Residents seek to address root cause of land-use controversies: communication
WESTPORT — A common thread runs through the three land-use debates that have erupted in town throughout the last few months: communication.
Each case — the water tanks on North Avenue, a senior housing development at the old Daybreak Nursery, and a proposal to build a house on historic property near Greens Farms Elementary — blew up, in part, because residents didn’t feel the proposed changes were properly communicated to them.
“I noticed lately that many people are complaining they haven’t received adequate notification of controversial proposals in Westport,” said Larry Weisman, a member of the Coalition for Westport, a land-use party.
Weisman, a town resident and former land-use attorney, decided to do something about the complaints he heard and suggested the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) require a project applicant to post a physical sign on the property for a period of time before it goes before P&Z.
The coalition submitted Weisman’s amendment to the P&Z but was asked to withdraw it because P&Z recently formed a communications subcommittee and plans to discuss the sign idea at its Jan. 4 meeting at 12:30 p.m. in Westport Town Hall, along with a slew of other communication improvement ideas.
Recently elected P&Z Commissioner Danielle Dobin is on the communications subcommittee and said residents deserve better communication when it comes to land-use issues.
“People feel they were only hearing about P&Z decisions only after they had been made,” Dobin said.
On the Jan. 4 agenda is a proposal to extend the radius of residents an applicant must notify for a proposed project. Current zoning regulations require applicants alert residents, through a mailed notice, within a 200-foot radius of the property for special permits and site plans and residents within 500 feet for variance and map amendment changes.
Weisman acknowledged there are many electronic options for notifying residents of land-use changes, but said, “I’m not sure the electronic options are as good as actually putting a sign up on a property.”
It’s not unusual to put a sign up on a property, he added.
“If you have a foreclosure, they put a sign up; if you’re applying for a liquor license, they put a sign up; if they want a demolition, we put a sign up for that,” Weisman said, noting that Bridgeport already has a regulation that mandates signs on properties coming under consideration by planning and zoning.
Wiesman also said signs make it so the burden of notifying residents is on the project applicant as opposed to town employees.
Greens Farms Representative Town Meeting member Greg Kraut has been a fierce opponent of proposed construction on the historic property of two former prominent artists on Morningside Drive and expressed concern about the burden new communication methods may place on town employees.
“We should make it easy for them to be informed without breaking the bank or causing an administrative nightmare,” Kraut said. He said the town email system is inadequate because people have to “wade through a lot of emails each day” and it’s difficult to know where to search on the town government website to find information about land-use changes.
Coalition member Jennifer Johnson said the signs aren’t an end-all, be-all but an important start for improving communication.
“Yes, there’s a lot of things the Planning and Zoning Commission is going to be looking at but we just wanted to start because there’s no reason they shouldn’t be doing this. It’s just a no-brainer,” Johnson said.
Johnson said ideally the signs will have basic information and a way to notify people of places to find additional information.
“It has to be tied to better management of info in a way people can access on their computers,” Johnson said, advocating for increased accessibility of public land records online.
North Avenue resident Stefanie Lemcke, who has been at the forefront of debate with Aquarion Water Co. about the two tanks they plan to build near her home on North Avenue, agreed residents need more information about who to contact regarding P&Z issues.
The Planning and Zoning communications subcommittee will will hold an open meeting Jan. 4 at 12:30 p.m. in Westport Town Hall.