P & Z Chair: Here’s Why We Zoom

An “06880” reader wondered why — now that the pandemic has eased — the Planning & Zoning Commission still conducts Zoom meetings.

I asked P&Z chair Danielle Dobin to respond. She says: 

The P&Z Commission votes every few months to determine whether we will continue with virtual (Zoom) meetings, or return to in-person meetings at Town Hall.

Here’s my take on why a majority of commissioners have opted to continue meeting via Zoom:

1. Electronic meetings are simply superior with regard to P&Z review (and the Zoning Board of Appeals too), which requires applicants and staff to discuss and review in great detail specific site plans, construction drawings and landscape plans.

Via zoom, we (the Commission and the public) are all on the same page, looking at the same plans and seeing the same drawings via screen share as a project’s specifications are reviewed in detail.

Members of the public examine plans, before a meeting. 

In contrast, at Town Hall commissioners would peer across the room at poster boards (often not a complete set of plans) set up on an easel facing our table near the podium (making these images impossible for members of the public to see), or referencing printed-out, thick packets of which the public did not have physical copies.

Members of the public watching via TV from home could barely make out materials as they faced away from the camera, so they could listen along but could not follow.

Former Planning & Zoning commissioners Chip Stephens and Cathy Walsh, at a Town Hall meeting several years ago.

Details of final plans are often tweaked right before meetings, so applicants would also distribute new packets at the hearing to commissioners, and this new information wouldn’t necessarily be posted to the town website.

Consequently, members of the public would have no opportunity to review or see changes in the plans themselves. In my opinion, there simply wasn’t the same level of collaborative review of plans by the public and the commission when the P&Z met at Town Hall.

2. Zoom meetings have exponentially expanded public participation and engagement. Prior to the pandemic, we generally had 2-3 senior citizens attend regular P&Z public hearings.

Now, people of all ages and walks of life regularly join the Commission: moms with young children at home, people traveling for work, people commuting, etc. It’s been a wonderful change!

It’s impossible to predict when an item will be called and when the public will be asked for input. While many people can’t make the trip to Town Hall in the evening, or if they do, won’t wait around for 1 to 2 to 3+ hours to testify in person in the auditorium, they are able to Zoom in with their screens on or off, and jump in with a comment when their item is called.

Zoom meetings allow members of the public to be home to have dinner, tuck their kids in, help with homework, stay late at work, travel for work etc., and to also testify.

Zoom meeting.

3. P&Z meetings often last past 11 p.m. Zooming in from home makes a huge difference for the staff (who face a long commute home from Westport) and for the commissioners, all of whom work and are up early to commute, drive kids to school or travel for work. This also means we can participate in meetings while traveling for work, or even from the office.

4. An unexpected benefit of Zoom is that commissioners can look directly at each other’s faces and at those testifying. and vice versa.

At Town Hall, commissioners sit side by side. We have to crane our necks to see or make eye contact with each other and with anyone testifying. Those testifying look at us from an angle. If we arrange a table to look at each other in the auditorium, then some of our backs would be turned to the in-person audience and there would be no way for applicants to present plans so that we could see them along with the audience.

If we move the podium to the center gap in seats so folks will be looking @ the commission, the faces of those testifying will not be visible to the TV audience or on the recording. On Zoom, we all (public, commission and applicants) sit around the same virtual table looking at each other…for better or worse!

5. Lastly, when meetings were in person it was tough to stay after 11 p.m., as staff and the janitors would have to all stay with us.

On Zoom this isn’t an issue — the janitor doesn’t have to stay till midnight for us to continue meeting.

Danielle Dobin

For members of the public who have waited to testify or present their application through 4 hours of previous testimony, it is a boon to still be able to speak post-11 p.m.

Unless we’re falling asleep, we no longer follow the policy of only opening an application before 10 p.m. unless an applicant or the public asks us to postpone.

