[OPINION] Larry Weisman: Westport Needs Form Based Zoning

Larry Weisman, his wife (author/journalist Mary-Lou) and their children moved to Westport in 1966. A partner in the Bridgeport law firm of Cohen & Wolf, he’d just finished a stint with the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, defending SNCC workers in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In 1969, Weisman and Manny Margolis won a First Amendment case in the US Supreme Court. They represented Westporter Timothy Breen, a Staples High School graduate who had lost his student deferment after protesting the Vietnam War.

Larry Weisman

In 1979 Weisman moved his practice to Westport, concentrating on zoning law. He has represented the Gorham Island developer, the Gault Saugatuck project, the Westport Library, Aspetuck Town Trust, Compo Beach playground effort, and many other significant projects. 

He is a member of the Coalition for Westport. Most recently, he co-chaired the board of Fairfield County Hospice House, which recently opened a county-wide facility.

Weisman has watched with interest — and alarm — as Westport has grappled with a host of zoning issues. In his mind, the entire foundation of our zoning regulations is wrong. Here’s his solution.

Form Based Codes (FBCs) are an innovative way to manage growth and shape development in a way that reflects a specific idea of what a town should look like. They are intended to promote a mix of uses tailored to the needs and desires of a community.

FBCs are not intended to change existing residential neighborhoods, but to bring new life to business and commercial areas and town centers.

Rather than simply regulating development and density as we do now, Form Based Codes concentrate on relationships between public and private spaces, and the way streets and buildings interact in form and scale to create attractive neighborhoods.

Form Based Zoning is more concerned with the appearance of buildings and their relationship to public spaces and surrounding streets than with the uses of those buildings. The intent of this approach is to improve the appearance of buildings and streetscapes, and avoid the unintended consequences of haphazard development by providing a coherent vision which takes variety and appearance into account.

Many Main Street stores share a common setback.

For example: I can imagine Main Street populated by a mixture of apartments and smaller stores serving residents’ needs, with varying setbacks along both sides of the street to create a more interesting streetscape. I would add cafes and a movie theater to create activity in the evenings and contribute to a sense of community. I imagine the westerly side of Parking Harding Plaza as a park with a playground and other amenities.

Your notion of what Main Street should be may differ from mine. But somewhere from the welter of ideas a consensus will emerge, and an FBC would facilitate its translation into reality.

FBCs have been used to good effect in Manchester, Connecticut, to revitalize an outmoded highway commercial center in the Broad Street area, and on Cape Cod’s Buzzards Bay and Eastham, to create village centers after being bypassed or divided by new highway construction.

An FBC requires a comprehensive plan for the area in question. It lays out streets and public spaces, and suggests a variety of building forms and how they relate to those spaces, promoting a mix of uses and emphasizing the over-all appearance and “character” of the area.

Although we talk endlessly about the “character” of Westport, it is abundantly clear that there is no agreement as to what that “character” is.

For those of us who have lived here for many years it may mean a longing for the past, while for newer arrivals it may mean what Westport looked like when they got here. But most of us recognize “character” when we see it, and we value it in places like Provincetown, Nantucket, the fishing villages of Maine, and the islands of the Caribbean where we vacation. “Character” is more a matter of appearance than anything else.

A summer evening in Provincetown.

But no matter how you define “character,” most of us would agree that our current way of doing things — by strict application and enforcement of an ever-expanding set of restrictive regulations — has produced some undesirable and unattractive results that adversely affect our quality of life.

An FBC requires that we reach consensus as to what we mean by the “character” of Westport, so we can create a comprehensive plan which designates different building forms based on that consensus about the desired appearance and physical character of each part of town. This requires a series of public meetings and surveys with widespread citizen participation. It’s a heavy lift to be sure, but I am confident that done properly, a widely held vision for the future will emerge from the welter of ideas on the subject.

