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.
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.
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.
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.
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.