I'm old enough to remember the days when door-to-door salesmen plied their trade on neighborhood streets, going house to house selling things like encyclopedias, soap, brushes and accordion lessons (all you need to do is put a small down payment on this beautiful Italian accordion today). They were about as welcome at the door as the dinnertime telemarketer is today.
At Wednesday's Planning and Zoning meeting, those days came to mind again, as the few proponents of an MX Zone change, said, again and again, as if scripted, that the zone change would only "open the door" to future consideration of development projects.
Foot in the Door
Those door-to-door salesmen were persistent, and I learned at a young age that you addressed them through the screen door, but you never opened it, because once they got a foot in the door, they'd very soon be in your living room demonstrating the features of the latest vacuum cleaner and all its attachments.
The foot in the door is the advantage you never want to give to the slick salesman. Or the land-use lawyer. Or the property developer.
When Ralph Wilson, who represented Centerplan at the recent Planning and Zoning hearing, asked the commission simply to "open the door" to future decisions, he was pleading for nothing more or less than what any self-respecting door-to-door salesman would want. He argued that the MX text amendment would only provide the Planning and Zoning Commission with future opportunities to pass judgment on proposed development. Of course, he knows better than anyone, a canny lawyer can bend an opportunity into a certainty.
The reasons drive-thru banks, ambulance dealers and used-car lots are on the list of approved uses in the MX zone, is because some lawyer, representing some powerful interest, pleaded with the P&Z to add opportunity in the MX.
This "open the door" imagery became a meme at the meeting, and was repeated by nearly everyone who supported the MX, all five of them. In a letter from the Chamber of Commerce's Larry McHugh, the theme was sounded. In a letter from Mayor Dan Drew, Drew trumpeted the opportunities an opened door would bring. Lee Osbourne, who stands to make a fortune when his property is sold to Centerplan, talked about opening a door to "possibilites." And Bob Landino, who will appear later as "the elephant in the room," stepped out from the anonymity of his Aquistion Holdings LTD, mask to humbly plea for nothing more than an open door to explore opportunites that would help the community.
There's nothing more that a developer or a land-use attorney adores than a door opened, even a crack, so they may insert their size 11 wingtips.
Let's keep the door shut.
Elephant in the Room
I think it was Rani Arbo who first mentioned "that which shall not be named," the elephant in the room which everyone at the meeting knew was Centerplan. Bob Landino admitted as much himself late in the meeting.
All who were about to testify were warned by the Commission Chairman that the hearing was a "legislative" issue, and not about a specific development or developer (the elephant in the room).
But this particular legislative issue was about real zones, on real streets, with real addresses, where real people live, and so it was impossible, for too long, to avoid calling Centerplan out, or talking about the proposal for commercial development on Washington Street. By the way Centerplan announced the development, at a very real press conference a few months back. At that point, it wasn't an elepant in the room, it was a 15,000 square foot building with three floors, and a hundred parking spaces.
But at the P&Z meeting, the development whose name could not be spoken became "the elephant in the room."
And the elephant was mentioned again and again, because, in fact, it was the only reason a zoning amendment was being considered in the first place.
There would have been no proposed zone amendment, no hearing and no testimony if Centerplan did not seek the experience of land-use attorney Ralph Wilson to attempt to legitimize a very real development, on the very real corner of Pearl and Washington Streets.
Centerplan obviously realized that trying to build a development on land not zoned for it was going to be a problem. So, like a lackluster kicker, instead of putting in the hard work needed to suceed, they decided to move the goalpost. If they weren't going to be able to convince the P&Z to let them develop where they shouldn't then, by god, they would change the law so that P&Z couldn't resist their charm.
Landino, who testified last in the public hearing, admitted that he'd have to go home and tell his kids that he was "the elephant in the room."
Let's only hope that residents of nearby neighborhoods aren't left playing the role of the man with the broom assigned to clean up after the elephant in the parade.
The Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission meets Wednesday, March 13, 7 PM, in City Hall's Council Chambers to deliberate and vote on a change in the MX Zone which will allow for the development of strip-mall commercial development along Washington Street and South Main Street.