The next step is to work toward the desired result by enacting regulations which are not based on uses or density considerations alone, and which do not value uniformity, but emphasize design considerations, massing of structures, and how they relate to and interact with surrounding streets and public spaces.

For example, in an FBC frontage requirements on the same street might differ for buildings devoted to similar uses to add interest and variety and to avoid the monotony of a wall of boutiques, as on Main Street at present.

There are any number of things that we could do to make the streetscape and the pedestrian experience more interesting, attractive, and interactive, but first we need to discard old notions of zoning by division into districts and strictly regulating use and density, and understand that zoning regulations should be used not only to impose limitations and restrictions, but as effective planning tools with built-in design parameters.

The plaza between Saugatuck Sweets and The Whelk is an excellent example of an innovative use of space.

We need to acknowledge that there is real value in encouraging creativity by relaxing restrictions and providing guidelines and incentives to build in accordance with the community’s vision of what a given area should look like and how it should function.

Westport has suffered too long from lack of planning and lack of a coherent vision for areas such as Main Street and Saugatuck Center. The P&Z, overburdened as it is by new applications and enforcement responsibilities, has demonstrated a disinclination to engage in meaningful long-term planning, as witness the wholly unimaginative and inadequate 2018 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), as well as the costly studies gathering dust on shelves in the Town Hall.

At the same time, our zoning regulations are sorely in need of comprehensive revision. They are a mix of restrictions on development — some necessary and some, such as parking requirements for medical uses, excessive — and ad hoc reactions to individual cases that have only limited application. They can be difficult to understand and are susceptible to differing interpretations, which leads to inconsistent application. It is my hope that we will one day undertake revision of the zoning regulations, and that when we do, that we give serious consideration to the merits of an FBC.

This is the right time to rethink our priorities, to reform our practices, and to create a coherent vision for our most important neighborhoods, preserving what is worth preserving, planning for orderly, attractive and livable growth and instilling “character” into our most visible and important neighborhoods. A Form Based approach will go a long way toward achieving those goals.

43 responses to “[OPINION] Larry Weisman: Westport Needs Form Based Zoning

  1. G. Kenneth Bernhard

    Thank you, Larry, for your comprehensive explanation of Form Based Codes and for pointing out that they have been missing from our long range planning process. I hope the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Administration will take note and encourage the adoption of a similar approach.for future development in our community. Ken Bernhard, Vice Chair of the Coalition for Westport..

  2. Sally McDermott

    Yes! How can we as residents help to make this happen? Results would be wonderful.

  3. It is not clear what “problem” you are addressing here. It seems this is addressing a lack of retail “creativity”?

    As you describe, however, the real is clearly a decades-long lack of long range planning and vision, which codes and zones are only a symptom, not a cause. – Chris Woods

  4. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    I’m as nostalgic as the next guy. I wish that beyond traditional nostalgia, which usually looks backwards, there was a nostalgic emotion that looks forwards. I’m glad Westport is seeking to create its future and hope I’ll be around long enough to see what it looks like.

  5. Yes! Yes! Yes! How do we residents make this a reality??? Seems like a no-brainer.

  6. Implementing a comprehensive plan for our Main Street, Saugatuck and residential community requires monumental change. Mr. Weisman has proposed a great plan, but my concern is the cost of doing so. It seems that cafes and local shops have already been unable to pay Main street rent. How can we bring back local flavor? Please let’s try!

  7. Gerald F. Romano, Jr.

    You have spoken believable truths and realistic ideas that can be integrated or at least discussed with the Westport Planning & Zoning Commission. You are one of many Icons in Westport, CT.
    Thank you,
    Gerald F. Romano, Jr.

  8. Roe Colletti

    Larry..Bravo! If This visual concept were adopted it could remove
    fear of new development and put some Soul back into our aging town style. Hopefully,revitalizing our community.

