a freedom-of-information request in writing within four business days, “which he didn’t,” Roggi said. “I think it was the next week that I got a phone call asking me how I would like to receive the information.”

Roggi said she asked town staff to give her some form of written confirmation so she could document their receipt of the request, but Ward and others refused.

Roggi appealed to McCoy personally on Oct. 5, and he responded in an email, saying, “I know you want something right now but searching for it takes a little time.”

He blamed the data processing department for failing to institute an electronic document search system, and, according to Roggi, he said McCoy was “pushing to have the police records keeper have that responsibility but I am receiving union push back.”

When Roggi contacted McCoy again and told him there had been a violation of state law, she said McCoy said she was “making an accusation” and “I will not respond without further investigation.

“We follow the law,” McCoy, a lawyer, said according to Roggi. “If there is a violation of the law the employee or employees will be terminated. I am at the end of my term. That’s it.”

Not brought before council

The Town Council has received no information on the matter and has not reviewed the engagement letter, which resulted in an Oct. 5 invoice from Clark for $6,060 for 30.3 hours at $200 an hour.

The three town attorneys earn $150 an hour.

The town charter requires three price quotations for any purchase between $5,000 and $10,000, but Cummings said he believes it’s a “gray area” and legal work doesn’t count.

“I think you’ll find there’s an exception when we’re talking professional services in that sense,” Cummings said. “I don’t believe it violates the charter.”

Democratic council incumbent Marie Herbst attempted to raise the issue of the zoning revisions as a new agenda item at the council meeting Tuesday, but phrased it in such a way that Republicans thought she wanted to discuss the plan of conservation and development and voted her down.

“I still don’t know what she was talking about,” Republican council incumbent William Campbell said. “If she had said anything sensible, I would have supported her.”

Campbell said he had mixed feelings about the situation because, “nothing has come before us to approve any funds, and that’s basically how we get involved.”

The money that McCoy is paying Clark is coming out of a $20,000 fund in the town planner’s budget for updating the zoning regulations, and if he did take that money inappropriately, “it’s a big deal,” Campbell said. “We don’t have any facts at all to go on, but if the charges are true, I would presume that we would want to get to the bottom of it.”

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