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Op-ed / Paying for downtown master plan a wasteful end run around Westport P&Z

Updated 11:24 am, Tuesday, March 12, 2013
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Last week, the Downtown 2020 Committee, a group formed by the first selectman, issued a Request for Proposal to hire a consultant to produce a master plan of development for the downtown area at an estimated cost of $195,000 to $225,000.

For anyone who hasn't been following this matter, this same group recently tried to push a $175,000 request for the same thing through the Board of Finance. When it became apparent that there was insufficient support, the request was hastily withdrawn.

Putting aside the fact that the projected cost has grown by more than 25 percent in a few weeks, this is a terrible idea.

First, such action would usurp the power and duties of the existing Westport Planning and Zoning Commission. According to our state statutes and town charter, planning duties are supposed to be carried out by a body of commissioners elected by the voters.

In fact, that is exactly why we have elections: So that the voters can scrutinize each candidate and decide who will best represent their interests. No one -- not even our first selectman -- has the authority to delegate planning duties to someone else. Nor can the Downtown 2020 Committee supplant the rights of the Planning and Zoning Commission by assuming those powers itself. On that ground alone, this proposal should be rejected.

Second, this proposal is not one that should be borne by the taxpayers. We already pay for a full planning and zoning staff. And remember, it was only a few years ago that we had to pay more than $200,000 for a town plan -- a document that addresses most of the questions that the proponents of this idea now wish to revisit.

If the Downtown 2020 Committee -- or any other businesspeople -- wish to research and explore various parking or other alternatives or make a proposal before P&Z for a specific project, then they are free to do so. But the cost of that research and development should not be borne by the taxpayers.

And finally, this proposal lacks transparency. This entire process has been managed behind the scenes by a small group of people who have vested interests in the downtown area. (The fact that a copy of the RFP was provided to a P&Z staff member is not the equivalent of a full and fair hearing on the merits.)

In addition, casting this as an "RFP" is misleading as it begs the question of whether we should be doing this at all. The proposal to hire the consultant appears to be nothing more than an attempt to "end run" a Planning and Zoning Commission that has sometimes refused to bend to the will of downtown business interests.

We urge everyone to speak out against this plan. Cathy Walsh, the chairman of our Planning and Zoning Commission, has already asked that the RFP be withdrawn. We urge you to write to our P&Z Commission at pandz@westportct.gov to express your opinion.

Sidney B. Kramer is the chairman of the citizen group and political party Save Westport Now.