Added 5/1/23 - Additional Mandates Would Restrict The Board
The Charter Commission says that the proposed new charter places an emphasis on planning. Yet, neither the Planning Board nor the Director of Planning and Development were consulted about these proposed changes. As a result, the proposed added procedures and administrative responsibilities would actually make planning more difficult. Here are some of the changes and how they would affect our ability to plan for Plymouth’s future.
What our Department of Planning and Development Does
Most people hear Planning Department and assume they are the ones who issue permits (they don’t). Their full title is Department of Planning and Community Development, but they are called the Planning Department for short. Here is an overview of just some of the things they do:
They are the front line for all private development in Town
Any private entity wishing to build anything in town must comply with both zoning requirements and building code requirements (governmental projects go through a different review).
- The Planning Department handles the zoning requirement component for those private projects (the other components are handled by Inspectional Services, the Board of Health, and the Fire Department).
- And for each project that actually goes forward there are at least two which don’t; meaning that the Planning Department staff is answering questions, assisting with applications, and providing guidance for far more than the residents ever see.
They provide support and guidance for numerous boards and committees
Beyond serving the public, they are the support for numerous boards and committee, including:
- Planning Board
- Zoning Board of Appeals
- Historic Commission
- Conservation Commission
Many of these boards and committees (including all of the ones listed above) make binding legal decisions, covering everything from a simple deck expansion to a 300 unit housing development. Reviewing these applications, coordinating with all other departments which have to provide review and comment, communicating with applicants, putting together reports, managing required hearings, and drafting the required documents based on the final decision requires specialized knowledge and significant time to ensure compliance with the law.
These things alone are more than enough to occupy the available staff time, but that is not the end of their responsibilities.
They undertakes numerous special projects for the Town
This is the “Planning” part of the Planning Department; the effort to undertake projects regarding land use in Plymouth, which the residents want us to do.
- Some of these are Town initiated, such as updating the Master Plan and Village Center Plans and supporting Planning Board and Select Board planning initiatives.
- Others are forced upon us, like the MBTA Communities Law or proposed 40B developments.
But the ability of the Planning Department to do these additional projects is limited by the time they must spend doing things mandated by the state and the Town.
Proposed Additional Planning Department/Planning Board Requirements
The reason this has become an issue is because the proposed new charter would impose significant additional administrative responsibilities on the Planning Department and the Planning Board.
- These are not optional items, things we can choose whether or not to do, but rather obligations, things we must do regardless as to the amount of time they take or their cost.
Yet, when the suggestion was made that these would require additional staff or a reduction in carrying out planning initiatives, some have responded:
- That isn’t necessary
- They should be doing this anyway
- We won’t even need a Planning Director
For those who may be thinking any of these things, you should be disabused of such notions.
The Proposed Charter Would Require Preparation of Hundreds of Additional Reports
Under the proposed charter, the Planning Director would be required to prepare comments for “all projects that are within the purview of the Department of Planning and Development” as to whether such project “aligns with the Master Plan”. Those comments would then be presented to the Planning Board which would be required to “vote to adopt, amend, or reject them.”
- That’s Section 3-12-4(C)
This is not something that the Planning Department staff or the Planning Board currently does, and would create a significant amount of new work. Here’s why:
Presently, the Planning Department only prepares recommendations for the Planning Board for projects that are voted on by the Planning Board, which makes sense. But what many people don’t understand (including the members of the Charter Commission) is that the vast majority of “projects” under the Planning Department’s authority never go before the Planning Board.
Below is a chart, prepared by the Planning Director, which identifies all of the types of projects which are “under the purview” of his department as well as which board or commission is responsible for making the final determination. What this chart shows is that:
- On average, the Planning Department is responsible for 271 to 384 projects per year.
- Of that number, only 53 to 84 come before the Planning Board (that includes 30-40 Zoning Board of Appeals matters for which the Planning Board provides an advisory opinion).
But under the proposed charter, all of them would now be presented to the Planning.
That means that the Planning Director would have to prepare reports, and the Planning Board would have to review and vote on, an additional 218 to 300 projects per year, potentially requiring
hundreds of hours of additional work.
The Proposed Charter Would Require Double the Number of Planning Board Meetings
On top of having to prepare all of these new reports, the Planning Department would also have to provide additional time attending meetings and supporting the Planning Board.
