Tag Archives: Danielle Dobin

Why Is Westport So White? The Discussion Begins.

The title was provocative: “Why is Westport So White? What Can You Do About It?”

The speakers were heartfelt. Their list of examples was long, at a meeting last night that covered topics like long-ago real estate practices, current zoning regulations, and the roles of schools and police.

The event — organized by a group of residents ranging from long-timers to newcomers, as well as TEAM Westport — drew a crowd of about 75 (outdoors and socially distanced) to MoCA Westport. Another 25 or so joined via Zoom.

Black residents spoke of their experiences as a very small minority, in a very white town. In one compelling example, Ifeseyi Gale was confronted by a suspicious family when she pulled into a driveway to pick up an item.

Ifeseyi Gale addresses the crowd at MoCA.

2020 Staples High School graduate Natasha Johnson — now a Wharton student — sent a recorded message that recounted many painful experiences, starting in elementary schools.

Many speakers described their love for the town. For example, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey noted Police Chief Foti Koskinas’ grace and calm, and applauded new Superintendent of Schools Tom Scarice’s openness to hearing about what can be done differently and better, in terms of diversity and inclusion.

But they did not shy away from demanding that the town do a better job in race relations.

A white student described a survey, in which recent Staples grads were asked about their preparation for living in a diverse society. Many noted that they had been led to believe the world is color-blind — but it is not.

TEAM Westport sponsors an annual high school essay contest. Past prompts have included micro-aggressions, and taking a knee protests. TEAM Westport has spent has spent nearly 2 years working with the school system on a framework including training, hiring, curriculum and staffing that would address diversity and inclusion. Winners of the 2019 TEAM Westport essay contest are (from left) chair Harold Bailey, and Chet Ellis, Angela Ji, Daniel Boccardo and Olivia Sarno.

Planning and Zoning Commission chair Danielle Dobin discussed how the lack of diverse housing impacts who lives here. She urged elimination of Westport’s cap on multifamily housing — which limits the total number of those units to 10% of total town dwellings, many of which are age-restricted and do not allow families — along with removing a restriction on “accessory dwelling units” with full bathrooms and kitchens. Permitting property owners to rent guest cottages, or create separate private living space, would expand housing stock and increase affordability and diversity.

Over the past few months, the entire country has talked openly about race. Organizers expressed hope that last night’s event will be an important beginning — not a one-time event — for their town.

P&Z, Town Provide Detailed Info Re Restaurant, Retail Reopening

On the eve of the first day of reopened restaurants, Westport’s Planning & Zoning Department has released extensive guidelines — and an application form (click here) for restaurants and businesses hoping to be up and running soon.

Town officials promise to expedite applications from restaurants and retail outlets. No business — including restaurants that offered outdoor dining prior to COVID-19 — can reopen until the form is completed and approved.

Outdoor dining guidelines — in the form of Frequently Asked Questions — were prepared by P&Z Commission chair Danielle Dobin, with feedback from the town attorney’s office, Westport Weston Health District, Police and Fire Departments, and the ReOpen Westport Advisory Team.

They are clear, comprehensive, and cognizant of the needs of owners, employees, patrons and residents. They say:

What’s the process for seeking approval for outdoor dining?

Complete the Outdoor Dining Application (llink above), then
submit to PandZ@westportct.gov, attn.: Mary Young, Planning & Zoning
director, who will circulate to other Town Departments, as applicable. There are
no fees for this application.

Do I need to hire an architect or engineer?

There is no need to hire any outside consultants. The application is very simple. You can use a drawing made by hand, old plans or even a printout from Google
Maps to indicate where you would like to locate your outdoor dining area. Please
indicate dimensions of the outdoor area proposed, size of any tents proposed, etc.

Sherwood Diner prepares for outdoor dining. (Photo/Dan Woog)

What’s the timeline?

Once your application is determined to be complete by the Zoning Office, you will receive a response informing you that your application has been approved,
amended or denied within 10 business days. If you do not receive a response
within 10 days then your application is deemed approved.

Can I appeal if denied?

Yes. You may appeal to the Planning & Zoning Commission which will discuss
your appeal at its next scheduled meeting.

Do I have to apply even if I already have an approved outdoor dining area from the town?

