By James Lomuscio
(UPDATE) Westport’s new town plan, traffic, affordable and senior housing, businesses friendly regulations and zoning enforcement dominated tonight’s debate among five Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) candidates.
P&Z candidates participating were (l-r) Michael Cammeyer, Greg Rutstein, John Olefson, Jennifer Johnson and Danielle Dobin. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com
The P&Z Town Hall auditorium debate sponsored by the Westport League of Women Voters (WLWV) capped tonight’s two earlier presentations for four unopposed Board of Education members seeking reelection and three candidates for the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The P&Z debate was also the most heated as Democrats Danielle Dobin, Michael Cammeyer and Greg Rutstein squared off against Republican John Olefson and Jennifer Johnson, a third party candidate endorsed by the Coalition for Westport. Save WestportNow has also endorsed the three Democrats.
Johnson threw down the gauntlet at the start, calling the town Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) recently approved by the P&Z “a grave disappointment” that had little public input and for which she had to employ the Freedom of Information ACT (FOIA) to review a copy of a draft.
“We still don’t have the actual document to review,” she said.
Olefson, a P&Z alternate running to be a sitting member, called Johnson’s comment “a specious argument that no one knows what’s in the town plan.”
“It’s on the town website; I’m not saying it’s perfect,” he said, adding that public input is still being sought to improve it.
“If there is something that residents missed, we’re open to listening,” Cammeyer agreed.
When it came to a question about ways to alleviate excessive traffic, especially downtown and in the Saugatuck section, Dobin said traffic considerations should be considered in future P&Z decisions.
“What can we do about traffic? A lot,” she said. “The first question we should ask is, ‘What is the impact on traffic?’”
Dobin also took aim at past P&Z decisions that that caused the developer of the Save the Children property on Wilton Road to abandon his plan to widen the problem intersection at Post Road West and Wilton Road.
Dobin, who with Rutstein and Cammeyer, hope to hold a Democratic majority on the seven-member P&Z, also criticized the P&Z for approving what she called a major housing development on the former Daybreak Nursery property. She said it would only add to congestion at the problem intersection.
Johnson, a Representative Town Meeting (RTM) member and former co-chair of the Westport Transit Committee, again took aim at the new POCD, saying that it did not incorporate the concept of “complete streets.” That concept addresses the need for alternative forms of transportation, including bicycles, pedestrians and public transportation.
In response to Westport being well below the state requiremengt to have 10 percent of its housing stock deemed affordable – and that fact that developers as a result could use the state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g to override zoning regulations, Olefson said Westport is making progress.
“The number of units coming on board over the next few years are sufficient,” he said, for the town to get points toward a moratorium.
‘But, we have to make sure we put large, multi-family housing in the right area,” he said.
Johnson said the town should look to create affordable housing on its own land, such as expanding Canal Park, which is run by the Westport Housing Authority. She also said the P&Z should rethink the possibility of senior housing with an affordable component on the town-owned Baron’s South property, a move the P&Z shot down after seven years of planning by declaring the entire 22 acres passive open space.
Cammeyer, Rutstien and Dobin all lauded the P&Z’s approval Thursday night by a 5 to 2 vote of a text amendment allowing assisted living, full care and independent care in an inclusionary housing zone overlay district.
Rutsetin, an attorney and a newcomer to town running for his first office, praised his running mates’ push for the amendment’s approval, saying such residences “don’t add to traffic and add to the grand list.”
One area that the candidates seemed to agree on is the fact that the Planning and Zoning Department is understaffed, especially when it comes to zoning enforcement.
The result, said Dobin, is that offenders “instead of asking for permission ask for forgiveness.”
“We have to create better enforcement tools,” she said.
“While we do need more enforcement,” said Johnson, “if we do not add more P&Z staff, we are only going to shoot ourselves in the foot.”
This story has been updated to add that Save WestportNow has endorsed the three Democratic P&Z candidates.