Planning board greatly in need of transfusion

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 20, 2003

Despite all the growth and development that has made Suffolk the state’s fastest-growing city, things apparently have change little in our wonderful community over the past century.

The News-Herald reported in Times Past on Friday that in 1903 the first horseless carriage made its appearance on Suffolk’s streets. The good citizens were so nervous about the noisy contraption that the Town Council that year passed an ordinance that no automobile or other vehicle producing &uot;a sound or harsh noise liable to frighten a horse shall be propelled through the streets of Suffolk.&uot;

This report struck a chord with me as a result of my covering the Suffolk Planning Commission’s meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

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It was an interesting experience and I intend to do more of it. While reporters from the various newspapers do a good job of reporting on events, there’s no substitute for actually being there.

Another reason I intend to attend more meetings – particularly Planning Commission meetings – is somebody has to stop these guys.

After Tuesday’s meeting I came back and reported on what transpired at the meeting. I then wrote an editorial blasting the commissioners for imposing ridiculous restrictions on the owners of Baron’s Pub who want to occasionally offer live entertainment for their patrons.

The Suffolk Planning Commission’s charge is to hear requests from developers and citizens who wish to build or implement things that don’t always conform to the letter to the city’s zoning ordinances. Commissioners hear reports on the projects from the planning department staff, the pleas of applicants and any opponents, and then pass a recommendation on the City Council whether the project should be permitted.

What immediately struck me about the commissioners is that as far as I could tell, every single one of them was an upper-middle-aged man. There seemed to be a good balance between black and white, but where were the women? Or any Baby Boomers for that matter, let along young people?

Planning Commissioners are appointed by members of City Council, typically somebody’s buddy, I presume, or someone to whom a favor is owed.

There seemed to be a lot of local lawyers sitting in the audience Tuesday who were representing clients who were trying to circumvent zoning laws. It appeared to me that local attorneys – obviously friends of the commissioners – got their way at every turn, over staff objections, for their variances. They laughed and joked with the commissioners.

The owners of Baron’s were the only applicants not represented by attorneys. I can’t recall what staff recommended, but I don’t think it was a denial and the request was innocuous enough – allow a one- to three-man acoustic band to play music in the restaurant.

Unfortunately for them, the owners of Baron’s are also not local good old boys who could laugh and joke with the commissioners. Their mistake was that they stupidly hoped their request could stand on its merits – enhance our city’s economic development, quality of life and contribute to the resurgence of downtown as a destination point for someone other than crack dealers and attorneys. The others before the commission were seeking to add to sprawl and otherwise contribute to the detriment of our community. Yet they were coddled at every turn while the owners of Baron’s were peppered with imbecilic inquiries and forced to endure implications that their sole goal in coming to Suffolk was to disrupt religious services and contribute to the deterioration of our moral fiber. I was embarrassed for them and our community. I would be remiss in not mentioning that Commissioner William Goodman was the only one that spoke out for common sense, but such reasoning obviously had no place at the meeting.

Our city is plowing millions of dollars into downtown. Downtown Development pursued Baron’s for more than a year because it is a quality business that will enhance downtown. Other restaurants are being sought. The Planning Commission should be contributing to that effort, not attempting to thwart it to protect some long-gone way of life.

I’m sure many of the commissioners remember and long for the days when Prohibition reigned and horses freely moved through our downtown streets. That 1903 Town Council came to its senses a few months later and amended their ordinance, letting the automobiles back in. The 2003 City Council can and should do the same by infusing the Planning Commission with some new blood.

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald. He can be reached at 934-9611, or