[OPINION] Bonnie Dubson: Putting The Town On Public Notice

Bonnie Dubson is a founder of the Coleytown Conservation Coalition. She’s concerned about 2 things: the way legal notices are posted, and the development of the former Daybreak Nursery property at the Main Street/Weston Road intersection.

Both issues are related. Bonnie explains:

The legal notice that piqued my interest was there – on page C13 – buried in the back of the real estate section, on a text-heavy black and white page.

I got lucky and found it, but only because all the stars aligned.

I do not subscribe to the local newspaper, and public notices such as the one I spotted announcing a public hearing on a proposed development in my neighborhood are not placed in online news outlets.

A legal notice about the proposed Daybreak development, in the Westport News.

Connecticut law requires public hearing notices be published in “a newspaper having a general circulation” in the municipality where the land that is the subject of the hearing is located. It specifies notification must be posted at least twice, and between 10-15 days prior to the hearing.

My notice, concerning the proposed “small home development” at the site of the former Daybreak Nursery appeared in the Westport News on November 3. The hearing is slated for tomorrow (November 16, 7 p.m. in Town Hall).

I considered myself notified. At least I thought I did. Then I tried to spread the word to friends and neighbors I thought might want to attend. “I don’t think so,” they said, pointing out that the notice was not posted online at the Town of Westport website.

So I went to the Town of Westport calendar to see for myself. The notice was conspicuously absent. I assured friends that yes, the matter of 500 Main Street was on the agenda for November 16, and that I had seen it in the Westport News. I even emailed them a digital clip of the legal notice.

But the seeds of doubt had been sowed by the absence of online information.

Several new homes are planned for the former Daybreak Nursery, at the corner of Main Street and Weston Road.

After phone calls and prodding on social media, the legal notice appeared on the Town of Westport website – yesterday afternoon. That was a full 11 days after it was published in the paper.

This is 2017. We live in a digital age. Failure to post legal notices online puts Westport residents at a disadvantage. How can we have an open public forum, and make sure residents’ concerns are heard, if the general public is not informed about upcoming hearings?

Furthermore, publishing a public notice in the newspaper but not following up online creates confusion. Like me, residents will ask themselves, “will there or won’t there be a hearing?”

Due process requires that government give proper notice to individuals before making any decision that would impede upon those individuals’ rights or property interests. The purpose of these notices is to alert those who may be affected by the proposed action and inform them of its nature so as to allow them the time and opportunity to prepare for and attend the public hearing.

The majority of Westporters get their news online and through social media. I believe the Town of Westport should recognize that, and ensure these vital notices are published simultaneously, both online and in print. Only that will ensure that the underlying purpose of public notice has been fulfilled.

The last of Daybreak Nursery was carted away in March.

48 responses to “[OPINION] Bonnie Dubson: Putting The Town On Public Notice

  1. These notices are available in your inbox, if you subscribe.

    • If you go to westportct.gov… click on Government tab… go down to Sign up for E-Notification… you can then choose which departments you want to get notices from… no squinting at the small ads in the back of the Westport News!

  2. Bonnie, it’s no fun feeling like you’re the last one – or the only one – to know about something that could impact your life, your property, or your neighborhood.

    I’ve been encouraging people who are concerned about this to consider signing up at the town web site to receive email notification of all the town meetings (including agendas) that may possibly concern them (e.g. Parks & Rec., Conservation, P&Z, ZBA, etc.). These days it seems like everything is coming at us at a million miles an hour. Sooner or later something (like Daybreak) is bound to hit you. Think of it as a free early(ish) warning system.

    As for Daybreak, you sure have my sympathy. It’s hard to see how that’s going to end well for anybody.

  3. If you were a developer planning to screw over a neighborhood by squeezing 12 families onto 2 acres — 3 TIMES the density allowed in the “A” (1/2 acre) zone (and in an area requiring septic, no less) — then you would bury the news about the zoning application, too!