- Assuming that the Planning Board spends an average of 15 minutes per project (which is a conservative number given the need for a proponent presentation, staff recommendations, Board discussion and vote), that is 2-3 hours spent per meeting on these additional projects alone.
- The Planning Board currently meets for 2-4 hours every other week.
- So just to get through existing administrative matters and the added workload under the proposed charter, the Planning Board would have to meet every week, meaning staff would also have to prepare for and attend a meeting every week.
Even more problematic, these additional responsibilities would leave no time for any actual “planning”.
- Neither the Planning Board (who are all volunteers) nor the staff would have the time to work on the projects and proposals needed to manage development in Plymouth.
The Proposed Charter Would Not Improve Master Plan Compliance
The purported reason for all of this additional is supposed to be to ensure that the Town is complying with the Master Plan. But doing these things would not accomplish that.
- That is because the proposed charter says that these reports and votes are only required to be included in the decisions of projects approved by the Planning Board.
- It does not require that they be part of the record for any of the projects decided on by all of the other boards and committees that fall under the Planning Department.
It also fails to provide for any review of any of the numerous significant projects that fall under other Town departments.
The Master Plan Task Group recommended to the Charter Commission that the charter include a requirement that for every decision issued by a Town body they be required to identify the specific provision in the Master Plan supporting that decision (or identifying why they were issuing a decision contrary to the Master Plan).
That would apply to both the executive (Select Board/Planning Board), the legislative (Town Meeting), and all of their respective committees.
It would also ensure that the Master Plan is consulted for every proposal coming from Town government.
However, instead of following this suggestion, the Charter Commission decided not include requirements that would apply to Town Meeting and the COPC.
That means that for the vast majority of projects in Town there would still be no required consideration of Master Plan compliance.
Requiring compliance with the Master Plan is a good idea, one that the Master Plan Task Group proposed to the Charter Commission (along with the requirement that we update that plan). But the method they chose, again, without consulting the Planning Department or Planning Board, is overly burdensome and completely ineffective.
We need to take this idea back to the drawing board so that it actually accomplishes what we want to accomplish without sacrificing the ability to do the planning that we so desperately need.
What the Document Actually Says
Rather than rely on characterizations by others, I have prepared a summary of some of the added expense, conflicting language, and potential legal problems which would be created by adoption of this proposed Charter. I have also citied the relevant sections of the draft document and, where appropriate, the applicable law.
Town Staff Estimate of Additional Cost
The proposed charter changes will require more Town staff, more consultants, and more legal expense. Some of this is periodic, or might happen even without the charter change, but where the residents currently have the option whether or not to do something (like updating the Master Plan, something I wholeheartedly support), adopting these changes will now require those expenses. That means either we spend more on administrators or cut resident services, because in order to perform all of the new functions in the proposed charter additional employees, consultants, and attorneys will be needed. The estimated additional cost to the residents is $950,000 every year - a number will increase as the cost of salaries, benefits, technology, and legal services go up.
Below is a breakdown of the mandatory additional expenses.
On January 11, 2022, the Select Board approved three non-binding ballot questions for this May which will ask the residents of Plymouth to identify which form(s) of government they want the Charter Commission to include in options for a new Town Charter. Charter Commission members who had already said before even beginning deliberations that they favored keeping Representative Town Meeting opposed the idea of hearing from the residents.
Having lost that argument, the Charter Commission hastily scheduled a vote to decide which form of government they would proceed with in the 'new' Town Charter. Not surprisingly, in a 6-3 vote, the Charter Commission elected to continue with representative town meeting. Moreover, by that same margin, the Charter Commission decided that it would not consider offering the residents another form of government, in addition to or instead of town meeting, even if the residents indicated the wanted a different form in the upcoming non-binding Town referendum. This despite having previously stated in both their own meetings and at a Select Board meeting that they intended to follow the wishes of the people.
At the Spring 2002 election, the residents were presented with the question as to whether they wanted options for the form of Town government, and if so which ones. Based on the total number of votes, the vast majority wanted at least the opportunity to consider a Town Charter that offered a City form of government (mayor/city council or Town council). Accordingly, some of the members of the Charter Commission, seeking to follow the guidance of the residents, are considering issuance of a minority report. Please remember to view any proposed Charter carefully, look for explanations provided by the Charter Commission and others as to how any proposed new Charter would function, and ask questions of anyone and everyone offering their opinions. Remember, this will be the form of government our growing Town (63,000+ people and rising) will have to live with for years, if not decades, to come.