Westport election '11: Planning and Zoning Commission candidates
Published 7:25 pm, Thursday, October 6, 2011
The Nov. 8 municipal election marks a period of transition for Westport's Planning and Zoning Commission. With the departures of commissioners Eleanor Lowenstein, David Press and Michael Krawiec, voters will choose at least new three P&Z members.
The winners will join one of the town's most important and visible elected bodies. In recent years, P&Z deliberations on several key land-use issues have spurred controversey and attracted attention. In 2008, after a series of public hearings punctuated by impassioned public debate, the P&Z approved the Westport Weston Family Y's application to build a new center at the site of Camp Mahackeno.
A year later, the P&Z faced opposition after it approved a text amendment that allowed an increase in office space at the downtown landmark, National Hall. That decision was overturned in January 2010 by the Representative Town Meeting.
At the beginning of 2011, another text amendment approved by the P&Z -- this time related to residential building coverage regulations -- was overturned by the RTM after many residents expressed concerns that the new rules would diminish property values.
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's proposal to build a new senior living and health-care complex on the town-owned Baron's South property has also figured prominently on the P&Z's agenda this year. The commission in May approved Text Amendment 625, which provided the zoning framework needed for Joseloff's project to advance. That decision was later appealed unsuccessfully to the RTM.
Revitalization of downtown Westport represents another major concern for the P&Z. During the last two years, the panel has approved a series of text amendments that have relaxed regulations on outdoor dining, outdoor events and liquor permitting. The P&Z, however, withdrew last month a text amendment that aimed to facilitate construction of a downtown movie theater after the proposal produced a contentious public discussion about the scale of future development in the town center.
Five candidates are running for the P&Z, with the four highest vote-getters winning seats on the commission. Democrats currently hold a 4-3 majority.
Catherine Walsh is a Republican running for her first full term on the Planning and Zoning Commission. She has served on the P&Z since 2008, when she replaced Helen Martin Block, who resigned. Walsh works as a consultant in the steel industry, specializing in domestic and international trade.
Chip Stephens is a Republican running for his first term on the P&Z. He is the principal and founder of Bio-Logistics USA, a Westport-based company that provides life sciences industry services.
Jennifer Johnson is a Democrat seeking her first term on the P&Z. She serves on the Parks and Recreation Commission and formerly worked as a director in PricewaterhouseCoopers' financial advisory services practice group.
Jack Whittle is a Republican running for his first term on the P&Z. He is an attorney who practices corporate and regulatory law.
Al Gratrix is a Republican seeking his first term as a full P&Z commissioner. He currently serves as a P&Z alternate. He is the owner and president of a Westport-based merchant credit card financial services company.
Q: As a Planning and Zoning commissioner, how would you seek to preserve the character of Westport's residential neighborhoods?
Walsh: I would continue to work within the existing zoning regulations that we have. There are ways to work within the zones that we have established to promote future growth.
Projects within the zones that could possibly have a detrimental effect on a neighborhood should be negotiated with the neighbors first-hand before they come to see us. The biggest example of that were the lights at Temple Israel. That dragged on for two years because we were so concerned about the neighbors and their rights. We really felt it needed to be addressed between them, and they (the neighbors and the temple) came to their own settlement.
Stephens: In the '70s, when things started to get out of hand with the Wright Street (Westport View Corporate Center) building and the large buildings alongside Riverside Avenue and the one down by the railroad station, the P&Z saw what was going on, and they put together a plan to limit that type of development which overlooks all of our neighborhoods. In doing so, we've been on a pretty steady track in terms of maintaining Westport as we're all used to.
If you look at the town as it goes, we're never going to go back to where it was, but we can definitely preserve where we are and the unique nature of Westport. I think that we've got to stick with a plan that our predecessors put together to maintain the character of Westport.
Johnson: Westport is a remarkable town with amazing beaches, schools and cultural and natural resources. People want to live here. But as more people come, more changes are seen in our residential neighborhoods. Houses are getting larger, and more of our landscape is being paved over. While Westporters want to preserve and protect the small-town feeling that still defines our community, property owners sometimes feel overburdened by rules and regulations, especially when renovating or redeveloping their own property.
As a member of the Planning & Zoning Commission, I would actively work to ensure that the rules and regulations that define development are reasonable, consistent and applied fairly.
Whittle: The zoning regulations as they currently exist provide an excellent basis for maintaining the character and integrity of our residential neighborhoods, and I would proceed with extreme caution when considering a proposed use in any of our residential neighborhoods that is inconsistent with our zoning plan.
