Thursday May 14, 2015
At the May 4 city council meeting, five of the seven members of the planning commission met with council to provide an update of the commission’s work and to answer each councilor’s questions.
Several of the topics of discussion were expected, such as the Official Map, the Land Development Regulations (LDRs), and the Comprehensive Plan, but there were some topics of concern brought up by council that caught the planning commission--and even some councilors--off-guard.
The subject in question: the Sustainable Agriculture Subcommittee of the Planning Commission. Sustainable Agriculture became a subcommittee of the Planning Commission in September 2013 after it finished as an Interim Zoning task force in spring 2013. The subcommittee was established to tackle projects identified as part of the 2012-2013 Sustainable Agriculture / Food Security Final Report.
Council Chair Pat Nowak shared one of her concerns after having a discussion with the city attorney and two other litigation attorneys in relation to the subcommittee’s letter earlier this year to landowners who own five or more acres.
“...[T]here may be special opportunities to participate in food growing in ways you may not have considered before” the letter reads. The letter poses examples, such as farmer - landowner partnerships, and refers to an educational session to learn more (letter found online at www.sburl.com).
While the letter has good intentions, it didn’t sit quite right with Nowak from a legal perspective.
“When we are attempting through a city committee or subcommittee to introduce a landowner and a prospective renter or lessor of that land, we don’t know the type of liability insurance that that person carries,” she said. “My concern is to be sure that we don’t have any liability that could compromise the city.”
Therefore, Nowak asked that documents such as these be sent to the city attorney for review first.
“When there is a legal case and people are going after who’s got the biggest bucks on it, the city seems to probably have the deepest pockets,” she said, adding, “An ounce of prevention is much better than a pound of cure.”
Planning Commissioner Sophie Quest, the commission liaison for the Sustainable Agriculture Subcommittee, said that they have not received responses from landowners regarding this particular use of the land. The subcommittee did hold a meeting regarding a different program called Growing Connections, in which garden space owners and gardeners connect and make a match; there has been one match thus far.
The conversation branched out to other questions, particularly the subcommittee’s scope of work and how long it plans to be in effect.
Quest noted that some of the tasks given to the subcommittee are on-going and could therefore never be truly finished.
“My worry is that the SusAg Subcommittee is looking more like a standing committee that will be around 10 years from now, and I want to hear when they are going to finish their work,” councilor Chris Shaw said.
“The items they’re working on haven’t been fully vetted by this council,” he added. “...They’ve been very controversial, in some regards, and we’ve seen that with the sewer allocation.”
“The difference in scope is noticeable,” councilor Tom Chittenden said. “When I hear ‘on-going tasks’ I think of a standing committee….it’s far outside the scope of the planning commission because it’s doing more than planning. It’s advocating.”
Therefore, Nowak, Shaw and Chittenden in particular suggested the subcommittee consider becoming a standalone committee, apart from the city, that would allow them to pursue future plans without limitation, such as setting up fundraisers. “Friends of the Library,” and Common Roots were existing examples councilors gave.
Planning Commissioner Tracey Harrington looked at the situation from a different lens: “We have not had a public hearing on the LDRs, we haven’t had public hearings on the Comprehension Plan, so for me, this is very helpful to have a subcommittee that’s active right now so if we do have questions and we do need to go to them for advice, they’re already there, they’re already formed, we know who to talk to.”
“Just like the planning commission, I feel completely unprepared for this discussion,” Councilor Meaghan Emery admitted. “In the future when we meet with the planning commission and there are concerns like this, could we talk about it as a council first and then perhaps even address a letter to the commission with those concerns? I just think it would make for a more productive meeting.”
The planning commission is scheduled to meet with the Sustainable Agriculture Subcommitee at its next meeting. Louisos said they will take this topic up during that time, and the planning commission will check back in with city council.
On the Horizon
Separate from the Sustainable Agriculture Subcommittee discussion, the planning commission announced that it is wrapping up draft amendments to the city-wide and city center Land Development Regulations and could have a public hearing as early as June. If warned for that timeframe, Director of Planning and Zoning Paul Conner said that commissioners could consider changes based on the public hearing results before sending it to city council for a first read. The city council will then have to warn at least one public hearing.
Commissioners are also working on the Comprehensive Plan and hope to warn a public hearing in late summer.
SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent