By TRACEY O’NEILL
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN– The spirit of the evening at Monday’s combined meeting of the Town Council and Planning Department was reduction and elimination.
Not to be confused with the possibility of decreases in taxation and budgetary minutia, the council focused its attention on reducing stakeholder input for issues affecting the town’s Comprehensive Plan.
Specifically targeted at the land-use portion of the plan influencing the outcome of the intersection of Routes 2 and 102, a significant part of the night’s meeting was dedicated to routing the composition of a volunteer resident group organized by the Planning Department and its consultant, the Consensus Building Institute (CBI). The purpose of the development of a stakeholder group is establishing a commitment to identifying, studying, defining and providing recommendations consistent with the needs and wishes of the community.
Among those stakeholder volunteers targeted for removal by the council were developers, planning department and commission members, a Chamber of Commerce representative and anyone seeking public office.
In a presentation made to the Council by Ona Ferguson, Senior Associate of CBI, the message of discord and distrust among town, business and residential concerns was evident.
“There is a lack of clarity on what the community wants to see at that intersection. There is a lot of distrust from all kinds of players in all kinds of directions,” began Ferguson. “What would have legitimacy in the eyes of many different people - that is the goal.”
The Consensus Building Institute is a non-profit organization specializing in dispute resolution and negotiation strategies in both high-conflict and high-stakes environments. Ferguson has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management from Yale University and specializes in helping groups work constructively together on natural resource and public policy issues, per her company biography.
Working in accordance with the Planning Department, town officials, department heads and residents, Ferguson was tasked with developing and monitoring a representative stakeholder focus group.
In considering community input in vision with the Comprehensive Plan, two issues were absolute. The first, the town must provide broad-based public engagement through both online and in-person opportunities. The second, development of the stakeholder group, called for composing a body of people representing all the key interests for the intersection and the area.
“It is better to have people with very divergent opinions all sitting down together to work it out than to be too narrow,” cautioned Ferguson. According to Jonathan Reiner, NK’s Director of Planning, of all the names submitted for stakeholder group participation, only one individual declined due to previous commitments. Reiner and Ferguson, sharing turns at the microphone, drove home the message of community involvement. Speaking to the group of volunteers being presented for approval, Ferguson noted, “Hardly anyone tried to exclude other people, which is a really good sign.”
Council member Charles Stamm, who is not seeking reelection, was eager to move the entire process through. “I would like to get it done with this council. Push it through, delete a meeting or two to streamline and get it done before the new council is sworn in in December.”
Stamm was also supportive of a reduction in the size of the group, calling a group of 20 individuals unwieldy. His suggestion was to trim the number to 10 with the possibility of alternates, included an attack on the composition of the group as well. Calling attention to the list, Stamm pointed out that there are more people with a direct vested interest in that area and a lack of community input.
Responding to Stamm’s comments, Ferguson pointed out the inclusion of at least five community representatives comprised of individuals from conservation background, the Healthy Places by Design group, as well as a representative of the Chamber of Commerce representing the town’s business community.
“Members of the business and residential communities will be thinking community-wide,” noted Ferguson. “They are all paying taxes as well.” The consultant also cautioned against reducing the volunteer group. “It would be hard to cut it down as a lot of these people have expressed interest in being a part of the group. I think that is riskier.”
Not in agreement with the expert’s reasoning, Stamm further called for a reduction in the number of conservation (two) representatives as well as Healthy Lifestyle’s (two) representatives. Flip flopping on the issue after fellow council member Carol Hueston pointed out the positive aspects of community, Stamm made his position clear. “I do believe that it’s incumbent upon us to try this approach, to give the community and the stakeholders the opportunity to find common ground. If they don’t do it, we will decide it for them.”
Hueston, who was the sole council member supportive of the assembled team, expressed her sentiment that community members should be given access to the process and a voice in the comprehensive plan. “I think it is better to include as opposed to exclude at this point,” she said.
Joining Hueston was planning commission member Harriet Powell.
“These are volunteers who are willing to serve and now you are going to tell them you don’t want them to do it,” she said. Calling attention to the philosophy of the Comprehensive Plan, Powell noted that cutting down the number of volunteers on board already was a contrary action.
Ferguson, who had previously testified that the size of the group – 20 total with 16 voting members – was doable warned the council on several occasions of the nature of trust-building within the community.
Also to be considered as an increase to the volatility of the project are the upcoming town council election and pending development proposal. Absent public comment on the agenda, Council President, Elizabeth Dolan allowed those people on the original list to come forward.
Several town residents, abutters and individuals on the list came to the podium to express interest and had an actual stake in the project. Frank DiGregorio, representing the Town of Exeter and its planning board, expressed the importance of the location to both towns.
“What happens at that intersection also impacts the Town of Exeter to a great deal. I’m here to talk about a special set of stakeholders who reside on both sides of that intersection.” Reading from a prepared statement, the planner called to light the rural make-up of the area and the exclusion of abutting entities that have purchased properties for development. The group of those excluded included both towns, the State of Rhode Island, and a private donor who purchased the Bald Hill Nursery property.
“It is inconceivable that they would not be included as voting stakeholder members.” Calling the exclusion of the entities a grave injustice, the planner managed to get his message across in the allotted three minutes time.
After several hours of back and forth discussion, and much debating of the list of volunteers assembled for the team, the council motioned to decrease the number of individuals in the group. Voting on a final reduction to 11 voting members with five non-voting members, in a continued pick and choose of group participants, the list was representative of that preferred by the Council.
After approving a $54,135.00 expenditure in support of the project to the Horsley Witten Group, the council closed the hearing as to any further discussion of the stakeholder plan.