Election 2017: Five vie for three spots on P&Z Commission
Updated 1:19 pm, Monday, November 6, 2017
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Jennifer Johnson was a member of the Republican Town Committee. She is a member of the Representative Town Meeting.
WESTPORT—Westporters care deeply about their land and property values, and thus it is no surprise the election for those who get to make the town’s planning and zoning decisions is hotly contested.
Five candidates are competing for three spots on the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission. On the seven-member board, there are already three Republicans and one Democrat. As per state minority representation rules, no more than four may be members of the same political party, meaning only one more Republican could join the board.
Of those competing Nov. 7 for a four-year term are four Democrats, incumbents Michael Cammeyer and Danielle Dobin and newcomers Greg Rutstein and Jennifer Johnson, as well as one Republican, Jon Olefson.
The sole Republican candidate, Olefson was appointed to the commission in 2016 as an alternate.
Olefson, who works as the general counsel at a publicly-traded company in Wilton, said his work “dealing with a lot of regulation and very complication issues” helps him decipher complex cases on the Planning and Zoning commission.
When making a decision, Olefson said, “I think not just about the impact that a decision will have today, but ask what is the long-term impact of our decisions? And, what are the unintended consequences that could come from that decision?”
Specifically, Olefson said he tries to take into account traffic congestion, changes in town character and the preservation of openspace.
“(Open space) decisions that don’t just impact us today, but they impact us 100 years from now,” he said. “If we were to allow development on the little remaining open spaces we have, that certainly would impact us today, but think about what it does for generations to come. That’s an irreparable decision.”
Michael Cammeyer, Danielle Dobin, Greg Rutstein
Cammeyer, Dobin, and Rutstein — all endorsed by both the Democratic Town Committee and the Save Westport Now Party — have run a joint campaign.
“We like to think we represent balance in this system,” said Dobin, who worked as a real estate lawyer at Skadden Arps law firm before founding Monarch Real Estate.
“We don’t have a dog in any of these big land-use fights,” Dobin said. “We feel it’s really important to focus on what’s in front of us and not about what happened in the past.”
Appointed to the commission earlier in the year, Dobin chairs the affordable housing subcommittee and said, if elected, she will encourage a more welcoming and respectful environment for residents at commission meetings. Dobin also said she considers possible commuter and traffic concerns when evaluating each planning and zoning proposal.
Cammeyer, like Dobin was appointed to fill a vacancy on the commission, works in the mergers and acquisitions business and said he will look out for Westport’s water recreation users if elected.
“I’m a big user of the water,” Cammeyer said. Referencing a recent application before the commission, Cammeyer said, “A development came up that we had to approve and the questions I asked would protect the boaters of Westport.”
Rutstein, currently senior counsel at Bridgewater Associates, said he, Dobin and Cammeyer practice big-picture thinking and “focuses on the forest rather than the trees.”
If elected, Rutstein wants to introduce bureaucratic streamlining processes he’s introduced at the global investment company to P&Z processes.
“I plan on taking a risk-based approach and cutting those sort of low-hanging fruit type decisions,” Rutstein said.
Speaking of his fellow running mates’ general philosophy, Rutstein said: “We love the charm of the town, of course we want to keep that, but we like the fact that there is a nice downtown and new restaurants and a younger culture. That’s what we want to carry onto the commission and change the leadership around so we can be the future rather than staying in the past. The ‘90s have come and gone.”
While a Democrat, Johnson did not seek an endorsement by the DTC, instead running as a Coalition for Westport Party candidate. A member of the Representative Town Meeting, Johnson said she is running to increase resident participation in land-use decisions. On the commission, she said her number one question will be, “Are we engaging the public?”
“I’ve worked with dozens of communities across the country on land-use matters,” she said. “I’ve negotiated the purchase of thousands of acres of easements and land for public benefit, testified on complex rights-of-way disputes, served as executive members of local and regional boards, been a park commissioner, a transit director and now an RTM representative.”
If elected, Johnson hopes to bring new energy to the commission.
“The Westport P&Z has been controlled by the same leadership since 2011,” Johnson said. “Over the past six years, feelings of anger and frustration have grown as Westport has gone backwards on such topics as senior housing, traffic congestion, and future town plans.”
Top among Johnson’s goals is to incorporate the concept of “complete streets” into town planning, which encourages designs conducive to safe movement for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders.