Editorial – Planning chair injects politics in Grange review

Published 5:15 pm Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Charles Bryan’s politicization of the Smithfield Planning Commission is perhaps the saddest chapter yet in a saga that has unnecessarily divided the community and further damaged the citizenry’s confidence in town leadership.

In case you missed Stephen Faleski’s reporting on last week’s front page, the Planning Commission chairman went behind the backs of his colleagues with an extraordinary email urging Town Council members to ignore a key commission recommendation on the Grange at 10Main, the controversial mixed-use development proposed for the western edge of the town’s historic district. Shamefully, he called four of his Planning Commission colleagues uninformed and lacking courage because they objected to a single aspect of developer Joseph Luter IV’s ambitious plan: four-story apartments.

Julia Hillegass, Thomas Pope, Michael Swecker and James Yoko deserve better from the commission’s chairman. Unlike Bryan, whose only interest from the beginning has been to defend the project, they did their jobs by carefully scrutinizing the developer’s application, asking important questions and ultimately blessing it with the sole exception of the desired height variance waiver.

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Bryan’s cheap shot that his colleagues lacked the courage to do the right thing on mixed-use zoning is especially rich from one who would rather hand a developer the keys to the town’s historic district than work with his colleagues to help improve a project with some worthy components but some disturbing ones as well.

Bryan, in his email to the Town Council, said some of his colleagues “do not fully understand and appreciate the use of this new ordinance driven by versatility and innovation in planning.”

Actually, Hillegass and Pope, who deemed four-story apartments incompatible with the town’s historic district, were vital in drafting a Planned Mixed Use Development zoning ordinance that forces developers to get separate permissions for each key aspect of a project. 

Regarding Luter’s having to get six special use permits in addition to a vote to rezone the former Pierceville property, the process worked exactly as it should. Commissioners were very generous to the developer in their recommendations, registering just the single objection. 

Bryan has gall to call them out for a lack of vision.

The chairman cherry-picked advice from Albert Solnit, one of the world’s most respected experts on the role of a planning commission, whose 1980s book urged planners to consider future generations in their decision-making.

Bryan should read deeper in the works of Solnit, who also wrote that planning commissions should rise above politics and act as a “surrogate public.” 

Planning commissions are the best groups to help communities navigate land-use conflicts because they are “people we know and trust,” he wrote. “Good commissions have public trust as arbiters of such conflicts by being able to afford the kind of impartiality and nonpartisanship that politicians by their very calling can never hope to achieve.”

Rather, Bryan chose to do the bidding of the powerful.