David Lessing: Put The “P” Back In “Planning And Zoning”

David Lessing is a Planning & Zoning commissioner. He responds to chairman Chip Stephens’ recent comments on “06880,” regarding the P&Z’s vote against developing senior housing on the Baron’s South property:

Chip Stephens has attempted to defend his vote against text amendments that would have facilitated progress on developing senior housing on the Baron’s South property. While Westporters should appreciate his effort to help us make belated sense of the disappointing vote, unfortunately the defenses he offers are internally contradictory and fail to provide a road map for our other elected officials. In the future, the P&Z needs to fulfill its responsibility for “planning,” rather than — after an abbreviated deliberation — handing down “no” votes that sharply reverse progress made by the painstaking efforts of other elected officials from both parties over multiple years.

In his statement, Mr. Stephens cites as his reasons for voting against the text amendments: concerns about fairness regarding who would be eligible for the new senior units, and a desire to limit density of development and preserve open space. These are each valid concerns, but are mutually exclusive.

If Mr. Stephens opposes the text amendments because they would permit additional development and more density in Westport, then he should not also purport to be concerned about the quality and fairness of allocation of the senior housing that he would not allow in any case. Arguing about who gets housing you don’t support in the first place is a pointless exercise.

Debate over what to do with the Baron's South property has continued for years.

Debate over what to do with the Baron’s South property has continued for years.

I understand the rhetorical benefit of offering both rationales and not wanting to appear unsupportive of senior housing, but as elected officials we have a responsibility to the town to provide guidance that can actually be used in planning for the future. The P&Z vote and Mr. Stephens’ explanation of it leave it unclear whether any proposal for senior housing and recreational facilities on town-owned land would be approved, regardless of how much affordable housing is associated with it.

A different result could have been achieved if members of the P&Z participated earlier and more often in public consultation with other elected officials. Too frequently, our commission criticizes plans that are developed by others, rather than rolling up our sleeves and helping guide the development of plans that would either satisfy existing zoning regulations or present strong justifications for changing them. Rather than publishing statements defending our votes rejecting efforts as significant as Baron’s South, we should be embarrassed that we were forced to vote that way in the first place.

Certainly we had ample opportunity in the several months of public testimony and the more than 5-year saga leading to last week’s vote to contribute to the development of a proposal that would have satisfied our concerns. We cannot be viewed as setting ourselves above and apart from others working to keep Westport the wonderful community we all love. We need to form consensus through our public decision-making process that will give direction to others who rely on us to provide guidance on solutions that will work.

The P&Z must take a proactive role in downtown development, David Lessing says.

The P&Z must take a proactive role in downtown development, David Lessing says.

The need to improve how we operate will become even more critical in connection with the ongoing efforts of the Downtown Steering Committee, which has worked for months to gather input from a broad range of Westporters. The DSC hosted a successful and well-attended 2-day charrette that I attended last weekend. They have had effective leadership from a bipartisan group, including chair Melissa Kane and Westport operations director Dewey Loselle. As a community, we cannot afford to have this group devote significant effort on our behalf to improve our town, only to subject any eventual recommendations requiring P&Z approval to the same process we just experienced with Baron’s South.

To be clear, the P&Z cannot always give unified, clear, and actionable guidance for why it makes its decisions. However, by not even trying, we weaken our credibility and waste the time of the well-intentioned individuals and groups trying to improve Westport. It is our obligation to provide a positive road map for the development of our town. As a member of the commission and the sole vote in favor of the text amendments, I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to meet that obligation in the future.

15 responses to “David Lessing: Put The “P” Back In “Planning And Zoning”

  1. Mr. Lessing,
    What an articulate and accurate assessment of Mr. Stephens’ rationale for this most recent vote and indeed the course of action of the P & Z in general. I hope your fellow commissioners take to heart your thoughtful comments about the responsibility of the commission to participate in the PLANNING of useful projects for our town and not just continue to act as a nay-saying roadblock. Thank you for your service to Westport.

    • Exactly how does the building of restricted senior citizen housing on public land by a profit making enterprise “…keep Westport the wonderful community we all love.” ? In fact, how does making any major change “…keep Westport the wonderful community we love.”? Which is it; does Mr. Lessing want to “…keep Westport the wonderful community we love.” or does he want to institute major changes in that community?