  9. Chip Stephens SHS '73

    This Coalition political description of how town planning “should” be achieved is the opinion of Atty Weisman and the Westport Coalition and should be read with an asterisk that states this has been an unpaid political advertisement. Larry has been involved in real estate law and has many times been before the Planning and Zoning commission, so he knows the landscape, but I suggest he does not properly represent the view of the average Westport resident in his view of development.
    I question the coalition’s constant claims that decisions are made without town peoples input or wishes. Dozens of studies, meetings, charettes have occurred here where hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to gather, digest and document public thoughts and opinions where issues have been public as development in Saugatuck, disaster recovery regs, historic preservation, movie theaters in town, and yes affordable housing. Charette and public forum overload burn out has diluted the interest of many and often these meetings are sparsely attended. When that happens, the coalition bemoans that not enough public input has occurred. Guess what? You cannot force residents to attend like jury duty. But the effort is made through public notice, neighbor mailings, blog and media and pleadings of commissioners to their friends and on tv hearings.
    Anyone involved with, or who watches Thursday night P and Z meetings on TV, land use decisions and planning exercises knows that each involves many hours of consideration by members of the commission in scheduled meetings (up to 20 hours an month) and countless hours reviewing proposals in reams of preparation materials. Add to that time in sub committee meetings that range from density issues, FEMA regulations, density issues, affordable and alternate housing and regulation change. All are public notified, public invited and most times public input is invited, urged and listened to.
    Forum based regulations have been discussed in various proposals with suggestions of not limiting parking, improving traffic or how the increased density will affect local schools, services and taxes. A recent example is the Saugatuck Transit Oriented District (TOD), with many months of discussion, forums, charettes and press. What resulted were some valuable views, but not solutions, on traffic and congestion, the wish to keep the character of traditional Saugatuck, and dissuade over-densification of commercial and housing. These are repeated views over the years by residents wanting to keep the character and function of the town that they spent so much to find, to relocate and to enjoy. At the ending of the TOD a report was published by the consultants with Form based suggestions of multiple parking garages, increased densification of housing and business and little attention to the parking and local traffic issues that already exist.
    Westport needs planning and zoning that meets the wishes of the residents, meets the needs of future changes, the demands of state and federal intervention in our affairs and sane development and preservation. The commission of 7 and 3 alternates, of both parties, of varying age, of differing opinion and most importantly, the common dedication to serve Westport to the best of their outstanding abilities and limited powers over hundreds of hours as volunteers. I point out that the photos in this article illustrate regulations that the commission has passed and enacted in recent years such as the shot of the musicians on the Saugatuck (Jack Whittles Riverview regulation).
    To the Coalition and Atty Weisman: Your opinions are always welcome, your suggestions are always given fair hearing, but your ideas may not be universal in the eyes of most Westporters

    • Larry Weisman

      I would not for a moment question Chip’s sincerity or dedication which has been demonstrated by many years of (uncompensated) service on the P&Z. What I do question is his misplaced certainty that he knows what’s best for Westport and that his opinions reflect the wishes of the community as a whole. I would guess – and it’s only a guess, because despite what Chip says, there is no data on the opinions of the community as a whole – that some of the decisions in which he has participated (eg: Baron’s South, the downtown theater text amendment, and the 2018 POCD), do not reflect the wishes of a plurality. Chip has consistently favored preserving the status quo over creative and comprehensive planning for orderly development, and that’s where we part company.

  10. Myles Seideman

    Bravo Larry for your creative and innovative comments. My wife and I have lived in Weston and now Westport since 1967. I believe the implementation of your ideas would greatly improve the quality of life in Westport and hope they are considered and acted upon by the appropriate
    town officials.