I hope your readers will join us via Zoom on Monday for our next public hearing. As is often the case, we have some interesting applications scheduled for that night.

(The next Planning & Zoning Commission meeting is tonight. Click here for the Zoom link.)

(Have a question about Westport? “06880” is happy to try to get an answer. Have a few bucks to support us? Please click here. Thank you!)

12 responses to “P & Z Chair: Here’s Why We Zoom

  1. Hmmm, that’s a pretty long answer. I think if I were asked to edit it for brevity maybe I would come back with this ten word response: Dear public, we like it this way. So drop dead.

  2. Well explained and frankly makes alot of sense.

  3. India van voorhees

    Excellent explanation – makes perfect sense.

  4. Caroline Sorstein

    Is the huge Colombi sign on post road going to be removed at some point? It definitely calls attention to the new business and is huge. Thank you

  5. E. William Buchroeder, Esq. Harvard Law Class of ‘26

    Look, they are the P&Z. They plan and they zone. There is nothing in their name that says they have to do it competently. You can leave. Stop whining. There’s a drag Queen show coming up at the Levitt. Take your grandkids and expose them to some of the culture Westport has to offer.

  6. Chip Stephens SHS 73

    As you added my mug to the article you know I had to weigh in.
    I would argue that the great majority of meetings do not go past 11 pm and if they do there is a cutoff time that the commission has to agree to extend, maybe they should not.
    Crane your neck to see a person at the same table, really?
    Can not see all the documents and plans? Unless things have changed commissioners always can ask for hard copy.
    I believe it is critical to offer an applicant and participant an opportunity to be faced to face and not screen to screen.
    I believe that live actions and work should not be at the will of the person controlling the feed and sound, who knows when they are MUTED or avoided in testimony and public hearing.
    Almost every board and commission, in Westport, in every state and in the Federal level goes live or at least hybrid.
    Does anyone remember reading 1984?
    Cheers from Readfield Maine miss you all live and in person!

    • Thanks for putting a fork in the fiddle faddle, Chipster. Sure miss you! To your point, many think this is mostly about laziness. If only. It’s largely about control.

  7. As an RTM member I would love to see the P&Z meetings moved back to Thursdays, as they usually conflict with Board of Education Meetings.

    With all the development, text amendments, 8-30g’s, and various other land use issues, many members of the RTM are unable to attend due to this conflict with BOE meetings.

    The BOE is not exactly quiet either. We continue to have in play a new or refurbished Long Lots Elementary, Redistricting, security and safety.

    In cases like Hamlet and Hiawatha Developments, residents can petition the RTM to overturn. We can change or modify any P&Z decision. We can either vote to holdup approval or deny.

    For example last week’s cancelled P&Z meeting is being rescheduled for tonight. It is important, as again another “text amendment” is in play. Unfortunately, I have a conflict with an RTM Committee Meeting also of great importance.

    I totally understand technology issues. What is I don’t understand, and hopefully will be changed is the scheduling conflict of P&Z Meetings with BOE Meetings on Monday Evenings.

    Madam Chair can you please consider moving P&Z back to Thursday in September. I think this would benefit members of the Full RTM and members of the public, Zoom or No Zoom.


    Jimmy Izzo
    RTM 3

  8. Oops RTM Cannot change or modify P&Z decision! Yes or NO on a petition to RTM

  9. Todd T' Tracy

    Obviously …. it should be in person and on zoom, jeez

  10. Edward Bonham

    Agreed, Morley. A long answer for pretty much saying my way or the highway. The public should have the right to in person meeting. There is a large projection screen, and frankly, it is far more efficient in person.

    And on Mondays!?!?! My daughter, but more importantly, two people cannot be in the same place at once. I am disappointed in this board and their, lack of leadership to understand the publics needs.

  11. Carolanne Curry

    A great many words…of little value. The intent is to deny in-person P&Z meetings at Town Hall
    Obviously there is an agenda…and it does not serve any intent for an open and accountable government process.

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