Reporter Jackie Majerus wrote this story:
The Bristol Planning Commission's vote on the $120 million K-8 school project later this month could effectively throw the entire thing off course.
Municipal planning board members have the responsibility, under state law, to make recommendations on large public projects, according to City Planner Alan Weiner.
Any project involving public capital, Weiner said, must be brought before the local planning board.
In Bristol in recent years, planning commissioners have weighed in on projects as varied as improvements at Rockwell Park, the industrial park on Middle Street and the closing of Birch Street to accommodate ESPN.
Somewhere in the process, the planning board must make a recommendation either for the project or against it, said Weiner, but he said state law does not specify when that takes place. City councilors decide that, Weiner said.
City councilors can approve a project and then send it to the planning board, or they can ask planning commissioners to make their recommendation before councilors vote.
In this case, the council voted first on the school project, casting votes in favor of the city buying land from car dealer Ken Crowley on Pine Street for a new school in Forestville, and for acquiring the former Scalia sand pit on Barlow Street for a West End school. Then they sent the deal to the planning board of approval.
The planning board meets on Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. at City Hall.
Their vote, expected that night, carries a lot of weight. If commissioners recommend approval for the plan, nothing much changes, but if the commissioners vote against it, that means it cannot move forward unless city councilors vote for it again by a two-thirds margin.
Under state law, if planning commissioners fail to act within 35 days, there is a presumption of approval, Weiner said.
"They've essentially got a month," said Weiner. He said the clock starts ticking the night the planning board takes up the matter.
The council vote this week was 4-3, so if the vote remained the same, the project could not move ahead. At least one of the three votes against the Scalia purchase – Mayor Art Ward, Councilor Frank Nicastro and Councilor Mike Rimcoski – would have to change his vote.
It's not clear whether the planning commission will allow public discussion on the issue at their meeting.
"It's not a public hearing," said Weiner. "Whether or not the planning commission allows public comment is really up to the planning commission."
But Weiner said the meeting itself is open to the public, whether comments are allowed or not.
"At the very least, the public has the right to attend and observe," said Weiner, who said he expects that commissioners and city staff are likely to have questions about the project before making a recommendation.
Anytime the board recommends against a project, state law compels the board to state a reason why, said Weiner.
Planning commissioners are supposed to take a long-range, bird's eye view of the community, looking at projects in the context of the whole city rather than in isolation. From that perspective, commissioners are then supposed to make policy decisions about the most appropriate uses of land throughout the town.
"The planning commission functions as the body in town responsible for the physical planning of the community," said Weiner.
Planning commissioners are supposed to figure out where infrastructure like water and sewer lines and roads should be, where the land should be used for commercial, residential and industrial uses, where major public buildings ought to be located.
"That's the rationale for this kind of referral," said Weiner.
Infrastructure on or near the Scalia sand pit, said Weiner, and whether the capacity there can handle a school, would likely be considered, as well as the condition of the roads and sidewalks in the area. Commissioners may want to know, Weiner said, where the population to be served lives and possibly whether children will be able to walk to school or if they will be bussed.
"I'm interested in haring what the thought process was, what were the criteria that generated the need for a school structure of this size," said Weiner, adding that the planning board's concern isn't educational philosophy, but infrastructure and land use.
"It's the intersection of educational policy and land use policy," said Weiner. "They may clash. They may work harmoniously together. I don't know at this point."
As a land use concept, a school can be a focal point for a neighborhood, said Weiner.
"Neighborhood schools have traditionally helped to anchor neighborhoods," Weiner said.
If there wasn't the need for so much land, said Weiner, there would be many more choices for locations for a school.
Weiner said the issue isn't what he thinks, but what commissioners want to do.
"It's what the people who live and work in the city think it should be," said Weiner.
Weiner said the city's master plan of conservation and development is nearly 10 years old now. When it was adopted by planning commissioners, it noted that school enrollment was expected to decline, Weiner said, but also that the school buildings were aging and lacked the latest technology.
"Even 10 years ago, there was a recognition that there were problems with some of the public schools," said Weiner.
The plan also says that the area around the Scalia property should be developed as a residential area, said Weiner.
Weiner said the plan of development – which focused more on downtown than any other area of Bristol – doesn't speak to the issue of whether a school belongs there.
"It's a generalized plan," said Weiner, and doesn't "seal the deal one way or the other."
The Scalia property is zoned single family residential, said Weiner, where schools are allowed by special permit. That means that the project will also have to meet the approval of the zoning commissioners as well.
Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
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