  11. Tom Feeley Sr

    In Germany, when you build a new house the local burgermeister comes out and tells you “green.” You then paint three swatches of green…light-medium and dark green on your house and he returns and tells you which color it will be. Circa 1964

  12. John F. Suggs

    Yeah Dan, I have to agree with Chip Stephens on this one. This piece has the distinctive smell of a political ad for the Coalition for Westport. Replete with Ken Bernhard’s over eager “first out of the chute” posted comment as Vice Chair of the Coalition for Westport. I guess he was just “lucky” to be up early this morning and ready to post? Even though it is still only March 19th I guess we can mark this piece as the official “kick off” to the November Local Elections for the P&Z Commission. Well, sigh!, it is what it is… So, I guess…Let the campaigning begin!

    • Bart Shuldman

      John—so right. One big political ad. And please include the cost for more studies that will never be used but paid for by a Westport property owners.

      Better focus on the millions of dollars of costs about to be added to the Westport budget to pay for the teachers pension plan before spending more on work and studies that will never be used. Governor Lamont will be approving this change so the cost will be passed on to towns and cities in CT,

      Just remember Ken was in the state legislature that made decisions that led to the current fiscal crisis in CT. He seems to have no problem spending your money.

      Bart Shuldman

  13. Michael Nayor

    Thanks Larry. Informative and helpful. If only those who cry “political’ would hunker down and stop being political, a lot more could be accomplished on behalf of the Town.

  14. Michael Calise

    What is not being cited is the fact that the P & Z has undertaken an approach to form based zoning in the form of the Village Overlay District (VDO) which is in a section 36 of our zoning regulation’s. Its very easy to criticize for ones own purposes but that criticism should come with objective acknowledgment of the progress that been made

  15. Larry Weisman

    I don’t know Mr. Suggs but I hope he is right that my opinion piece will be the opening salvo in the 2020 election season. It’s important that we vote for P&Z commissioners who welcome new ideas and who emphasize planning over enforcement and preservation of the status quo. If what I have written leads to a discussion of opposing points of view and influences the election, I will be most gratified.

  16. Jennifer Johnson

    It’s easy to speak in negative “#hatchtag” soundbites like some people like to do. But it’s better for our entire community if we stick to debating the issues rather than deflect the dialogue with conspiracy theories around ‘political intent’. Mr. Weisman has taken the time to write about an important P&Z topic and has outlined ideas that are worthy of further discussion and debate. I appreciate that Dan shared this on 06880 for everyones benefit.

    • John F. Suggs

      Excuse me Ms. Johnson, but weren’t you the Coalition for Westport’s last nominee for P&Z Commission? And this piece isn’t at all political? Hmmm. Well, between you, Ken and Larry I think we have now heard from just about the entire active membership of the Coalition for Westport on this subject today. So…thanks?

      • Add Mike Nayor to your list.

      • Jennifer Johnson

        Yes John, I am a Democrat who is a member of the Coalition for Westport who will vote for a local Republican and who works with Save Westport Now on matters of shared interest. On local matters, I think many residents care more Westport’s future and less about political conspiracy theories. Mr Weisman has taken the time to explain FBC and share ideas for how Westport could benefit. I think it’s more productive to keep this dialogue to opinions about FBC and whether you think Mr. Weisman’s article has merit. I do.

  17. Larry Weisman

    With all respect to Mr. Calise, who knows as much or more than I about Westport zoning, the Village Overlay District is a “floating” zone and as such is hardly an example of Form Based Zoning. In practice, the VOD is just one more constraint on development.

  18. Larry, I’m curious about several points in one paragraph above in particular re what you see as the potential benefits of an FBC.

    “For example: I can imagine Main Street populated by a mixture of apartments and smaller stores serving residents’ needs, with varying setbacks along both sides of the street to create a more interesting streetscape. I would add cafes and a movie theater to create activity in the evenings and contribute to a sense of community.”

    I would love to see more apartments downtown—including affordable housing—but isn’t there already residential housing downtown and couldn’t more be added under existing zoning? What is it about an FBC that would facilitate this?

    Similarly, it would be nice to see additional smaller stores there serving residents’ needs, but how do you envision an FBC helping make this happen other than possibly an imposition of some kind of commercial rent restrictions?