    • You are quite misinformed. 1. The developer is not “screwing over” the nearby residents with a site plan proposal that is exceeding density allowed in the zone applicable to this site. 2. The developer “buried” nothing, these are the public notices that are required under state law, this is where they always appear in the local paper, in the area devoted to public notices.

      Furthermore, this is a wonderful development that delivers what the P&Z heard (from seniors) is sorely missing in Westport: brand new, two bedroom homes that don’t demand much in the way of groundskeeping. Or, the developer could have put up 3 McMansions there. And the complaints would have flowed about that.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Dan.

  5. This is so sad! I spent my early childhood on Cross Highway, just around the block from Daybreak. Ann Harding, who lived a couple of houses down on Cross Highway, babysat for me. Years later, while running the nursery, she re-landscaped our backyard. I have nothing against the Greenbergs (Able Construction); great old Westport family, too, and they have built some of the less ostentatious of the jumbo homes put up in recent years. But 12 families on 2 acres? They could just as well put a McDonalds there!

    • You don’t remember all of the trucks in and out of there.. and the Lawn Mower machine shop. The impact of these houses will be less than the nursery… even in its declining years.

  6. Thanks for sharing Dan. For what it’s worth all property owners within a 250-foot radius of 500 Main Street were given personal notice in the form of a letter to their official mailing address as listed on the Town’s Tax Assessor Records as required by the Zoning Regulations upon receipt of the application in Mid September 2017 as evidenced by the US Post Office using their Certifcate of Mailing process. Additionally a legal notice of the upcoming public hearing was published twice in the newspaper as required by the Connecticut General Statutes. I appreciate Ms. Dubson’s utilizing social media to get the word out. I am however obligated to work under the more conventional constraints written into the Connecticut General Statutes and Westport Zoning Regulations that require utilizing notices in printed newspapers as well as “snail mail— pursuant to the Westport Zoning Regulations. Our Town Clerk and other Clerks in surrounding municipalities have been lobbying our state legislators for years to “modernize” the legal notice requirements to replace notices in printed newspapers with other genres that might be more effective. Until that time comes, it is my hope that collectively utilizing old and new tools for communication all affected residents will be better informed.

    Thanks again,

    • Mary

      Just because the Connecticut statutes and Town Zoning Regulations require the use of print and snail mail for notices, my guess is that there is nothing which would prohibit an additional notice being given at the same time using modern digital media. All notices should be given both ways. This is especially important as many people do not subscribe to the Westport News.

      Peter Gold
      Member, RTM District 5

      • Chip Stephens SHS '73

        Read Mary’s comment
        “all property owners within a 250-foot radius of 500 Main Street were given personal notice in the form of a letter to their official mailing address as listed on the Town’s Tax Assessor Records as required by the Zoning Regulations upon receipt of the application in Mid September 2017 as evidenced by the US Post Office using their Certifcate of Mailing process.”

        • I never said anything to the contrary.

          • All I said was this is a bullshit development, and if I were the person behind it, I wouldn’t like the whole world to know about it either. I know you’re not allowed to say that, but I am.

        • Robert Harrington

          Notices of such meetings must be improved. The state may set minimum requirements but Westport can do better. the world and technology has changed. In the case of the North Avenue Water Tower public hearing – the main meeting / hearing in July was posted in the local newspaper. But unfortunately it was in the Norwalk Hour – not any publication based in Westport.

          Tough to not question the motive for that decision. That was not about informing the public.

          But I will praise Jim Marpe for not accepting this. He is now working with many parties to try and get a better deal for Westport versus Aquarion.

      • Christine Meiers Schatz

        Hi Mr. Gold, I’m one of your new RTM colleagues. If we want town employees to give notice through additional means, shouldn’t we do our job and change the town regulations to state as much? The tougher question to me is, if we did revise the ordinance, what should constitute notice through “modern digital media?” The same notice from the print version of the Westport news in the digital verson of the Westport news? An email? A post on social media? Adding a form of social media notice gets tough for purposes of the revising the ordinance because the most widely used form of social media will always be changing, and how would we post a notice through this medium so that the affected residents have the best chance of seeing it? I’m curious to hear what others would suggest.

