Codify what looks good
Going before a planning commission is seldom enjoyable, but it’s less so when someone goes in believing he or she understands the rules only to discover that commission members have ideas of their own that aren’t in the code.
That’s where the developer of an Auto Zone store on the site of the former McDonald’s property on Route 50 finds himself, after the Berlin Planning Commission told him to return with building plans that are more compatible with the overall look of the town.
Understandably, commission members don’t want a flat-topped, architecturally blunt structure greeting visitors at this gateway to town. Yet the zoning code does not give the commission the authority to require properties outside certain specified districts to abide by their subjective judgments of what looks good and what does not.
This is not a situation exclusive to the Berlin commission either. Land use attorneys won’t say it for fear of running afoul of these commissions, but planning boards throughout the county have, at one time or the other, strongly recommended that builders incorporate members’ personal preferences in their designs if they want their plans approved.
Often, they are right, as is they are in Berlin, but it remains that what is good for the community is not always contained in the laws they are authorized to enforce. This isn’t fair to applicants who have no idea what they must do to earn a commission’s recommendation until after they have presented their plans.
Although planning commissions are empowered to protect the quality of life and the public welfare of the communities they serve, the scope of that authority isn’t unlimited, especially when the code contains nothing to back it up.
Right now, applicants are willing to go along with these demands, because time is money and they don’t want the approval process to take any longer than necessary. But to be fair, these commissions must find ways to codify what they want, so applicants can know what to expect, and local governments don’t find themselves in court some day defending policies that aren’t in writing.