  2. This is a curious post in that it attacks another commission member for having a more than one reason for his vote (as if that was some sort of conflict, rather than “more than one reason”) and doesn’t offer any alternative but trite slogans.

    I don’t read here any concrete “planning” ideas, nor any recognition of both how difficult (or unfortunate) the particular Baron’s South issue is. How about a well-reasoned positioning of exactly what our P&Z is realistically capable of given its structure and resources? Is Mr. Lessing proposing that the P&Z convene multi-year working groups to assess individual situations like this, like the DSC is doing? I can’t imagine how they could, or if that would be a good idea.

    I attended the Long Rang Planning committee meetings during a year of the initial Y/Barons/10-year plan for Conservation and Development and saw how the Long Range Planning Committee was shut out of any “planning” in favor of the more pliable P&Z, who did no planning whatsoever. To say there was any “planning” done by the P&Z on the 10 year plan would be like saying a day-trader has a long term view of investing for the future.

    As to the particular Baron’s South issue, the whole Sr./workforce housing dilemma was thoroughly understood ten years ago by Jack Kling, Matt Mandell and others. (Workforce would rather live in a single-family house in Stratford and there’s no way to have a public property developed by a for-profit that can discriminate the way we’d all like). But literally after 4 drafts, the day before the P&Z’s 10 “Plan” for Conservation and Development was finalized, a paragraph appeared out of the blue with no attribution that Baron’s South was slated for Senior Housing! The whole Sr. Housing and use of Baron’s South was a bad hack (from a personal agenda) and we all spent the next ten years trying to recover from that mistake. (including the consultant on the “plan” who reappeared as the developer six months later…Who’d have guessed?!)

    The 10 Year “Plan” of Conservation and Development was under the purview of the P&Z, which specifically ignored the pending/proposed re-location of the Y out of downtown among other planning needs, due to a few personal agendas like the above. The P&Z didn’t work with the Long Range Planning Committee in any form. Nor did the P&Z even consider the obvious idea that a combined Senior Center, Teen Center and Y could all be located on Baron’s South and solve a lot of problems at once. Instead, thanks to the P&Z’s “planning” we now have a much-reduced Y out of town (after a highly divisive fight, surely one of the low points in our community), a Sr. Center that is used only 9-5 during the week (and now wants a pool!), a sub-optimal teen center, ten years of a steady advance of chain stores and ten years of trying to make an unworkable plan for Sr. housing work (for the benefit of outsiders).

    Hey, many thanks to the work of volunteers in every town committee, including the P&Z, but other than the fact that I can’t imagine how the P&Z as configured would have the resources or bandwidth to actually plan at the level Mr. Lessing’s slogans seem to suggest, I can’t see how we’d trust the P&Z to actually plan. I can’t think of one major town development in the last years that the P&Z has planned “to keep our town wonderful.” (remember the text amendment they passed about the National Hall commercial development three years ago that had to be overridden by the RTM?) It would seem their role is as last resort for everyone. And thank goodness they appear to have done that job well regarding the last Baron’s South vote. – Chris Woods

  3. Well said Chris.

  4. Mr. Lessing, Thank you for a thoughtful counterpoint. What is dying here (on both sides) is Westport’s historical ability to compromise. The Town needs a financial return AND to make efforts to achieve the State-mandated affordable housing requirements. What we can’t afford is a significant Town asset remaining (essentially) fallow for another 20 years. I hope First Selectman Marpe can find a middle ground–with an asset test as well as an income test.

  5. Michael Calise

    Thank You for your comments but please do not lose site of the fact that participation by P & Z members in the ongoing debates fostered by advocates of a particular land use runs the risk of taking a position before actual presentation to the P & Z and a resultant bias for any vote at a time when it is the obligation of every member to objectively review each land use request.