        • Christine, the town already electronically notifies anyone who subscribes of every town meeting together with its associated agenda.

          • Christine Meiers Schatz

            I was responding to the idea that the town employees or anyone for that matter should provide MORE notice than what is required by our ordinances. If we want people to do that, we should change the ordinance to state exactly how to do it.

            I’m not sure the opt-in, emailed agendas could be enough. But maybe that paired with the snail mail? It is easy to say that we should modernize the notice provisions but I think the more difficult question is what new form of notice should be sufficient. That might be one reason why the state hasn’t changed the ordinances yet.

            • I understand what you’re saying about the MORE bit. It’s a reasonable question. I guess I’m coming at this from the premise that we’re not helpless children. If you stay in a place like Westport long enough you learn that if you’re not at the table, there’s a good chance you’re on the menu. To avoid the latter you just have to be vigilant. I personally feel that starts by choosing to receive electronic notices of all meetings and agendas for all land use bodies.

      • Thanks, Peter. That is exactly what I am asking for … parity.

        • Bonnie, I feel for you. A group of residents and I have been struggling with a similar situation. We have been working with the town to oppose Aquarion’s proposal to construct two large water tanks across from SHS (and I must emphasize this: We like clean water. We support a new tank. We do not oppose having a new tank. What we oppose are the scope and scale of the proposed new tanks.). Your experience with P&Z and ours are equally unsettling. The process seemed stacked against us since the beginning:

          (1) Lack of transparency & inadequate communication
          – The legal notice for the July public hearing was published in The Norwalk Hour instead of Westport papers.
          – Many of the affected neighbors (within the 250-ft radius of the water tank site) did not receive a personal notice in the form of a letter.

          (2) Utility/developer has the upper hand & P&Z did not take on necessary due diligence
          – P&Z sang Aquarion’s praises at one of the public hearings even before the neighbors got to voice their questions and opposition. It seemed like a “done deal” even before it started.
          – Aquarion went to the first public hearing late June armed with deep legal and technical expertise. We residents had 6 weeks to come up with a cogent argument. In September P&Z gave Aquarion the special permit without performing its own due diligence on other water storage strategies. We residents have been searching for alternative solutions to Aquarion’s proposed construction and actually had a fortuitous discovery this week of different building strategy that would significantly shorten construction time and reduce tank height. Why did our P&Z not take on this work? Why did it have to fall on the residents to figure this out?

          (3) Even town leadership was taken by surprise by P&Z’s actions
          – Even Mr. Marpe was not immune to a some of the material changes in P&Z’s approval of the special permit to Aquarion. On Nov 14, two months after P&Z approved the special permit, Mr. Marpe was surprised by one of the conditions that Aquarion imposed on the town: 2 days per week watering restriction on Westport. If even our town leader was not asked to be involved in the discussion of such a material change and was informed only by concerned residents and not by P&Z, what chances do the rest of us have with P&Z’s communication and public engagement?

  7. Hidden news, like yesterday’s mass shooting in California.

  8. Joan Kennedy Goldman

    This entire issue has gotten by without a significant amount of attention! But, the real emergency is HOW THAT INTERSECTION WILL B IMPACTED! This intersection is “an accident ready to happen”…. do we wait for a deadly crash to research and address,?VERY strange town, WESTPORT, and what & WHO gets to call the shots!!

  9. I lived next door to Daybreak Nursery since I was born. My family had a nursery next door. We were two nurseries together. There were many, many trucks going in and out all of the time. The fact that this land is changing from commercial to residential is a gift to every single Westporter. There will be many fewer cars than there were before. MANY fewer. There will be no lawn mower repair shop and no retail. There will be much less noise, no trucks going in and out and no parking lot. THIS IS A GIFT!! And the bow on the gift is Able Construction itself. That a premier builder is interested in my neighborhood and will be putting their signature on it is remarkable. I have always believed that this property, being so close to the entrance into Westport for people coming off of the parkway at exit 42, should be a showpiece. With an Able project, we now have the chance that it can be.

