Following heated discussion, Irvington pulls plug on PUD; four planners resign

by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

IRVINGTON—By order of the Irvington Town Council, town planning commission discussions regarding a planned unit development (PUD) or a planned residential development (PRD) will cease.

Everything but fists was being thrown around last Thursday night when council needed the the mayor’s tie-breaking decision on a 4-3 vote to direct the Irvington planning commission to “table any and all future action” on the issues “until further notification from the council.” There was name calling, finger pointing, accusations and fist slamming among the council members, clearly divided on the motion made by Fran Westbrook.

In fact, right from the meeting’s start, the PUD/PRD issue caused tension when Mayor Ralph “Rannie” Ransone asked for approval of the agenda and councilman Mike Merrill said the addition of “motion to discuss PUD” under old business needed clarification.

“I suggest we be given some information so we know what we need to address,” said Merrill. “We’re shooting blind on a very big topic.”

Merrill asked that the issue be removed from the agenda discussions but was outvoted on the approval of the agenda, 5-1.

Some 25 people, many commission members and members of a newly formed planning commission-appointed citizens committee, crammed into the tiny town hall meeting room on a hot night to discuss the hot topic.

As a result of the council’s directive Thursday, four commission members have since tendered their resignations to Irvington’s clerk to council Sharon Phillips. Council has not had a chance to act on the resignation letters but will do so at the first opportunity to assemble a quorum, according to town attorney Wes Charlton. An emergency town council meeting to discuss the resignations was scheduled for Monday morning but a quorum wasn’t possible, he said.

Those resigning are commission chairman Bill Young, vice chairman Edward Sulick and members Frank Tetrick and Merrill. Merrill serves as the council’s liaison to the commission but is not resigning from his town council seat.

Several commission members addressed the council during the public comment portion of last Thursday’s meeting, asking council to allow the newly formed citizens committee to continue its work.

“The actions being taken [by the citizens committee] are very productive steps in finishing the task of completing the document which will be voted on,” said Sulik.

Sulik, who was chairman of the citizens committee, also resigned from that post and disbanded the citizens committee effective immediately last Friday.

The background

In November 2017, about 125 Irvington residents attended a planning commission hearing to discuss a proposed PUD ordinance, which would allow for greater density on several undeveloped properties in the town. PUD ordinances encourage mixed uses, often combining townhouses with single family homes. Some 35 citizens spoke against the PUD at that meeting.

In December, Charlton was directed by council to work with the commission on the PUD proposal. Charlton recommended the commission form a citizens committee, which Young did in March. The initial PUD proposal was replaced by a PRD zoning discussion and Young told council “we are working diligently on a good model.”

He also urged council to “consider the fact the planning commission has put a lot of effort into this thing.”

According to Merrill’s resignation letter to fellow council members, he said Westbrook attended the commission meeting on April 3 and when “she departed that meeting, she delivered a handwritten note to chairman Young, stating her assurance that: “And as a town council member, I will do everything I can to undo tonight’s decision [to establish a citizens’ committee to engage in PRD-related dialogue with two representatives of the planning commission].”

Merrill added, “Ms. Westbrook attended the planning commission meeting as an ordinary citizen, having no official role authorizing her to judge the conduct of the meeting or to make unseemly threats regarding its work product.”

The discussion

Merrill told Westbrook and the rest of council last Thursday, “It is not up to us to micro-manage the planning commission.

“I think they would justifiably object to us” telling them what to do, he added.

However, Westbrook prefaced her motion by stating there are 416 registered voters in Irvington and 100 plus citizens attended at least two of the commission’s meetings regarding the PUD. Also, the town council and planning commission have received over 40 letters representing 79 people concerning the issue, with only two in favor and both were developers. The facts, she said, point to one answer and that is the citizenry is not in favor of a PUD.

“So the obvious question is why do we continue to pursue a PUD when it has only served to divide and alienate the town citizens from the governing body? What more can the citizens possibly do to get our attention? Why are we intentionally putting this kind of strain on the relationship between us and them? Is it really worth it? I, for one, am tired of it all and ask that the town council please consider putting all of us out of our misery,” said Westbrook.

Councilman Wayne Nunnally seconded Westbrook’s motion for the planning commission to table any and all future action on PUD.

“I was going to move to fire them all and appoint a new commission,” said Nunnally, during council’s discussion on the motion.

“I don’t think it’s our job at this time to develop Irvington,” he said, adding it was beyond him how the planning commission “doesn’t listen to the people.”

He said it looked to him like the commission was taking a bone and jamming it down the throats of the people.

Merrill said the planning commission had been working hard on the new PRD proposal and that Nunnally was unaware of all the work being done.

“Wayne [Nunnally] comes to a public hearing when he gets an audience that can hear him roar,” said Merrill.

Nunnally, who said he had been attacked and was “going to give it back,” proceeded to tell Merrill “You have been the real cause of all this crap. You’ve created the animosity in this town. We’re not a happy little town anymore.”

Nunnally spoke for about five minutes, accusing Merrill of being the instigator behind the entire PUD discussion.

“You are a come-here that should have found this village nice instead of trying to change it,” into where you came from, he said.

“The work [the planning commission] has done has not corresponded to the wish of the people,” said Nunnally.

Council member Kathleen Pollard commended the hard work of the commission, saying they now have an open dialogue and citizen contribution.

Prior to the vote, Charlton asked Westbrook to clarify if her motion was to stop discussion on only a PUD proposal or on the new PRD dialogue.

“You can call it a PRD, not PUD,” she said. “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” She added she wants to drop both the PUD/PRD discussions.

Councilman Jerry Lattell, Westbrook and Nunnally all voted in favor of the motion, while Pollard, Merrill and councilman Mike Bombay voted against, bringing up a 3-3 tie, which Ransone was forced to break. He said he had to vote with Westbrook for the 4-3 decision.