Planning director change comes in midst of city projects
Cranston’s next city planner has a lot of work ahead of him. But because Jason Pezzullo has been working in the planning department for 12 years now, he and retiring director Peter LaPolla are ready for a seamless transition as Pezzullo prepares to tackle what lies ahead.
The biggest ongoing projects include a rewrite of the comprehensive plan, monitoring the traffic on Sockanosset, monitoring the future land use map, and continuing to develop the big parcels of land that lie in Western Cranston.
These are some of the things that the 70-year-old LaPolla has been working on in the last few years, but he’s decided that after 11 years as director, it’s time for transition. The Cranston Planning Commission has voted to hand the reigns over to Pezzullo, which will officially be done on March 2.
“You do things in drips and drabs and then all of the sudden you say, we did that?” LaPolla said looking back on his time as director. “You don’t think about it day to day.”
Although he may not have been keeping mental checklist there are a number of accomplishments that stick out as he looks back. Those include completing the city’s first harbor management plan, completing a 2012 update of the comprehensive plan, creating hazard mitigation plans, working with FEMA to address flood prone residential areas, and improving the conservation of natural resources.
They’ve also, in conjunction with the city’s IT department, updated the future land use map last year. What they said used to be “basically crayon maps” is now a specific zoning map all the way down to the land parcel for every commercial and residential land site in the city.
Accomplishments of the department were significantly aided by the city’s planning commission, LaPolla and Pezzullo both made sure to point out, which LaPolla said is the best one he’s worked for in his career.
“They’re very professional,” he said. “As a planner, the fear always is the tension between the political side and the planning side. You always have to be apolitical, and they’ve been extremely good. I can’t think of once where they’re interfered, asked for a favor, or said we need to do something a certain way.”
The planning director position is one of the few in the city that are neither elected nor administrative appointed.
Pezzullo added that LaPolla’s statement doesn’t apply to every city, and he’s glad he’s being appointed to this one as director at the beginning of next year. He said he’s been eying this “rare position” ever since he started working in Cranston in 2005, he said, and that this was ultimately where he wanted to spend the rest of his career.
Now, he can implement his “design-focused” vision on the major projects that the planning department has ahead of it. This focus on design, which means focusing more on how lots are arranged, how buildings look aesthetically, and how signs are positioned, is something LaPolla didn’t put as much of an emphasis on as Pezzullo would have liked. But the major policy differences between the two co-workers of 11 years just about ends there, they said.
Pezzullo praised the work they’ve done together and wants to continue that success with the projects that he’s dealing with upcoming.
The biggest project is the rewrite of the city’s comprehensive plan. This state-mandated plan has to provide laws and guidelines for the city to refer back to on a number of major things, including land use, housing, traffic, the use of natural resources, economic development, public facilities and energy use/sustainability. This legally binding plan will set the guidelines for the next 10 years, and the soft deadline has already passed for it to be done, so Pezzullo is focusing on this now.
Through doing this, he can set the rules for other projects that he has to focus on, including the development of farmland in Western Cranston. He said that any farmland that’s been preserved for conservation can’t be touched, but the planning department will be able to steer landowners a certain way in what they’ll do with other farmland. He’d like to preserve whatever other farms are left, he said, which can be used for solar farms or any type of perpetual farm.
The solar farms are something he and LaPolla take pride in developing recently, especially the one on Phenix Avenue that Pezzullo said generates electricity for up to four or five thousand homes.
The major project in regards to circulation (traffic) that Pezzullo has ahead of himself is at Sockanosset crossroads, where new development, potentially including a Costco store, is creating a challenge.
“We’re not going to say there’ll be less traffic because there are huge new projects coming in,” he said. “But our charge is how to manage it and make it work better.”
The rewritten comprehensive plan will address traffic requirements, and before any major development is done in that Garden City/Chapel View area studies will be done to meet the planning department’s standards.
Pezzullo also talked about the former police station site, the former trolley bound site on the Providence border, and Elmwood Wellington as other potential land development sites that he’ll be looking at going forward.
Pezzullo has hard work ahead of him, but he can also take a moment to appreciate the work he’s done to get to this point.
He has a Master of Public Administration and a Master of Community Planning from URI and has previously worked as the Hopkinton town planner and Coventry assistant planner before coming to Cranston in 2005.
“These are rare positions and I’ve had my eye on this one for a while now,” Pezzullo said, adding that he thinks he’ll be Cranston planning director for a long while from here on out.