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Stonington planning director targets public comments on Smiler's

I have heard from two readers of The Day who say Jason Vincent, Stonington's director of planning, contacted and questioned them about comments they posted on the newspaper's website criticizing the proposed Smiler's Wharf development for Mystic, now under review by the town Planning & Zoning Commission.

Attorney Michael Satti, who says he knows Vincent through his legal work for municipalities, reported getting an early morning phone call at his office from the director of planning asking about the comments Satti has posted online about the project.

Satti described the phone call from Vincent in a subsequent comment he posted on a column Wednesday on about Smiler's.

"He asked a bizarre question about whether I was the 'Michael Satti' who had posted comments," Satti wrote in his most recent post. "Reflecting on this strange call, I can only say his conduct can only be explained in one way."

"I think even a lawyer or a street sweep would know it for what it was — an attempt at stifling the comments I might make in the future. Vincent has crossed a line. Ask any reputable town attorney. Time for his recusal. Sad to say," Satti wrote.

I also heard from a reader this week, reporting he got "a very strange email from Vincent, challenging me on my comments to your columns, which I found rather weird."

It's not only weird, it is, as Satti notes, certainly reason for Vincent being recused from the Smiler's project.

I would suggest that interfering with the public's right to free speech and comment on a controversial project being reviewed by the agency he works for is grounds for his dismissal. There needs to be at least some kind of disciplinary review.

And since, as Satti noted in his comments, the director of planning's intervention suggests a bias toward the project and its developer over objections raised by the public, his department's work on the application is now suspect.

If the project were to be approved by the commission, certainly the director of planning's interference in the public's right to comment would be grounds for objection in an appeal. He has tainted the process.

I asked Vincent and his boss, First Selectman Rob Simmons, in an email Thursday whether they thought it was appropriate for the director of planning to contact the public about comments they made on a project under review by the planning department. I also asked whether Vincent has contacted more than these two readers about comments they made about Smiler's.

Neither Simmons nor Vincent responded.

Vincent already has come under fire in the public hearing for Smiler's because of public comments he made at a recent forum in Norwich. He had complained that public criticism of the Smiler's project has led three other developers, whom he did not name, to abandon $20 million in projects in town.

A former chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission rose at the start of Monday's resumed public hearing on Smiler's to suggest that Vincent be recused from the process because of the comments he made challenging the public criticism of the project.

William Sweeney, the lawyer representing the Smiler's developers, defended Vincent against the call for his recusal. Of course, the developer must be happy to have the town director of planning run interference against public criticism of the project.

The hearing on Smiler's Wharf is scheduled to conclude Tuesday with the developer given an opportunity to provide rebuttal to public comments. The commission then has 60 days to make a decision.

But first, the prejudicial behavior by the directing of planning needs to be addressed.

I can't think of any project in town in recent memory that has generated the kind of scrutiny and public comment that this one has.

It is disturbing that it has moved this far along in the planning process even though it violates so many specific terms of the town's own Plan of Conservation and Development and the state's Coastal Management Act. That fact, combined with an apparently biased town staff, is alarming.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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