Zoning candidates talk future of Westport in debate
WESTPORT — Traffic, parking, affordable housing and the repair of Cribari Bridge were some of the many items tackled by candidates for the Planning and Zoning Commission at town hall on Monday.
The event was the second in a series of candidate debates hosted by the League of Women Voters of Westport and co-sponsored by the Westport Library and the PTA Council of Westport. Five of the six candidates for the commission where in attendance with only Republican Town Committee nominee Jon Olefson absent.
The five candidates who are vying for four spots fielded a number of questions that largely focused on shaping the town for the future.
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Democratic candidate and current Planning and Zoning Commission chairman Paul Lebowitz noted there are some traffic issues due to the town having two exits from major highways and only four bridges.
“One of the things we’ve tried to do when an applicant comes before us is insist that the traffic study be realistic, and have real-life conditions attached to it,” Lebowitz said, adding the commission aims to see what developments will add to the town.
Republican candidate and current commissioner Chip Stephens echoed Lebowitz’s sentiments, and said for the future he’d like to see more inter-departmental work. He added by working together the town could look to way-finding as a potential solution.
“We have a lot of traffic in the morning going through neighborhoods and I think we can work on that,” he said. “With co-operations with the other boards, selectmen, and so forth we can work together to put together someone who can do that.”
Coalition for Westport candidate Joe Strickland said the Planning and Zoning Commission missed an opportunity years ago to correct the intersection of Wilton Road and Post Road, which he described as one of the worst intersections in the state.
“I’m not going to let that suffice ever again if I’m elected,” Strickland said.
With the moratorium in place, Strickland said the commission has four years to plan affordable housing throughout town.
“I think scattering affordable housing throughout our community is a much, much more intelligent and better way to create affordable housing,” he said. “If we don’t take advantage of that we should be criticized roundly for that.”
Republican candidate and current commissioner Catherine Walsh said the 8-30g statute was a moving target. Walsh also noted the commission has approved 11 out of 15 applicants brought forward with affordability aspects.
“We don’t want to sequester people in one area,” she said. “We want to spread them out and make them part of the community.”
Al Gratrix, Republican candidate and also a current commissioner, said when the 8-30g statute first came into effect the town was unable to take advantage of the affordable housing already built.
“I have no problem. I just want to make sure it’s in an appropriate area that traffic is not an issue and that fire and environmental issues are taken into concern being that they don’t have to abide by any of our regulations,” he said.
The long discussed repairs of Cribari Bridge was also discussed. Candidates all agreed repairs were needed for the bridge, but many cautioned against any extreme changes pointing to the bridge as a natural deterrent to traffic.
The validity of a Planning and Zoning Commission in itself, and whether or not planning be separated from zoning, was also questioned. Strickland said the commission has turned into the zoning police and supported separating planning and zoning.
“We need people that are going to sit down, hear the people and hear the citizens of Westport. Feel the pulse, know what the needs are and make some plans,” he said. “If the zoning side of the fence wants to enforce it that’s fine. Then we’ll have two separate bodies.”
However, Stephens and other candidates pointed to the work the commission continues to do and has done over the years.
“We take care of a lot of planning. We got the POCD. We got the downtown plan, the Saugatuck plan, we’ve got plans all over the shelves,” Stephens said. “We’ve done a lot of planning and a lot of it has gone into our regulations.”