Clash between P&Z candidates dominates LWV debate
Challengers in the Nov. 3 election came out swinging Monday night, pummeling incumbent Planning and Zoning Commission members — all Republicans — with accusations of anti-senior sentiment as a result of their board’s decision earlier this year to re-zone the Baron’s South property as open space.
But the GOP trio seeking re-election stood by their actions, arguing that they were acting on behalf of the majority of Westporters and not just a small number who favored development of plans for a senior residential/care complex on the site.
The League of Women Voters, joined by the PTA Council and Y’s Women, co-sponsored the first of two debates at Town Hall for candidates in this year’s municipal election.
While some informational comments were shared by candidates running unopposed for the Board of Assessment Appeals and the Zoning Board of Appeals, most of the program centered on a lively debate among seven of the eight candidates vying for four open P&Z Commission seats to be decided in November.
Three of the four Republican incumbents, including P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens, Vice Chairman Jack Whittle and Catherine Walsh, who are also running with the cross-endorsement of Save Westport Now, faced off against Democrat Paul Lebowitz, and three candidates backed by the Coalition for Westport, including Howard Lathrop, Glenn Payne and Denise Torve. Incumbent Republican P&Z Commissioner Alfred Gratrix was out of the country on business and unable to attend the debate.
“We need to bring respect back to the Planning and Zoning Commission,” Lebowitz said, echoing similar criticism from other candidates that centered on the failed senior housing proposal. “I think the way to do that is to reach out to the seniors of this town and let them know that their voice will be heard and that senior housing will be addressed.”
“We’ve reached out to the seniors on various levels,” said Walsh, noting she and Whittle had formed a senior housing subcommittee following the vote. “We’re pretty far down that road and we’ll continue going down that road.”
Torve said the current commission members “pulled the rug out from under the feet” of the developer of the senior housing project. “We have a P&Z … that seems to suffer from a reputation that’s well-deserved of not being very user friendly,” she said.
“There are some misunderstandings out there,” Whittle said. “We acted in the best interest of the 27,000 residents of Westport,” he said, versus the 100 or so seniors from the area who would have been able to take up residence if the project had been approved.
“We act always in the best interests of the majority residents in town and that was — sorry — a no-brainer,” he said, noting there are better options for senior housing in town.
Issues of traffic, the Downtown Master Plan and constraints on development were also debated, with the P&Z incumbents criticized for imposing a 10,000-square-foot limit on commercial properties.
“I would not want the value of my investment to be compromised by some arbitrary, after-the-fact limit on space,” said Payne, calling the adoption of the regulation in question “fear mongering.”
“10,000 square feet is not arbitrary,” Stephens said, noting it was motivated by the opening of large stores, including Crate & Barrel and Barnes & Noble.
Disagreement also arose over the definition of Westport’s so-called small-town character and what that often-quoted description means in relation to changing times.
“Now, more or less, we have a single party or a single viewpoint on the commission,” Lathrop said. “There must be a more balanced view on the commission (and) a status quo attitude will have unintended consequences.”
“Towns like Westport must be carefully planned … to maintain its unique character,” he said.
“We cannot please everyone, but we can do our best to strike a fair balance,” Stephens said, commending everyone on the panel for offering to give of their time voluntarily on town boards to help the community.
Republican Garson Heller, who has served on the Board of Assessment Appeals for 33 years, briefly discussed the work his board handles, while Democrat Jim Ezzes and Republican Liz Wong fielded general questions about the work of the Zoning Board of Appeals, where they both now serve and face no opposition in the municipal election.