MADISON – A move to replace two of the longest-serving members of the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission has led two more members to resign in protest, raising concerns about the ability of the commission to make land-use decisions free of outside political influence.
The Board of Selectmen voted on Monday to replace three of the longest-serving members on the commission – Republicans Ron Clark and Joe Bunovsky, and Joel Miller, an unaffiliated member – with the three alternates of the commission – two Democrats, Ron Bodinson and Carol Snow, and Peter Roos, who is unaffiliated.
Miller had already decided to step down from his seat, but Clark, the chair of the commission, and Bunovsky, had both sought reappointment.
In protest, Republican Jim Matteson and Tom Burland, an unaffiliated member, resigned, expressing concerns that outside politics would play more of a role in the town’s land-use decisions.
The departures left the 12-seat commission with seven members – none registered Republicans.
Democratic First Selectwoman Peggy Lyons, said at the Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday that the intention was to create room for new volunteers, given that there are others interested in serving on the commission.
Lyons also said one of the major issues on the campaign trail was that people were concerned about the direction of development in Madison and wanted to see change on the commission. Appointments to the commission are not for life, Lyons said, and the Board of Selectmen is elected to decide who sits on the commission.
“This is not about the past. It’s not about previous decisions. It’s not about Republican versus Democrat. It’s about moving the town forward,” Lyons said. “We’re doing our Plan of Conservation and Development for the first time in 10 years, and we’re doing an affordable housing plan that we’ve never done before. We need to have some fresh voices and a fresh face to that conversation.”
But Clark, who has been the chair of the commission for five years, said he was told by the Madison Democratic Town Committee that he could only be reappointed if he agreed not to continue as the chair. Clark said he took issue with that because the members of the commission decide who is the chair, and he believed it interfered with the apolitical nature of the commission.
Clark said commissioners are appointed rather than elected because they want to avoid having planning and zoning issues become politicized – something the commission has successfully avoided during his tenure, he said.
Madison is faced with a number of planning and zoning issues, including planned projects under the state’s 8-30g affordable housing statute, changes to local zoning changes to ease the construction of affordable housing in town, and drafting the town’s next plan of conservation and development – a document that will guide land use decisions over the next decade.
Even given those decisions coming up, Clark said, it’s not clear how replacing Republicans on the commission will further anyone’s goals on those issues.
“It’s really not political by its nature,” Clark said. “Board of Education or Board of Finance – you want to spend more or you want to spend less – philosophies and political issues can come into play. But not for something like Planning and Zoning. I’ve been on for quite a few years, and if you asked the members of our commission who is in what party as a pop quiz, nobody would get it right because nobody cares. It doesn’t matter. But now it matters.”
Dave Anderson, a Madison resident and former town planner, said that in his nine years working with the Planning and Zoning Commission, members had acted in a bipartisan manner. Anderson said he was concerned that by “injecting a heavy dose of political partisanship” in the appointment process, commissioners could feel more beholden to political winds than they had in the past.
Anderson said the argument that they wanted change on the board was a fine belief to have, especially if they were hearing from town residents unhappy with the direction of development in Madison. But he questioned what goals they actually furthered, by replacing some of the most experienced members of the commission.
Anderson said that the commission, with Clark and Bunovsky as members, has already approved affordable housing projects, transit-oriented development, density increases in downtown and the commercial areas – decisions, he said, that are often favored by Democrats.
“The justification for taking away the Planning and Zoning Commission members was, well, we want change and change is hard,” Anderson said. “But you’re making a change to avoid change. I would never say that the commission or myself always made the right decision – a lot of these development projects are so multifaceted, there isn’t really a right answer. There are projects that some people love and some people hate, and that’s natural, and it’s not going away.”
Tom Burland, who resigned in protest to the departures, said that in reality new people had been appointed in the past several years.
Of the remaining seven members of the commission, John Mathers is the longest serving member, having joined in 2015, according to commission minutes. Elliott Hitchcock started his tenure in 2016, Giselle McDowell in 2017, Seonaid Hay, Peter Roos and Ron Bodinson in 2019, and Carol Snow in 2021.
Clark said he had actually considered whether it was time for him to step aside before Anderson resigned and was replaced by current Planner Erin Mannix. Clark said Mannix didn’t have as much background knowledge about what was going on in Madison, and he felt it was important to stay on the commission longer so he could share the knowledge he had developed in his years on the commission with her as she began her tenure.
“I thought I could make a valuable contribution in the next year or two, to make sure the transition between town planners and new commission members went smoothly,” Clark said. “Maybe that would be as chairman, maybe not. It didn’t make a difference to me.”
Burland said he felt the need to step down in protest because he was dismayed at the partisan back and forth during the Board of Selectmen meeting. Burland said that kind of partisanship is one of the reasons he’s an unaffiliated voter, but that the commission had been a respite from that.
“I’ve never heard any feedback that the Board of Selectmen was unhappy with the direction of the Planning and Zoning Commission,” Burland said. “Then, all of a sudden, there is partisan politics playing within the commission, and it didn’t sit right with me.”
According to Burland, Clark and Bunovsky were solid people who didn’t vote along party lines, but instead based their decisions on what they thought townspeople wanted, on state statute and on the town’s plan of conservation and development.
Burland said there were plenty of disagreements on the commission, which made unpopular decisions, but always after an open discussion. He said that Clark was a big part of that, always pointing to “true north.”
According to Democratic Town Committee Chair Joan Walker, the local Republican Party had controlled Madison for decades.
“Just because a member is on a commission or committee, there is no guarantee a reappointment will occur at the end of the term, and there shouldn’t be – that is how we get entrenched and stagnant governments,” Walker said.
Lyons did not return a message Wednesday seeking further comment.