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Last-minute changes good for nobody

"Having survived the battle of the buffer, the Re-Doogal's project at Winslow/Ericksen is now imperiled by the city's ruling that 11 more on-site parking places are required.We will concede a certain bias in favor of the project - it's a shame that a once-vibrant part of downtown Winslow is now a strip of asphalt fronted by weeds. And we have no particular opinion on the merits of the latest obstacle, namely, whether square feet for purposes of computing parking requirements should be based on net leasable footage, or on gross footage, which is considerably greater.We do, though, have an opinion - and a strong one - about the timing of the planning department's ruling on the matter. From the get-go, the applicants made it plain they were using net footage as the basis for its parking computations. Not until more than a year later did the department decide that the gross footage had to be used.The department knew that its decision would have a considerable impact on the process, and said in its report that the project would have to be redesigned to address the increased parking requirement.It's easy to understand the applicants' unhappiness. They have spent considerable time and money working on the present design. Forcing a change this late in the process, for whatever reason, means a good portion of both will have been wasted.And the city bills applicants by the hour for staff time spent reviewing development plans - so not only did the staff give the applicant what was later determined to be bad advice, but the applicants paid for that, too.Unquestionably, the parking requirement is a matter that requires code interpretation. The ordinances themselves simply refer to square feet, without any further indication of how footage is to be measured. The planning director's decision said the department has always used gross area in applying the parking requirement. But if that has been the consistent interpretation, then we have to wonder why that interpretation wasn't conveyed from the outset.The city tried some years ago to get on top of problems such as this by requiring a pre-application conference, where proponents of major projects meet with the planning staff before filing a formal applications . The idea - an excellent one - was that the applicant should understand the rules of the game before spending the time and money to develop a final design. But when the applicant gets bad advice, either by issues being overlooked or misinterpreted, the planning staff's early involvement becomes a handicap, not an asset.Unfortunately, belated changes by the planning department seem hardly rare. The man who wanted to bring Papa Murphy's to Bainbridge was initially assured that his U-bake pizza operation would not be construed as fast food within the meaning of the city's restrictive ordinance, and was only told otherwise after he had paid his franchise fee and signed a lease. More recently, a Murden Cove man completed site work under a 1998 building permit, then was told early this year that he needed an additional permit.Not surprisingly, those two incidents led to lawsuits against the city, illustrating the anger such caprice can engender.We don't know what the problem is - lack of training, lack of communication, lack of timely involvement by decision-makers - or whether it's just plain whimsy.But it's wasting everyone's time and money - first during the process, and later in court. What's going on? "

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