Care must also be given when considering proposals which diminish or alter critical buffer zones which exist throughout town, such as the Business Preservation Districts that are found along the Post Road. Finally, traffic impacts on residential neighborhoods must remain a top consideration when considering new initiatives and proposals.
Gratrix: I would look at specific communities in Westport in different ways that need to be concerned with nature. The concern is with any type of imposition of commercial properties into residential zones or cluster home-type setups.
The residential neighborhoods are very important and very key to the town, and we don't want to diminish the buffer zones. The top consideration should be the neighborhoods themselves.
Q: During the next four years, what role do you think the P&Z should play in the revitalization of downtown Westport?
Walsh: We need to review, reform, and standardize some of the specifications downtown such as the sidewalks, tree plantings, benches, trash bins. These things are being addressed in (P&Z) subcommittee, and they certainly warrant further study and work.
And I'd like to see more events being run downtown. The Fine Arts Festival, the Blues, Views and BBQ Festival and the Slice of Saugatuck Festival -- those three events show that if you provide a venue and a willingness to have the people come into the streets and just mingle with their neighbors, it makes all the difference to a town.
Stephens: I think it's ludicrous that the P&Z is trying to revitalize the town. The town will be revitalized when the economy comes around. To do text amendments and other things in the name of revitalization will affect our legacy for years.
The P&Z's place is not to revitalize. The P&Z place is to maintain the character of the town and respect the rights of property owners. Revitalization is an economic thing, and I don't really see that the P&Z is going to figure that out.
Johnson: I believe the Planning and Zoning Commission should play an active role in the revitalization of downtown Westport. The town needs to be proactive in addressing change, not just reactive to changes proposed by developers. As stated in the 2007 Town Plan of Conservation and Development, Westporters want a downtown that brings residents together.
I applaud the Commission's recent efforts to relax (regulations on) outdoor dining, outdoor events and liquor permitting. I believe this trend should continue provided that it does not lead to over-scaled development that compromises Westport's small-town charm.
Whittle: I think the P&Z should get in better touch with what the residents want (and don't want) when it considers undertaking initiatives in the name of revitalizing the downtown area. I also believe we can take some good guidance from some of the mistakes that were made in the past in terms of "out-of-character" development and avoid repeating these things again. I don't think we should be striving for something akin to the look of Stamford when we seek to revitalize downtown.
I think there are some real opportunities to go beyond simply recapturing downtown as it existed at some point in the past, and actually improve downtown. I believe better utilization of the riverfront resource, which is now occupied by parking lots in the Parker-Harding and Jesup Green areas, should be a priority item. But there again, we must move forward cautiously, and not destroy the character of downtown or add to traffic woes.
Gratrix: Looking ahead, I think we could make better use of some of our waterfront properties on the Saugatuck River, especially around Gorham Island. There are some places that are being underutilized and have a lot of parking and could be used for other uses such as picnic areas.
But seven commissioners are not going to set the world on fire. We would really like to get the input of citizens on what they would like to see happen in downtown Westport.
Q: What would be your top priority as a Planning and Zoning commissioner?
Walsh: I would like to change the process by which we evaluate municipal projects. I want to see numbers presented to us before an 8-24 (land-use request). I want to see that the first selectman's office has conferred with the financial folks in town before they come to us trying to dispose of or lease the land. I want to change the entire process.
The way it (the process) is structured now, it's warm and fuzzy, and the board of finance is not allowed to chime in until a lease is being proposed. That's too late. The board of finance may have other ideas. They're brilliant people; they should be consulted. I want them in the process.
Stephens: My top priority would be sticking to the current town plan and to preserve the character of Westport to avoid congestion and overbuilding. Doing that would mean not proposing items as the P&Z, but considering items that come in front of the P&Z, which is how I believed the P&Z was set up to be.
Johnson: My top priority would be to improve safe pedestrian access throughout our town. I believe this is the No. 1 way to improve the quality of life of Westport residents. While our town boasts small-town charm with great schools, parks, beaches and cultural and natural resources, it has evolved into a landscape dominated by cars, instead of people.
Our population in Westport has many households with school-age children, as well as many with seniors. As a town, we need to promote safe places for all residents to bike, jog or walk around our neighborhoods, throughout our downtown and to and from our parks, beaches and cultural centers.
Whittle: My top priority would be to preserve the character and charm of the town through the intelligent application of the existing zoning regulations, while supporting growth and development that is consistent with the best interests of the residents and local business owners. We as a P&Z must do a better job of acting in tune with what Westporters want and don't want.
Gratrix: My top priority would be preserving the character and charm of downtown and the whole town. We don't want it to look like downtown Norwalk or Route 1 in Milford.