    Re the streetscape: I guess due to having been built long before zoning as well as the topography of that end of Main Street, the area where Tavern on Main and the old Jewels by Jason building stand side by side have a quirky setback and look. Similarly, the site where the old Remarkable Bookshop stands has its own distinctive setback where, as you probably remember, there were outdoor stalls with books. I think a lot of people appreciate both of those settings. But how would an FBC help create something like that in the existing streetscape in the section of downtown going towards the old Y?

    Finally, how would an FBC help allow for the creation of a new movie theater downtown? I thought the Westport Cinema Initiative has found a location and it was more a question of raising the funds to build a new cinema.

    I’m not against this concept; I’m just trying to get a better handle on how it would work in contrast to existing zoning. Thanks.

    • Larry weisman

      All good questions Fred. Without going into a lengthy explanation on this site, I will just say that there is a difference between “permitting” a particular use (such as residences downtown) and using the zoning regulations as a tool to “encourage” targeted development. Zoning regulations can do more than segregate uses and control density. Properly drafted and applied in accordance with a comprehensive plan, regulations can become a means of facilitating orderly and imaginative development rather than a set of restrictions to be enforced, which is what we have in Westport at present.
      I am less interested in flogging a particular approach than I am in getting thoughtful people such as yourself to think about what the town should look like in years to come and how to realize that vision. If my opinion piece stimulates that discussion, it will have served its purpose.

      • I doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see the extent that Westport has been unable to evolve its downtown into any place worth visiting without bringing your gold card. The river fronts have all been squandered with office buildings and a seldom used nature walk. Nothing to draw in residents or attract new residents. Rowayton did the same thing. Dread of traffic and undesirables has left the town on life support. Faifield, yes Fairfield has become the most vibrant “Gold Coast” town along with Greenwich and Stamford is making an effort.
        Planning is not as hard as one thinks. Find a sister city with the character and success we need and a good user friendly space planner. Otherwise we will just bleed into a Darien, which, sadly, some will say is just fine.

  19. The irony of Mr. Weismans opinion piece is that in about 2008 the P&Z hired a cpnsultant to educate the commission about FBC. The P&Z said no. Those P&Z members are now the Coalition .This essay was 100 % politically motivated with the majority of commentors being Members of Coalition.

  20. Mike Garrity

    Young child to his mom, “Space Available must be a good store, it’s everywhere.”

  21. The double talk about “character” is priceless. Read it quickly enough and you might be forgiven for thinking these Coalition for Density guys are preservationists.

    • Larry Weisman

      How perceptive of you Morley,

      • I trust you understand it’s nothing personal, Larry.
        It’s just that I’ve been paying close attention. And you guys always do some version of this old soft shoe routine. Maybe that’s what you were advised to do but, in my view, it makes it appear as if you’re afraid to tell voters what you really believe. I say you run that pro-development flag up the mast and see what happens.

    • Bart Shuldman

      Morley. Character is gone. That happened with 8-30g. Be real everyone. Some asked and some got it.

      Must make them feel good to speak about character though. They almost sound serious.

      Bart Shuldman

  22. Larry Weisman

    Readers: Ask yourselves why the P&Z (Chip and Cathy) and the preservationists (Mr. Suggs and Morley Boyd) are unwilling to evaluate new ideas on their merits but are inclined to see everything in political terms.
    While it is true that to serve on the P&Z requires an election, not every criticism or suggestion is politically motivated.

    How we plan for the future, what we want our community to look like, and how we propose to make that happen are not in themselves political questions, although they may require political solutions. The fact that they are seen as such by those who have been elected to manage the process and the well-intentioned zealots who can only see things in black or white terms, speaks volumes about why there is institutionalized resistance to progressive ideas.

