Is Westport 'over-banked'? Controls debated
Published 1:26 pm, Thursday, December 2, 2010
Walking down Main Street in downtown Westport in search of a bank is not a difficult task. Head north and there is a branch of TD Bank and Chase bank on opposing corners of the intersection of Main Street, Parker-Harding Plaza, and Avery Place. Go the other way, turn left onto Post Road East and branches of Bank of America and Fairfield County Bank lie within a couple of blocks. In the other direction, HSBC bank operates a branch adjacent to Parker-Harding Plaza.
Local business owners, Town Hall officials and bank employees generally agree that Westport has a proliferation of banks. But there is sharp disagreement about what this volume contributes to the town's economy and what role banks should play in the future development of Westport.
Corwin recently brought forth a text amendment to town zoning regulations that would have barred new banks from being built in the downtown. Under Text Amendment 616, any construction of new banks would have been limited to certain zones such as the General Business District, which runs along much of the Post Road.
The amendment failed after the commission voted 3-3 on it last month. Text amendments must command a majority of P&Z members' vote to win approval.
Commission members who voted against the amendment did not so much dispute Corwin's assertion that there are too many banks in Westport, as differ in their position on how the commission should regulate them.
"I think Westport appears to be over-banked," says Nora Jinishian, who voted against 616. "However, if the market allows them to survive, in my opinion, it is not the role of the P&Z to regulate their tenancy."
That latter viewpoint of Jinishian is shared by Fairfield County Bank Chief Operating Officer Dan Berta.
"Banks are like any other business -- they go where they think their customers are going to need their services," he says. "If there are not enough customers to support any business, then the laws of supply and demand take over."
Berta says the range of services offered by the bank's three Westport branches justifies a prominent presence in town. He points, in particular, to its newest branch at the corner of Post Road East and Compo Road South, which offers mortgage loan and investment support, and drive-thru banking.
Corwin, however, says banks' contributions to the Westport economy should not preclude more regulation.
"A major part of the zoning task is to find the right balance of the activities and uses that you approve," he says. "Inevitably, when you do that, you make choices that limit some activities and improve others."
The presence of banks also produces a mix of views among local business owners.
"We had Westport Bank & Trust, and Westport National (Bank), who were in the business districts for decades," he adds. "They contributed to the local economy on every level."
Conversely, Bob LeRose, owner of the Bobby Q's barbecue restaurant down the street from Oscar's, says there are too many banks in Westport. But like Papageorge, he questions whether the P&Z should be regulating their geographical presence.
"I don't know if that opens up a can of worms as far as what you allow to come and not to come," he says of Text Amendment 616. "I have mixed feelings about it."
Compared to other towns, P&Z Department statistics show that the town has a high banks per capita ratio. Westport has one bank for every 320 households. By contrast, Fairfield has one for every 656 households; New Canaan one for every 554 households; and Darien one per 467 households.
P&Z officials in the latter two towns also recently turned their attention toward the role of banks.
In June 2008, the Darien Planning and Zoning Commission passed a zoning amendment requiring new banks to secure a special permit to locate on the first floor of properties in its downtown. Darien P&Z Director Jeremy Ginsberg says the town's commission passed the measure, in large part, to promote greater economic diversity in the downtown economy.
"The logic is it makes the downtown pedestrian-friendly," he says of the amendment. "It opens it up for more traditional retail -- stores that sell things that may be open longer hours or at night."
Around the same time, similar rationale motivated the New Canaan Planning and Zoning Commission to approve an amendment that prohibited new banks from locating in a section of its downtown.
"I think the rationale behind the change makes a lot of sense," says Steve Kleppin, New Canaan's town planner. "If banks go out of those spaces (in the downtown), we'd hope that something more pedestrian-friendly would take their place."
To achieve this goal, Kleppin says the amendment aims to mitigate the dominance that banks have had in New Canaan's downtown commercial real estate market.
"Banks have the ability to pay higher rents than somebody that has a clothing store," he says. "They can jack up the prices for everybody and make it less competitive and less diverse."
After a couple of years and factoring in the recession, Ginsberg and Kleppin say any judgment now on the effect of their towns' recent zoning regulation changes for banks would be premature. But they say such measures do reveal much about a town's vision for its future economy.
"It's about thinking long-term, and thinking about what the town wants to be," Ginsberg says.
Looking forward, Corwin says no new regulatory action is on the table for the Westport P&Z's regulation of banks, but added that the commission may eventually revisit the issue.
Debate, meanwhile, will likely continue concerning how banks and many other types of businesses fit into the future Westport economy. LeRose emphasizes, though, that any major decisions need to include, but not be solely dictated by the P&Z.
"I think it takes a lot of people. It takes the landlords, it takes demand, what people are supporting, who is capable of paying the rents," he says of managing development in town. "It's the balance of a lot of different things. So I think that should happen more organically."