    In 1983 I purchased 7 Daybreak so I could raise my kids next to my parents and be near as they aged. The author of this piece does not understand the negative impact of the nurseries. By the time she and her family moved here, it was almost all over. Daybreak was in decline; a victim of the big box nurseries. The lawn mower shop was closed. The traffic had died down, and the noise was over. It must have seemed like quiet woods to the newer neighbors. If they knew what I know..they would be as thrilled as I am. I cannot believe they are not 100 percent behind this sensible concept. I’m stunned, actually.

    Trust me, people.. we don’t need commercial activity there anymore. Daybreak neighbors need a break. Residences is exactly what we need! The Daybreak neighborhood finally has the chance to be a real residential neighborhood WITHOUT the negative impact of the nurseries. Let’s get this done to put away the specter of commercial activity… or worse. Please come out in favor for Able Construction and their project at 500 Main Street. This is a golden opportunity.

    • Its not the change from commercial to residential that is the issue but rather the number of units being proposed

      • It’s going to be beautiful and have much less impact than the nursery had. I have had a lifetime to consider this. This is a dream scenario. I have been living in dread of what might go there. I wish it were replacing both nurseries. I trust Peter..his work has an amazing aesthetic.

        • Mary, I don’t think there’s much chance of anything going there besides housing. How could it be rezoned commercial? At the (relatively low) price the developers paid they could profit quite nicely building 4 conventional homes there…but not as much as they’d make squeezing in 12 condos, of course.

  10. 60% age restricted housing. Can we at least add that to the conversation? Will this help our seniors find housing more appropriate to what they need?

  11. Michael Calise

    This application has been in process for many months. Meeting agendas on the town website have referenced the many applications. Unfortunately it is critically important to keep abreast of these matters given the many text amendments that are placed before the P & Z for consideration. A number of commissioners have indicated a concern about traffic and this needs to be addressed. The text amendment was recently passed when a few regular members were not in attendance and sitting alternate members joined the Majority.

    • I lived the traffic there my entire life. These houses will generate FAR fewer than Daybreak did. My dad used to comment to me every day on how many cars they had and ask why didn’t we have that many cars? No matter how many ways I told him that people thought it was one nursery, he didn’t believe me. I used to have to count the cars! When I was really little I used to wave at them. 🙂

  12. I live a half block up from Elvira’s on 1/10 of an acre. And I’m a happy camper.

  13. Valerie Seiling Jacobs, Co-Chair Save Westport Now

    Over 18 months ago, Save Westport Now wrote to the P&Z Dept and expressed concern that residents were sometimes unaware of proposed text amendments, variances, and other zoning matters until it was too late to comment. As we stated at the time (and as others have recently noted), fewer and fewer residents subscribe to local newspapers. People now get their news, if at all, from private blogs like this.

    But the sheer number of text amendments, variances, and zoning applications is also a factor. Even the most diligent homeowner would find it difficult to keep track of everything. And even if a resident is aware of a proposed amendment or application, the public notice is often written in legalese, which makes it difficult to understand and virtually impossible to evaluate in terms of practical consequences. In any event, if you would like a copy of our letter and suggestions, please email us at contactsavewestportnow@gmail.com.
    Valerie Seiling Jacobs, Co-chair, Save Westport Now

    • Valerie-do we stop senior housing? Is that what you are proposing with this project?

      • Michael Calise

        A Senior can buy any residence in Westport

        • Michael. My question is what kind of senior housing is available that meets their needs better. During the election there was a lot of posturing about providing senior housing for our seniors so they do not have to leave Westport

          I am no expert but my mom lives is age appropriate housing with happens to be 2 homes attached with construction more targeted for her age. If this project has a minimum of 60%, are they building what I title as age appropriate? If so, what would be so bad about more homes on the property if it provides a benefit to our seniors?

          Is our town all talk or are we will willing to do something for our seniors?

  14. Maybe your lovely Library could help?

  15. The AARP calls anyone FIFTY and over a “senior.”
    What the hell is so special about achieving superannuation that we need “special” consideration for housing…or anything else. As Calise says, a “senior’ can buy any house he/she can afford.

