Westport P&Z aims to sue RTM over decision
Meeting with first selectman leads to proposed RTM changes
Despite a private meeting hosted by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff on Monday morning, a resolution for the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) to sue the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) is still on the table. In a statement, Joseloff called such legal action "embarrassing" and "deeply regrettable."
Ron Corwin, chairman of the P&Z, proposed the resolution on Thursday after the RTM overturned a hotly contested text amendment on Jan. 13 to alter regulations for the National Hall building and its surrounding buildings on the west bank of the Saugatuck River on Post Road West and Wilton Road.
Corwin said the main issue is the denial of due process by the RTM after the commission made its decision.
"It is essential to the process of ... protecting the rights of the citizens, the rights of the public, property rights and other rights that there be a defined process for all public entities making administrative decisions ... about private property," Corwin said. He added that it is imperative that "the use of lands have a set of a clearly understood, articulated procedures. That, in my view, did not occur."
During the Thursday P&Z meeting, Town Attorney Ira Bloom agreed that there could be some beneficial changes to the RTM's power over P&Z decisions, but he strongly warned against legal action. He told of a scenario that would be pricey, drawn-out and might not lead to any changes.
"It's not just a routine, slap-dash zoning appeal where the Planning and Zoning Commission erred in the following ways. This is something someone has got to think about because, I'm telling you, it's not obvious to me why this commission might have standing," Bloom said.
In the P&Z resolution, the structure of the RTM meeting was questioned. "Severe time limits" on the commission's presentation and no cross-examination or rebuttals were just several of the six examples cited.
According to Corwin, a lawyer might be willing to take on the case pro-bono, or funds might be raised to pay for a lawyer if the money isn't approved by the Board of Finance.
A P&Z decision has not been overturned by the RTM in decades. An amendment was overturned in 1981, and it's believed by Bloom that the most recent reversal was in the mid-to-late '80s. According to the town charter, with 20 signatures a petitioner can appeal a P&Z decision to the RTM. For a decision to be overturned, 24 out of 36 members need to vote in favor of it. Such a vote hardly ever succeeds, but the vote on Jan. 13 was an exception.
After the Thursday meeting, Joseloff urged communication rather than legal action in a statement.
"Clarification of how the RTM exercises its right to review P&Z actions granted by our town charter needs to be decided here, by representatives of Westporters, and not by some court elsewhere," Joseloff said.
Present at the closed meeting on Monday were two town attorneys including Bloom, Joseloff, Corwin and RTM moderator Hadley Rose. At the conclusion of the meeting, it was decided that town attorneys would submit suggested changes for the RTM to consider when reviewing P&Z decisions.
"Nobody is coming out and saying, `This is what the RTM is going to do from now on,'" Rose said. "It's got to go before the whole body."
Once the recommendations are received, they will go to the rules committee of the RTM and eventually to the full RTM, where a majority vote is needed to make any changes.
The motion to begin legal action was approved in a 4--3 vote, with Corwin, Eleanor Lowenstein, David Press and Howard Lathrop voting in favor. Opposing the proposal were Nora Jinishian, Catherine Walsh and Michael Krawiec.
In an interview, Krawiec declined comment except to say he was "shocked and embarrassed" about the push for legal action. In an op-ed piece signed by Krawiec and Walsh (see page A8), they wrote that "this action makes a mockery of the Planning and Zoning Commission's credibility."
No suit has been filed as of yet, but a typical zoning appeal must be filed within 15 days of the publication of the legal notice, which was Jan. 22.