Coalition, SWN leaders focus on race for P&Z seats
Published 12:06 pm, Thursday, August 13, 2015
While the town’s two major political parties have endorsed their slate of candidates for the Nov. 3 election, the two other local parties are still deciding on possible candidate slates for the Planning and Zoning Commission.
“Our nominating committee is considering and interviewing candidates now and will make our final decisions at our endorsement meeting at the end of August,” said Denise Torve, the Coalition for Westport chairwoman.
Torve said the coalition will back candidates only for the Planning and Zoning Commission, the same as in the 2013 election, and will also consider whether to endorse others already backed by other parties.
“This is also part of our nominating process and will be considered along with our own candidates,” she explained.
“During the next few weeks, we will interview potential candidates, including all of the Democratic and Republican candidates, and make our decision,” they said. “We are required to file our decision with the town clerk no later than Sept. 2.”
An important issue that will be raised in the campaign by the coalition, Torve said, is how the Planning and Zoning Commission, “as it is now constituted, is perceived in the community as not user-friendly.”
She said the commission is “seen as intimidating,” adding, “CFW is opposed to this type of governmental process.”
Torve said “the public and potential partners need to know it can trust its elected officials and, here too, it has been disappointed.”
She said CFW recognizes that change is inevitable and deliberates carefully on how best to utilize change for the benefit of the town and its residents.
“We do not reject change just because it is change,” she said, adding the CFW believes “it is best to guide it to our own advantage.”
Torve said planning is an integral part of the P&Z process, but said the current commission “does no planning other than to implement its preconceived notions of what it wants,” she said. “Many changes are taking place in Westport and a newly constituted P&Z can play a pivotal role in planning for the future.”
Torve said that while CFW favors improving the town, it also wants to maintain its character and charm. “This goal is certainly achievable,” she said. “Maintaining our small-town character is compatible with the creation of new and improved facilities that benefit long-term residents and new families as the town continues to evolve,” she added. “CFW believes that a great town can be even greater with constructive input from an energized and creative P&Z.”
She said the zoning commission “plays a critical role in how Westport will grow and evolve.”
Save Westport Now will remain focused on several issues, including enforcing the existing zoning regulations to protect neighborhoods, finding creative solutions to the demand for affordable and senior housing, and maintaining Westport’s small-town character, Block and Jacobs said.
“Many commercial developers appear to be ignoring our zoning regulations at the expense of local residents,” they said. “And even if developers aren’t actively breaking the rules, they have learned how to game the system when it comes to building height, grading, drainage and density.”
Developers, they said, “seem to think that they can defy the rules — perhaps because they understand that if and when they get caught, the fines will be insignificant in comparison to the potential profit from their illegal actions.”
They cited what they call the “Grassy Plains debacle,” where the developer of the Grassy Plains Road housing complex recently admitted violating conditions imposed on the project’s construction as a “perfect example of how the system is broken.”
“Save Westport Now believes that is time to put some teeth into our regulations and to stop allowing developers to flout the rules,” they said, adding they are looking for candidates “who will help ensure enforcement of our regulations and develop new measures to put developers on notice that Westport is serious about this issue.”
They said the town’s recent experience with the Westport Inn property on the Post Road — where a developer had proposed a five-story, 200-unit housing complex that included affordable housing units — showed how important it is to be proactive. That plan was later dropped and plans are now for the inn to remain a hotel.
They said they are looking for one or more candidates “who will help broker solutions that will meet the state-mandated strictures of 8-30g, but still protect the town’s infrastructure and existing residential neighborhoods” and “who will also help design solutions to allow our seniors to age in place or, if needed, find affordable means to remain in Westport.”
They said that, during the next few years, the town will be faced with some tough decisions. “Will we allow taller and denser development in the downtown area?” they asked. “Will we allow developers to build a multi-story parking garage to lure more out-of-town shoppers and satisfy merchants? We hope not.”
“The initial meetings among prominent Westporters of all political persuasions that led to the formation of the Coalition for Westport began in the fall of 2012 and early 2013,” said Torve.
Preparations were made during the spring of 2013 to qualify with the state to run candidates for the zoning commission in the November 2013 election, she said. CFW ran three candidates, including Torve, “all of whom outpolled the votes garnered by the only other minor party in Westport,” she added.
“Our issues were the lack of planning undertaken by the zoning commission and the resistance to change irrespective of the merits,” she said. “We believed that the P&Z needed to become more open, transparent and listen to the views of all Westporters.”
“SWN was formed after a developer, in 1980, submitted plans to tear down one of the oldest and prettiest houses in Westport in order to build a 52,000-square-foot building on Gorham Island,” Block and Jacobs said.
“By the time local residents realized what was happening, the bulldozers had already razed the house and the developer had already obtained the waivers that it needed,” they said. ”Meanwhile, other developers were lining up with requests for zone changes and variances to permit them to build office parks, condos, and other large projects that threatened to gobble up every last bit of precious open space.”
“Our founders realized that Westport citizens needed a coordinated way for residents to fight against overdevelopment and protect existing residential neighborhoods,” they said.
Since then, they said, “Save Westport Now has been an important force in town, monitoring land use decisions to ensure that the zoning regulations are applied consistently, fairly, and in a way that protects existing neighborhoods.” And, they added, for the last 35 years, “we have been standing with residents to protect what they love most: Westport.”
In the November 2013 election, six candidates ran for the Planning and Zoning Commission. There were three Democratic candidates, who were also endorsed by Save Westport Now.
Those candidates were opposed by three candidates from the Coalition for Westport: Torve, Glenn Payne and David Press.
There were no Republicans on the P&Z ballot that year because the GOP already had four sitting commissioners, the maximum allowed by the Town Charter for any one party on a board consisting of seven members. This year, all four incumbent Republican P&Z members — Chairman Chip Stephens, Vice Chairman Jack Whittle, and members Cathy Walsh and Alfred Gratrix — are up for re-election.
Hodge, Lessing and Vebell were endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee at its Aug. 15, 2013 special meeting. They replaced three placeholder candidates named at the party's July 18 meeting, when internal disagreements prevented the party from formally nominating a slate for the P&Z in the November 2013 election.
Save Westport Now had cross-endorsed all three in September.
But a failure to conform to a 2011 state election law that requires a minority-party candidate to sign their certificate of endorsement filed with town clerks prior to the election led to removal of the candidates from the Save Westport Now ballot line.
A reversal of that decision, however, came in a stipulation from state Superior Court in Stamford where a judge ordered the names of Lessing, Vebell and Hodge also "be placed on the Nov. 5 municipal election ballot on the Save Westport Now party line — denoting them as candidates for the office of Westport Planning & Zoning Commission."