  16. Valerie Seiling Jacobs, Co-Chair Save Westport Now

    My comment had nothing to do with the merits of senior housing. It had to do with the poor notice about zoning matters in general. When Equity One applied for its variance behind Trader Joe’s, for example, none of the neighbors we spoke to knew about the matter until it was too late, even though, by law, the applicant was required to mail notices. We have been asking the Town for a long time to do something about this problem. For example, applicants could be required to certify under oath that the notices were mailed, the font on the outside of the envelopes could be larger, the return address could indicate that the matter involved P&Z (as opposed to an obscure land-use consultant or company), and there could be a conspicuous warning that the contents are important. Of course, then there’s still the problem of legalese….

    • Valerie. Thanks for clarifying. Good points.

      I hope to open this discussion to senior housing and how Westport finally moves forward with less talk and more action.

      Again. Thanks for clarifying.

  17. In this age of failing newspapers and anti-social media, getting the word out is a real challenge. Actual notice to interested parties within 250’ of a proposed development, coupled with notice in a newspaper that’s only read by the canary whose cage it lines is apparently not enough. So, what to do?
    We could increase the 250’ notice perimiter to 500’ or -and this I think is the obvious answer – we could revive the institution of the town crier, bell, costume and all. That just might get the attention of those who need to know.

    • Michael Calise

      Perfect Larry,
      I can see you in a long coat and a three pointed hat swinging a bell and shouting to the hilltop the P & Z notices. Too bad you didn’t think of this when you were a constant presence before the P & Z. It would have made a few lively nights. Not that you weren’t entertaining anyway!

  18. Did any of you see the 06880 article on October 12 titled ” Weaving Through Westport’s Worst Intersection”?
    That article is referring to the four-way stop sign by Daybreak Nursery.
    The plans for 500 Main Street have vehicles entering on Main Street and exiting on Weston Road. Are you kidding me? Trying to make a left on Weston Road with traffic backed up to Cross Highway going towards the Merritt and constant traffic coming the other way from the Merritt will create a traffic nightmare…even worse than it already is!!!
    Also, Morley said that you can sign up for notifications about town meetings. That is true. But this was not on the agenda until the eleventh hour.
    I called P&Z on Tuesday to ask if they knew when 500 Main Street would be coming up on the agenda since it wasn’t on for this month and was told that it would be at this meeting. An agenda item can be included 24 hours prior to the meeting. I was told on Tuesday, that a traffic study being conducted for this project won’t even be completed in time for the meeting.
    Something about the way this project is trying to get approval doesn’t sound

  19. Now that I’ve got that rather lame joke out of my system, I’d like to make a more serious suggestion.
    Why not require that a sign be posted on the subject property saying that it is the subject of a zoning application to be heard on such and such a date, as we do for foreclosure sales and liquor license applications?

  20. I agree with Judy and Larry! That intersection is a disaster, and I’ve never met a Westporter with views to the contrary. I believe that one of the roads is a state road over which we have no control, however, we can engage our state representatives in the matter.
    Also, I love the idea of posting a physical sign on the property as Larry suggested.

  21. Kristin Schneeman

    I couldn’t agree more with Bonnie Dubson about the need for more effective public hearing notification. Newspapers are unfortunately a thing of the past – and whatever you thought about having the Minuteman at the end of your driveway, now we don’t even have that. Time to enforce the spirit, not just the letter of the law! I can’t imagine there’s a prohibition against using more up-to-date methods of providing more effective notification of the public. That would include using plain English so average folks can understand what they’re being notified of.

  22. Pat, that portion of Weston Road is not a state road.

  23. Luisa Francoeur

    The intersection there has always been a nightmare and this, to me, is the key change that needs to be made. Someone recently proposed several options to improve it. It seems to me that a roundabout could be the simplest solution as it would incorporate all the converging roads.

  24. Where (and when) I was growing up on Belvedere island (in California)any proposed change in land or land use had to be printed on a sign and posted on that land.