  6. David Lessing’s comments about process and planning are noteworthy. They reflect a long standing problem.
    I believe the P&Z Commission does not have the time and resources to do as much Planning as David, I believe, might like. However, I also believe that the Commission should engage, either individually or as a Commission, in all aspects of land use planning promoted by Town bodies such as the Board of Selectmen with respect to Senior Housing and the Downtown Steering Committee. That engagement ;should commence early in the process and can include speaking out, letters and e mails, and participation at meetings. The Commission believes, legally, it does not have that kind of flexibility. I believe it does. The Commission/Commissioners cannot so engage when a matter involves a private applicant, though even for private “legislative matters” such as a Text Amendment, the Commission can make its decision following hearings pretty much however it thinks best. However, when such legislative matters involve the Town as the applicant, that flexibility also allows the Commissioners (not Staff who are Town employees) to engage as they wish outside of the formal hearing process. If the Town as applicant or the public disapproves, that can be expressed at the formal meetings and at the ballot box. Such engagement by the Commission will result in better outcomes and less rancor.
    I was pleased to see that David Lessing attended the recent DSC charrette. I hope he also conveyed his ideas, support and criticisms. All on the P&Z Commission should have done likewise. So should the members of the Board of Finance, the RTM, the ZBA and the Board of Education.

    Don Bergmann

  7. Bingo Chris!

  8. I was heartened by David Lessing’s comments which are spot on regarding the need for P&Z commissioners to be involved in the planning part of P&Z. I was disheartened by the fact that he and the director, Larry Bradley, were the only representatives present at the master planning charrette this weekend. Much information and ideas on how to improve our downtown were presented. It is important as Lessing points out that to effectively represent the Westporters who elected them, they must be interested and engaged in the planning process if their rulings are to be informed, balanced and constructive.

  9. Robert do not be so quick to judge
    As I see it your 7 elected NON PAID members of the P and Z spend most Thursday nights in session from 7 to 11 PM Spend countless hours preparing by reviewing bales of material before meetings. In addition most members participate in sub committee meetings that cover many planning issues ( such as the DSC sub committee) and other issues in advance of text amendments
    As far as the 2020 or DSC meetings I served as P and Z rep for a year and Cathy Walsh and Alan Hodge have been representing P and Z for the past year. I have attended and represented P and Z on the Village District committee for the past year.
    As to last weekend 4 of the P and Z members were away on personal matters, . And as the DSC winds down and details are distilled down we have to be careful not to participate heavily as it may be considered bias when we are faced with decisions on the pieces that are before us in the next months from the DSC work.
    I was hesitant to comment up to now but as they say “Let no good deed go unpunished” My comments stand on the text amendment, and I am proud of my commissioners and my work for the town, ( yes even David’s ) as your elected representatives.

  10. To follow up on Chip’s comments, no one should doubt the dedication of Chip or any of the other commissioners to the task. In particular, Chip, in being willing to serve as chair, has devoted even more hours to the community than most of us, including me. Our debate, which will no doubt continue, is how we can best spend our time, not necessarily the need to spend more.

  11. Chris (and Michael), The question about meeting with non profit developers of course cannot be answered in the abstract My guess is if you were to fill in facts as to which your question is directed, my answer would probably be no, such non public meetings should not occur. However, that would not negate my analysis. Don

    • Thanks, Don. Of course it can be answered in the abstract. The question is very simple: are elected and volunteer committee members held to the same “public” standards as municipal employees who (I believe?) can’t have non-public and unannounced meetings with private parties.

      Your “analysis” is advocating either engagement that isn’t legal, or is not thought practical by the committee (and which you yourself says they don’t have time for).

      The point of this thread is to understand what the system is designed for, practically capable or, and legally bound to. Until there is a framework for that, any discussion is just opinion, which often leads to misunderstandings (from arm chair quarterbacking) and disservice to volunteers who have done all the work.

      I’m guessing much of this thread confuses or conflates what the role of the P&Z is. Perhaps the chair or the members could give a quick primer. Their page on the town site http://www.westportct.gov/index.aspx?page=57 is pretty vague and doesn’t mention “how” they actually do their work. I always thought the “hows” are a great place to get everyone on the same page and explain a lot more of “why” than 3rd parties’ opinions. – Chris Woods

  12. So what happens next with Barons South? The new text amendment was voted down and we still have the existing text amendment that would be worse for Westport. Does nothing happen since the finance board voted down the lease based on the existing text amendment? I believe that happened. Where are we now? Is there new compromise seeked or is the whole idea canned?

    The existing text amendment that was passed a few years back delivers a real issue for Westport. So will the town allow the senior home based on the existing text amendment to proceed?