Zoning, school board candidates square off at League of Women Voters debate
WESTPORT — A debate Monday featured three of the town’s biggest boards taking on the issues.
The town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), traffic and affordable housing were among the top issues the five candidates seeking to fill three positions on Planning and Zoning commission. The most contentious part of Planning and Zoning’s portion of the night at Town Hall came toward the beginning of the League of Women Voters debate.
Coalition for Westport candidate, Jennifer Johnson — one of five vying for three spots on Planning and Zoning — said the POCD has been a “grave disappointment,” due to its supposed lack of transparency. Johnson said as an RTM member she filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request against the town because she was unable to get a copy of the draft POCD from the sitting commission.
“It is unheard of that this document was not publicly available,” Johnson said. “The draft came out with very limited opportunities for people to comment. An extensive and robust dialogue did not happen with this town plan.”
Republican candidate and current Planning and Zoning Commission Alternate Jon Olefson said the POCD plan to which Johnson referred was an initial draft from a consultant and, “an internal working copy,” for the Planning and Zoning Commission. Johnson responded to Olefson saying, “I shouldn’t have had to FOIA it.”
Save Westport Now/Democratic candidate and current commissioner, Danielle Dobin, claimed the 2017 creation process allowed for public comment but was hindered by disrespect from other commissioners.
“We had one real public hearing where people were invited to comment,” Dobin said. “From my perspective as a relatively new commissioner, I was surprised to hear that when residents approached the podium to speak to us they were interrupted, occasionally they were criticized, and I felt as though that tone chilled other people from coming up and speaking.”
Fellow Save Westport Now/Democratic candidate Greg Rutstein echoed Dobin’s comments and said he was, “literally shocked to see the lack of respect among the commissioners themselves, some of them, and the applicants.”
“It’s my full intention to try and stop all of that,” Rutstein said. Neither Dobin nor Rutstein specifically named which P&Z commissioners they believe to have been disrespectful.
Current commissioner Michael Cammeyer said he and his other Save Westport Now/Democratic candidates are, “not looking to rehash what happened in the history.”
The debate then moved to the issue of town traffic. Referring to the Cribari bridge, Johnson, who was a town transit director for four years, said she was, “deeply disturbed when the town decided to walk away from over $44 million in federal funding for a chocked bridge.”
“If the town of Darien was able to stop 18-wheelers from going through their town, we could’ve as well,” remarked Johnson.
Olefson proposed a “holistic view” and warned of “unintended consequences” that may result from the increased development of the bridge. Rutstein said he would address traffic issues by taking a “common sense view and seeking expert opinion.”
Dobin vowed to consider the impact of traffic first and foremost whenever a proposal came before the P&Z Commission as a means of protecting property values. “Protecting commuters is critically important,” said Dobin.
Affordable housing also proved a fractious issue among the candidates. Olefson spoke of the importance of affordable housing but with a caveat. “People move to Westport for a certain characteristic and we don’t want any unintended consequences. So we have to make sure we put multi-family dwellings in the right parts of town.”
Rutstein was stronger on the issue, “both because it’s the right thing to do and because we need to make sure we maintain control over multi-family developments to avoid the risk of having an outside developer come-in and build an 830G development in a zone where it just doesn’t belong.”
The desire to prevent outside developers from gaining control of affordable housing project was a rare point of consensus among all the candidates. Dobin remarked the affordable housing cause was part of the reason she decided to join the P&Z Commission and said she was, “embarrassed to see that our neighbors in New Canaan and Darien are enjoying multiple years of moratorium while in Westport we have no protection against developers.”
Cammeyer also committed himself to affordable housing and those he believes would benefit from the increased stock: “That is our workforce, that is our teachers, that is our firefighters, that is our police officers. We want them living in this town.”
Johnson proposed an affordable housing project on the town’s property in Canal Park and suggested reopening the discussion about putting senior housing on a portion of the Barron’s South property, while Dobin favored an approach that focused on preserving antique houses for affordable housing rather than creating new units.
ZONING BOARD OF APPEALS
HOW MANY ARE RUNNING FOR HOW MANY SEATS
The ZBA has two spots open and three candidates in the race. Democrat and current ZBA alternate member Victoria Gouletas emphasized her orderly approach of referring to case law and Connecticut statute. Gouletas is an attorney with experience in title underwriting and real estate development and has a J.D. from New York University School of law and graduated from Bryn Mawr College. She lives in Westport with her husband and two young children.
Bernard Deverin, also a Democrat, has served on the ZBA for the past four years and currently serves as the ZBA Secretary. He is a member of the Westport Chamber of Commerce and the Greens Farms Association and Founder and President of Westport Builder Group Design-Build Firm. Deverin lives in Westport with his wife, Midge Deverin, Membership Coordinator at the Westport YMCA.
Republican candidate Thomas Hood highlighted his diverse background as a civil engineer, architect, and businessman. He is currently the owner of a private architecture firm and has served for the past eight years on the Flood and Erosion Control Board and most recently as its chair.
BOARD OF EDUCATION
Leading off the night, each of the four uncontested Board of Education candidates — all incumbents — was given the opportunity to deliver her stump speech.
Starting off the night, Democrats Candi Savin and Elaine Whitney — seeking second and third terms, respectively — both noted the importance of fiscal responsibility given the state’s shaky financial footing.
“Proactive fiscal management is essential to focus our resources in the classroom and to keep taxes reasonable, all the more so in the light of current state budget pressures,” Whitney said. “I have an 8-year track record of achieving substantial recurring savings in non-classroom operating costs and advocating for both appropriate funding and greater local flexibility.”
Savin noted her efforts to urge the administration to look into making school properties compatible with solar energy which she said could “enhance both the environment and our budget sheet.”
The Republican nominees, Karen Kleine and Jeannie Smith — who have served for four years and five years, respectively — each focused at times on their experience.
“My 12-year professional education career as both a teacher and an education consultant enables me to provide an essential classroom perspective when it comes to the board making decisions that are best for Westport students,” Smith said.
Kleine has been a Parent Teacher Association President, put in 60 hours of additional education to become a state certified Board of Education member and organizes annual meetings between Board of Education members, legislators, and administrators.
“Policy is the foundation of an excellent Board of Education and an excellent school district,” Kleine said.
But most important, according to Kleine, is maintaining Westport Schools’ sterling reputation.
“The goal is to remain the best school district in Connecticut,” Kleine said.