    When I first came to Westport in 1966, the P&Z commissioners were appointed, not elected, which took politics and party labels out of the mix and encouraged a healthy blend of expertise on the Commission. As matters now stand, voting for the P&Z is a lot like voting for judges in NY.; most of us don’t know enough about out the candidates to make an informed choice, so we vote strictly along party or doctrinal lines.

    My op-ed was not the product of political considerations. (In fact, Dan asked me to contribute something on this subject; I did not approach him.)
    I have been thinking about these issues for a very long time, and while I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, I think I do have the right to have my ideas evaluated on their merits and not to have my motives questioned. I am not surprised but I am discouraged to find that is not the case.

    • Now you’re a victim and everyone else is a zealot. Right.
      Just stand up for what you believe and don’t mask it with words
      whose plain meaning suggests something completely different.

    • Just to clarify, Larry sent me some thoughts on FBC. I asked him to expand them (and then edit them down) into an “06880” opinion piece. I did not approach him first; he initiated the conversation.

      • John F. Suggs

        Thank you very much Dan for clarifying the fact that it was Larry who sought you out on this piece and not the other way around as he wrongly stated.

        So, Larry, you can’t even be straight about the origin of this political piece let alone be upfront about your desired development goals. How pathetic.

        This whole experience – right down to you denying whose idea it was in the first place, reeks of sleazy politics. You and the other members of the Coalition actively support Development in our town at the expense of preserving our town.

        Witness the Coalitions unceasing efforts to “widen” the historic Cribari Bridge despite being repeatedly told by DOT that if they were to “widen” it they will also bring it up to code and increase the height to allow for any and all 18 wheelers seeking to avoid the 95.

        But you don’t openly and honestly lay out your case for more development. Rather, you hide your agenda behind vague terms while you openly mock and dismiss preservationists as those who seek “preserving the status quo” – not “preserving the historical” but the “status quo”. That is rich.

        And the Coalition further seeks to obfuscate its clear and ongoing pro-development political agenda by mocking as “conspiracy theorists” those of us who have been around long enough to know the Coalition’s record. Of course, that tactic is a time honored form of gaslighting and misdirection to label those who disagree with you as “conspiracy theroists”. And it, unfortunately, all too often works. Just look at creators of the tactic. The CIA’s 50 plus years of unrelenting use of that term to describe and delegitimize anyone who dare questions the findings of the Warren Commission Report. So please Larry just be upfront about what it is that you want to achieve and stop gaslighting your neighbors who don’t want to see our town overdeveloped or our beloved Cribari Bridge destroyed.

        Good day, sir.

        • Larry is correct. I thought I heard about Form Based Zoning from him in an email; apparently it was because of a comment he made on “06880.” I asked for more info, and then asked him to expand it into an opinion piece.

  23. Werner Liepolt

    My experience with the pro-density, idealogically founded Form Based Zoning as filtered through Coalition for Westport documents and spokespeople has included a push for CTDOT to change out the National Landmark Cribari Bridge for a ginormous Brutalist replacement and an offering up of residential properties to provide bike lanes and sidewalks to nowhere.

  24. Larry Weisman

    I don’t know Mr. Suggs but he sure seems to be a nasty man.

    For reasons which I don’t pretend to understand, Dan is not telling the whole truth.
    Here’s what happened: I posted a comment in response to an earlier story which included a passing reference to Form Based Zoning. Dan then wrote to me to ask whether I would do an opinion piece on that subject (I have his emails). Never did I reach out to him or suggest that he run the opinion piece that I wrote. No one on the Coalition saw that piece before it ran and I had no idea when ai wrote it how it would be received by them.

    • That is correct. I heard about Form Based Zoning from Larry, and asked for more info. I thought it was in an email from him; apparently it was because of a comment he made on “06880.”

      • John F Suggs

        Thanks for clarifying, Dan. Based on that, I must retract my previous comment regarding Mr. Weisman’s post. My apologies, Mr. Weisman.