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Informal Report from the Tiverton Glen Public Hearing

I don’t attend Town Council meetings these days, since this Town Council doesn’t allow public comment until the very end of the meetings, so you may as well watch them on video instead, but the Town Council meeting on the Tiverton Glen project, held Tuesday night, was required by law to be a public “hearing” (rather than a “meeting”), which means that the council was required to take public comment. (Video at the end of this post.)

The hearing was about four hours and filled the auditorium to capacity, with a smattering of empty seats offset by many people standing in the back, along the sides, and in the doorways with folks looking for respite from the stifling heat in the auditorium.  I have not seen the high school auditorium so full of people and energy since the Sakonnet River Bridge toll proposal hearings.  Also like the tolls, the issue united folks from both across the political spectrum.

But I was even more reminded of the old financial town meetings and the debacles that they were.  Just like those old FTMs, the hearing Tuesday night went on over four hours before it ended up being continued until another night.  As the evening dragged on, many people left before having the opportunity to speak, some speakers where thrown out by the police, hearing was difficult, and amendments were proposed on the spot by some speakers which is great but time is needed to properly consider them.

Of the speakers, I estimate about 50 were against the project, 1 for it, and 2 or 3 who were opposed to the current project but still could envision some type of development on the property under better conditions.  People were angry — very angry — at the council and the process and rightfully so, in my opinion.  There was plenty of rank hypocrisy, too, when some well-known figures who routinely use government advantage to attack their opponents and suppress dissent pleaded for a different approach, now that the tables had turned on them.

I, along with many others, remain baffled why the Town Council is considering amendments to the Comprehensive Plan at all right now — especially when a council-appointed committee is currently working on updates.  Last-minute changes to the proposal around the holiday weekend added to the confusion and distrust.  Some speakers were turned away when the council started by trying to say people couldn’t discuss the project proposal during the Comprehensive Plan portion of the agenda, ridiculously claiming they were separate issues.

The council should never have heard the matter, and it’s a shame the precious time of an auditorium full of citizens had to be wasted on something that should have never come forward at that time and in that manner.

There were so many speakers — most of them raising good points — that I can’t capture them all here.  For me, one of the more powerful points is that a majority of this Town Council repeatedly disrespects the votes of 1,535 voters who approved the last budget, which turns out to be around the same number of people who signed a petition against the Tiverton Glen project.

On one extreme, some speakers clearly don’t want any building whatsoever on the property, which, in my opinion, does not appropriately respect that the land is in fact private property owned by somebody else.  If people want a public park or preserve on land someone else paid for and rightfully owns, then I’d suggest they fundraise through a charity (like the Tiverton Land Trust, Tiverton Historical Society, or Tiverton Cares) and negotiate to buy the property at a fair price and then make it a preserve.  I would donate to that cause.

But put bluntly, we don’t have the right just to restrict someone’s property and claim it should remain as nothing but woods.  That would be confiscation.  One speaker also made a good point that the project might provide needed nearby jobs for teenagers and others looking to enter the labor market, and it’s also unlikely that the professional developer expects a loss.  Let’s be honest: The property is next to what is effectively an interstate, limited-access highway.

On the other hand, though, the current proposal is easy to oppose.  By requiring changes to the Comprehensive Plan custom tailored by a developer, by far exceeding the bounds of the original highway commercial district that was once there, and with such obviously flawed economic assumptions without any guarantees, the current proposal is so fraught with risk that it is almost certainly a bad deal for Tiverton taxpayers.

No matter what the viewpoint, however, everyone should agree that the process and the last-minute changes and lack of proper notice should not be condoned.

That virtually the entire audience, almost every speaker, every yard sign, almost every letter, and 1,500 petition signatures expressed opposition does say something.  To be sure, 1,500 signatures on the “Don’t Mall Tiverton” petition isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison with actual votes by registered voters in a referendum.  In the FTR, by comparison, petitioners only have a week or so to gather signatures, and they must be witnessed and notarized and checked as registered voters.

Still, even an open-ended 1,500 signatures is an impressive number, and one wonders what the Town Council could be thinking to so defiantly and repeatedly ignore the will of such a solid number.  One speaker raised a really good point:  Why doesn’t the Town Council put the proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan up for referendum vote?  Then, just like with the FTR on our taxes and budgets, there would be no last-minute surprises, no lengthy meetings without notice of proposals, and no doubts about the preferences of the people.  Voters could express their will in private and in just a few minutes.

In summary, my first hope is that this Town Council starts treating processes and the will of the majority with respect.  Second is that maybe those who propelled the council into office will reflect on their hypocrisy next time they want to denigrate the will of the majority when it’s not as convenient for them.

All the while, citizens must remain engaged. The next session of the public hearing is on July 20th.


Robert Coulter

Robert Coulter has served Tiverton as an elected member of the Town Council, the Charter Review Commission, and Budget Committee. A lawyer, he is also a founding member of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association.

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