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Groton - With its longtime director less than three weeks from retirement, the Office of Planning and Development Services has become the subject of much debate recently with town councilors and merchants among those saying the department needs to change the way it does business.
"Businesses don't like complications and entanglements with the government," said George Mathanool, chairman of the Economic Development Commission. "They want expediency."
If you want to do anything big and business-related in Groton - expand, build, renovate - you've got to go to the Office of Planning and Development Services first. Mathanool said he believes planning services should function as an adjunct to the Economic Development Commission.
"The Economic Development Commission goes out and brings the businesses in and promotes the town," said Mathanool, explaining how he would like things to work. "It's the planning department's role to streamline the process and make sure the businesses put a stake in the ground."
Office of Planning and Development Services Director Mike Murphy is scheduled to retire March 21, giving the Town Council an opportunity to review the department's performance, reassess its role and improve any shortcomings, the EDC chairman said.
But Murphy said the chairman is exceeding the traditional boundaries of that office.
Murphy is retiring after more than a decade in the job. He's worked for the office since 1988 and took over as director in 2003 from Mark Oefinger, who is now Groton's town manager. Oefinger was finalizing the town budget this week and couldn't be reached to comment.
Since the planning office meets business owners submitting new plans and reviews those plans and advises commissions that grant approvals, its role is a very powerful one, many said.
"How things happen, how things don't happen, businesses that move here, businesses that don't move here, this is ultimately where it comes back to," said Bill Middleton, who is on the Mystic Art Association's board of directors.
During the past couple of weeks, the functioning of the office and whether it supports or inhibits economic development has been the subject of private and public grumbling among councilors, the economic development commission, and a handful of merchants appearing at an economic commission meeting last week.
Murphy said the complaints by merchants are being put forward by those with vested interests. Others criticizing the process have not visited the office, don't know how it operates, thus some of their criticisms are not based on proper information, he said.
"Our reputation is very good, very friendly, but you've got people who have vested interests. It's a controversial business sometimes," he said. "We're policy analysts. … Some people don't like to follow policy."
While some merchants are still angry about implementation of the Mystic Streetscape and the planning office's role in it, Murphy said his department has engineered many successes, including the fact that the industrial park near Groton-New London Airport is nearly full.
Town Councilor Richard Moravsik said councilors would get to the bottom of the complaints and be involved in the selection of the next director. Murphy's replacement has not been named.
"In the last month and a half or so, I've attended a number of meetings and it seems to be the same tone, where there's difficulty getting things through that department. Now it may be that they have reasons, but all these people, they're frustrated," he said.
"It's a sad because it gives Groton a bad reputation. And I've heard, even from contractors I've worked with, that they have a hard time with these guys. I don't know the reason why," he said.
Todd Brady, who owns Factory Square and Randall's Wharf in Mystic, was among those speaking to the economic development commission last week. "It's not a planning department that says how you can do something. It's a department that says how you can't do something," he told the commission.
Murphy said that's not true. He said the office, which includes the divisions of planning, inspection, community development and economic development, helps businesses by gathering all the necessary departments together so developers can figure out all that must be done to create a proper application and obtain approval. Murphy said he and his staff of about a dozen people talk about regulations but also opportunities for business. Staff members then make recommendations to assist and advise the commissions reviewing projects, the director said.
The office also must enforce regulations of the commissions.
"Remember, we're professionals," he said. "Whether it's liked or not, when we're regulators. ... We have to make sure the commission's position is enforced. We would be arbitrary if it were not." He said virtually all site plans are approved.
But Middleton told the Economic Development Commission Thursday "it has been difficult to say the very least" to move forward on renovating the historic Emporium building on Water Street in Mystic.
To go forward with the Emporium, Middleton needed a "certificate of appropriateness" from the Historic District Commission; a special permit from the zoning commission; site plan approval from the planning commission and coastal site plan approval from both the planning and zoning commissions, typically granted at the same time as the other permits.
This is because of a zone called the "Waterfront Design District," which encompasses part of the Groton side of downtown Mystic.
However, Deb Jones, the department's environmental planner, said time frames are limited by state law; for example, she said the planning commission has 65 days to make a decision from the day a plan is received.
The Emporium got Historic District Commission approval, Middleton said, but then was subject to reviews between the zoning and planning commissions by the same people in the same office. He added that the project was subject to "micromanaging" and "minuscule" conditions.
"We had to specify our grass seed," he said. "You can't make this stuff up."
Grass is probably part of an erosion control plan, Jones said. Staff members provide guidance to businesses and review plans so they are ready when they go before a commission, she said.
"We know it's a foreign language when people come in the door and they've never done it before. And we do try to help them through the process," she said.
Rod Desmarais, a partner in the group trying to rebuild the Central Hall block building in Mystic, also addressed the Economic Development Commission, saying he and his partners have spent 10 years trying to get approvals for the project.
"We've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on extra design fees for this project," he said. "(It) should not have happened."
The planning office would ask for blueprints, make changes and then expect another set, he said. Blueprints are expensive, Desmarais noted, so he would go over details before ordering another set, only to have them changed another time. He said he went through it three times.
Murphy said the developers changed the plans repeatedly, not his office.
But the accountability of the office should change, Mathanool said. The Office of Planning and Development Services should report to the town council, not the town manager, because the council answers to voters.
"The taxpayers should have the ultimate say," he said.