Lowenstein looks back on record-setting P&Z tenure
First elected to the P&Z in 1995, Lowenstein is retiring this month as the longest-serving P&Z commissioner in Westport history. During her 16 years on the P&Z -- 12 of which she served as chairman -- she helped to write two town plans, as well as approximately 80 zoning amendments. Since 1995, the P&Z has overseen the town's acquisition of several prominent properties, including Baron's South and Winslow Park. During Lowenstein's tenure, the P&Z also reviewed and approved the construction of the current Bedford Middle School and Staples High School buildings, as well as the Westport Center for Senior Activities.
Before serving on the P&Z, Lowenstein had already accrued experience as a community leader on land-use issues. After the town sold several municipal properties for residential development in the early 1990s, Lowenstein helped to produce a League of Women Voters study that compared Westport's public land inventory to the stock of town-owned properties in neighboring towns.
Raised in Wisconsin and Illinois, Lowenstein moved to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. in 1963, where she worked as a programmer for IBM. After a five-year stint there, followed by a spell in Mahopac, N.Y., Lowenstein and her husband, Dick, moved to Westport in 1983.
While she intends to attend future P&Z meetings, Lowenstein, 70, said she will now devote more time to several community organizations to which she belongs.
Lowenstein sat down with the Westport News this week to review some of the major zoning issues she scrutinized as a P&Z commissioner and to discuss some of the leading land-use challenges that the town currently faces.
Q: During your first two terms, the P&Z spent a significant amount of time reviewing applications for new construction at several of the town's public schools. What were some of the major factors the P&Z considered during its review of those projects?
A: You look at the parking. You look at the buffering. You're looking at the design. You're looking at the lighting in the parking lots, so the lights don't disturb the neighbors.
It's touchy when you live near a school or recreational facility. There are issues that come up with the neighbors. You try on the P&Z to work with both sides, so that it's not going to make life miserable for the neighbors.
Q: In 2008, the P&Z approved an application from the Westport Weston Family Y to build a new facility at Camp Mahackeno. Why do you think that proposal produced such a contentious public debate?
A: Some people wanted to keep it downtown, and the Y could not find a place to keep it there. And they did not want to renovate their building, or they felt it was too expensive to renovate it compared to what they could do in another location.
I think choosing their property to the north was upsetting to the neighbors because they didn't want to see something like the Y, which has quite a lot of activity, going on in their neighborhood.
They were concerned about a number of things such as traffic and the fact that it would be on a septic (system).
I think the Planning and Zoning Commission did a very good job. They brought in their own experts besides the ones that the Y had brought in. We put some extra controls on the septic system because we were concerned too. We don't want to pollute the water. We put in extra vegetation. We asked them to put in shades so they could come down at nightfall so the people down the river weren't going to see the lighting from the inside of the building. We tried to protect the neighbors as much as we could do.
When you have an application for a special permit, and it meets your regulations, you can't just go ahead and turn it down, unless you have reasons for turning it down. With the modifications, we felt they had met the regulations.
Q: The P&Z approved last May a text amendment that facilitates the development of a senior residential center and health-care facility at Baron's South. What is your assessment of the local need for senior housing?
A: Seniors are a large part of the population, and they're going to continue to be because people are living much longer. I think seniors would like to stay here as long as they can. And some people who are here would like to have their parents live here.
I see a need. And the fact that it (the senior complex) is near the senior center -- I think it's great. And it's close to the downtown and the library. And it's near some public transportation.
But I do think as much of the land (at Baron's South) that they can save for open space would be great.
Q: During the last two years, the P&Z has passed a series of text amendments related to dining and liquor regulations that have sought to produce more evening activity in downtown Westport. How would you rate the success of those measures?
A: It's encouraged some people to come here, and we needed some more evening activity. It helps.
It's not that people aren't downtown. It's just that it would be nice to have a little more nightlife and maybe a few more stores that are run by local people or smaller stores that aren't chain stores. That doesn't mean we're going to get rid of the chains.
I think that the downtown merchants have done a very good job. They've really been promoting things and they've had festivals. I think there's more use of downtown. You've got the library book sale and the downtown merchants' art sale, and you have the barbecue festival. They're great.
It would nice to have something a little more ongoing downtown. And kids, from middle school on, would like to have a viable downtown.
Q: What changes could be made to the layout of downtown Westport?
A: In the downtown, people, I think, are interested in pulling the parking away from the river. One of the ways to do that is to build a (parking) garage somewhere. It's kind of a chicken and egg thing. You don't really need a garage and this (parking at Parker-Harding Plaza).
You have to figure out a way for the town to work on pulling the green space back into the Parker-Harding area somewhat. It's the location of parking that's the issue, not how many spaces.
Q: In the last year, four text amendments approved by the P&Z have been appealed to the Representative Town Meeting. One of those appeals, related to new residential building coverage regulations, was upheld by the RTM last January. What do you think of the process for appeals of P&Z decisions?
A: My issue is the RTM doesn't abide by the same rules that we have to as the Planning and Zoning Commission in reviewing an application. They can talk and send emails to each other. They can discuss everything about a P&Z application with everybody in the world. Anybody they want to.
I think the P&Z is at a disadvantage because the RTM is using different standards to review, and taking in and discussing other information when we're never allowed to discuss that among themselves. They can bring in additional information. They're not reviewing what we did, so much as what they would like.
Q: What are some future land-use initiatives that you would like to see implemented in Westport?
A: I would like to see some more affordable and moderate-income housing.
And I still would like to see some way that we can control the size of houses on smaller pieces of property. If we're not able to do that, maybe we need to have some type of smaller homes clustered together in some area. There might be single-family homes, but they might not have much of a yard or maybe a very small yard.
I just think we need areas for people to live here who work here, and for people to be able to buy more of a starter home. There don't seem to be many of them left. I just believe that a town should be diverse.