Corwin weighs in on Westport zoning
Since moving to Westport in 1986, Ron Corwin has immersed himself in the community.
He and his wife, Beth Blumenthal, raised their three children here. He coached baseball and basketball in the town recreation leagues and watched his children graduate from Staples High School. Corwin has also served on both the Mill Pond Advisory Committee and the Boating Advisory Committee.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin who earned his masters degree in psychology and Ph.D. in sociology at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, he has a consulting practice in executive leadership coaching and serves as a senior adviser for business development to DGCapital LLC, a New York City-based money management firm. He has held senior executive positions at Citicorp in the U.S. and Europe, the American Stock Exchange, NatWest Bancorp, and IXnet (a financial services extranet developer). He has also been on the faculty at New York University and the State University of New York, where he taught in both the graduate and undergraduate programs.
For the last four years, Corwin has served on the Planning and Zoning Commission -- two of those as chairman. He was re-elected to the commission in November and recently was renamed chairman. With one term under his belt and another one in the pipeline, the Westport News asked Corwin to weigh in on a few issues. Here's what he had to say:
How would you explain the role of the Planing and Zoning Commission to someone who might not be familiar with local government?
The Planning and Zoning Commission is responsible for setting the land use rules in the town -- what can be built, and where. These responsibilities are discharged in three ways. The commission No. 1., generates a master plan (Town Plan of Conservation and Development) every 10 years (2007), establishing the overall framework and guidelines for creating regulations that control land use activities; No. 2, creates or modifies specific zones for residential and commercial use and creates or modifies individual regulations that establish the specific rules regarding such things as the amount of coverage allowed, setbacks required and height of buildings on each property in a particular zone; and No. 3, reviews applications for individual properties for their consistency with the regulations.
What is the single greatest concern that you, as chairman, have about zoning in Westport?
Our challenge is to preserve our heritage and character without getting stuck in the past. Westport has a reputation as a vibrant, active, progressive and welcoming community endowed with wonderful neighborhoods and outstanding and well-protected community facilities and natural resources -- a great community. But there is a sense one gets, particularly in the downtown, that Westport has "lost a step" and some surrounding communities have become more interesting and fun, more contemporary and, in some ways, more attractive. The good news is that there are many smart, able and resourceful people in our town who are actively engaged in addressing these issues and I am confident we will have an excellent result.
During the past year, citing the severity of the economic downturn, the commission voted to suspend the enforcement of certain signage regulations that affect local businesses. What other steps can the commission take to further support local businesses?
We're considering some immediate actions to make it easier to open and run restaurants, by relaxing regulations on outdoor dining and reviewing the regulation that currently requires patron bars to be at least 1,500 feet from each other. We are also looking at making it easier to have outdoor and special events as well as providing more flexibility around parking. The commission recently passed a text amendment for the Historic District on the west side of the Saugatuck that provides more flexibility to prospective applicants to allow both residential and office uses in this important location.
The commission, as always, needs to find a balance in addressing the needs of local businesses and those of the residents. Most people want a vibrant downtown and healthy commercial activity but, at the same time, do not want unfettered development that would create a busy but unappealing business area. Our role is to follow the direction of our Town Plan to find ways to serve both.
Finally, and importantly, the commission has no control over rents. Some town officials and boards can impact the economics of certain properties with such things as tax incentives, but the P&Z cannot do this. There is some irony in the fact that the more attractive a business setting becomes, the higher rent a landlord can charge, which puts additional financial pressure on modest sized business.
The Westport Weston Family Y's proposed move dominated commission talks for the last couple years. Now that it's out of the commission's hands and being settled in the courts, what is the next big item on the agenda?
There are really two agendas: Applicants can bring proposals to the commission at any time and the commission itself can generate its own proactive list. A "big" applicant-generated proposal could be the library. The commission has already heard a pre-application for this project. When a formal application is made, if approved, it has the potential for major impact on the downtown center. Additionally, while it is unclear what is happening with Baron's South, a proposal from the town on that property would also generate considerable attention. The commission has also seen a pre-application for the building that currently houses the Y, obviously a very important development.
The full commission is currently in the process of identifying our own priorities for next year as part of the Annual Meeting. This will establish our proactive agenda. As we have not completed our work, this is subject to change but my priorities would be: Revitalization of business areas and, in particular, downtown; improving the mix of housing available to Westport residents including some affordable housing; addressing the "big house" issue of outsized houses, a review of key elements of our regulations such as parking, excavation and fill; and improving the experience of those dealing with the Planning and Zoning process both in the office and at the hearings. This all assumes the "basics" of protecting our neighborhoods and safeguarding our splendid environmental areas.
Are there any limitations placed on the commission that you find frustrating or that you feel make your job more difficult?
We see things piecemeal. We must review applications in the sequence they come to us. It would be beneficial to see such applications as the Levitt, the library and Baron's South at the same time, allowing for a more comprehensive and coordinated review.
Second, we do not bring specific applications on specific properties. We deal with the applications others bring to us. Therefore, what we may want as individuals and even as a commission is bounded by what comes to us. Though this is not really a "limitation," our task is to administer the regulations with an open mind. By law, if an application meets the regulations we must approve it, and if the application doesn't meet the regulations, we must deny it. Inevitably, this means that we are sometimes in a position where we do not like something that we must by law approve, and, conversely cannot approve something that we personally might wish to see happen.
But these are the rules of the game: We signed up for this role. It may be a bit frustrating from time to time but the overall experience of being on the commission is most gratifying; we see our impact every day when we walk or drive by the beach or the Saugatuck or along our residential streets, and when we see Westporters and visitors enjoying shopping, eating and walking through town.
One other thing I personally find frustrating is that a developer can clear-cut a property, taking down every tree and we have no ordinance in Westport to protect against this. This is really an issue for the RTM but the fact that we lack any significant tree ordinance or one that protects old stone walls are general limitations that could be addressed.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I consider it a special privilege to have been re-elected by the people of Westport to serve on this commission. All the commissioners work hard, take their task seriously, have different points of view and bring different strengths to the process. I know we all share the feeling that we are honored to have been selected to serve.