By James Lomuscio
Affordable housing, downtown traffic and the future of the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge were key topics at tonight’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) candidates’ debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Westport.
Candidates for the Planning & Zoning Commission at tonight’s debate. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
So, too, were downtown parking, encouraging historic restoration versus new construction, increased coverage on Compo Beach lots, diverse housing needs—even a revisit to Baron’s South where a senior housing complex had been planned and voted down more than four years ago.
Of the six candidates vying for four seats for a four-year term on the commission, only five showed at the Town Hall forum. P&Z alternate Jon Olefson, both a Republican and the minority party Save Westport Now (SWN) candidate, was reportedly out of town.
Present were: incumbents Al Gratrix, a Republican and SWN candidate; Paul Lebowitz, current P&Z chairman, endorsed by the Democrats; Chip Stephens, a Republican also running on the SWN line; Catherine Walsh, also a Republican and SWN candidate.
The only new face in the lineup was the minority party Coalition for Westport (CFW) candidate Joe Strickland, a well respected architect with service on numerous town boards.
As the outsider, Strickland criticized the current commissioners for spending more time on zoning and enforcement instead of planning and “missing the opportunity to correct one of the worst intersections in the state,” Wilton Road and Post Road West.
He also called the town’s 2017 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), which the incumbents cited as proof of their planning duties, “a flawed document.”
Concerns about increased traffic was the first of audience questions presented by moderator Sheila Ward, LWV past president. Lebowitz said the “excessive traffic” was due to the town having both Merritt Parkway and I-95 exits. He also said that traffic studies were crucial to all proposed developments.
“It’s something we look at very carefully with all our applicants,” said Stephens, adding that while the P&Z does all it can within its purview, such as eliminating curb cuts, the commission continues to work with other town departments on traffic concerns.
Walsh touted smart parking, “no more projects with more than 20 parking spaces. Gratrix added that the town has to “adapt the infrastructure to keep people off the back roads.”
Strickland said the best way to minimize traffic is to get more people to use public transportation, to even explore travel on the Saugatuck River.
Regarding the state’s plans to either restore or replace the Cribari Bridge, the 1884-built swing bridge on the National Register of Historic Places, all incumbents agreed it should be restored, not replaced with a new, wider bridge.
Gratrix said that if it were replaced, it would be an invitation for 18-wheelers to course through Saugatuck. Stephens said such traffic would exacerbated if the state reinstituted tolls on I-95.
For several years, town officials including First Selectman Jim Marpe have been urging the state to restore the bridge since it is part of the town’s history and identity.
Strickland, again, broke with the majority.
“We need a new bridge …a safe ConnDOT bridge,” he said, adding that the current bridge could be moved to another location.
In response to a question about Baron’s South, Stephens said the defeat of the long-planned senior housing complex on the town-owned 22 acres was “one of my proudest moments on this commision.”
“I want open space, and I know that this town is lacking in open space,” he said.
Gratrix, a builder and self-proclaimed environmentalist, said the voting down the senior living complex was “also one of my proudest moments.”
Strickland said he was “totally in favor of turning it into senior housing.”
“We have 1,100 acres of open space in Westport,” he said. “We can afford to put four acres to better use.”
Lebowitz, who favored the senior complex, and said its defeat was “the reason I chose to run” for the P&Z.
“Let’s face it; it’s passive open space,” Lebowitz said. “Let’s maintain it. I don’t see how you can roll the clock back.”
Prior to the P&Z debates the LWV had presentations from unopposed candidates: Republican Carson F. Heller, for the Board of Assessment Appeals; and incumbents James Ezzes, a Democrat, Republican Liz Wong and Thomas B. Hood, a Republican.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5.
This story has been updated to correct that Lebowitz, endorsed by the Democrats, has not been endorsed by Save Westport Now.