Yes. Even if you already have an approved outdoor patio, you must complete the
application to ensure the patio meets current state and local requirements.

Where can I put the outdoor dining area?

The outdoor dining can be located anywhere that meets fire, police and health
requirements. This means it can potentially go in your parking lot or even in the
parking lot of a nearby or adjacent building, as long as the owner of that property
agrees. It can even potentially be located within the setbacks as long as you are
sensitive to neighboring uses, especially any residential uses adjacent or nearby.
Your proposed plan will be carefully and quickly reviewed by the Zoning Office.

If I put the outdoor dining in my parking lot, where will people park?

If you intend to use part or all of your parking lot for outdoor dining, you must
ensure there is parking nearby for both patrons and your employees. Please
include this information in your application.

Can I create a combined outdoor eating area with some other restaurants in my same building or area?

Yes. Please feel free to collaborate on a plan with your neighboring restaurants.

What if there is a town-owned lot, park or street nearby that would be helpful for me to utilize for outdoor dining? Can I request that a street be closed?

Yes. You can request permission to utilize town owned property on the
application, including sidewalks, streets, parks and parking lots. These requests
will be evaluated by the local Traffic Authority, and police and fire
departments. As this process may take longer than 10 days, consider making this
an alternative request. You are not limited to making one request.

The owners of Harvest, Tarantino’s and Romanacci Xpress met last week, to discuss the best use of Railroad Place.

Am I required to build a platform for the outdoor dining tables to sit on?
No. There is no requirement to build a platform as long as your seating meets
ADA requirements.

Am I required to provide a tent, awning or umbrellas or can the outdoor dining be uncovered?
There is no requirement to provide covered outdoor dining. The outdoor dining
can be open to the air.

Do I need any state approvals to open?
Yes. You must self-certify with the state before opening and before the Zoning
Office may approve your application. Here is the link for the application.

How big of a dining area am I permitted to create? Is it the physical size of
the area or occupancy that matters or both?

You can potentially serve up to 50% of the number of patrons typically
accommodated at your restaurant pre-COVID. However, all state and local social
distancing rules must be observed, and the police, fire and health departments must approve of the outdoor dining area’s size, configuration and location.

How far apart must tables be located?
Seating and tables must be arranged to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between customers. You must ensure tables are at least 6+ feet apart. If customers are sitting in booths or seating is fixed, groups of customers must still be 6+ feet apart. This may require keeping some booths or seats empty. Distance shall be measured from the closest chair at one table to the closest chair at another table.

The state of Connecticut has provided these instructions for restaurants that hope to reopen.

Where should hand washing or sanitizing stations be set up? What should be provided?
Hand sanitizer shall be made available at entrance points and common areas.

Can patrons utilize the bathrooms inside my restaurant?
Yes. However, they must put their mask on before leaving the table. Management should keep in mind there is a requirement to install visual social distancing markers to encourage customers to remain 6 feet apart (e.g., the entrance to the restaurant, lines to be seated, lines to make payments, lines to use the restroom).

Are patrons required to wear masks when they are not eating/drinking?
Customers are required to bring and wear masks or cloth face coverings that
completely cover the nose and mouth, unless doing so would be contrary to his or her health or safety due to a medical condition or when eating in the restaurant. The masks should also be worn while entering and/or leaving the facility, or leaving the table to use the restroom.

Are staff required to wear masks at all times?
Yes. All employees are required to wear a facemask or other cloth face covering
that completely covers the nose and mouth, unless doing so would be contrary to
his or her health or safety due to medical conditions. Employees may utilize their
own cloth face covering instead of that provided by their employer if they choose.
Additionally, gloves are required for table servers, and they must be replaced
frequently. Gloves and eye protection are required when using cleaning chemicals. Kitchen workers shall follow FDA guidelines on use of gloves where appropriate.

If a patron isn’t complying with health standards, such as not wearing a mask or standing too close to a different table, how should we handle this?
We are all in this together! The complainant should ask to speak to the manager or establishment owner on-site who should immediately ask the patron to comply with the safety protocols or leave. If compliance is not obtained, restaurant patrons, employees, and/or owners can contact the Westport Police non-emergency line to report any issue (203-341-6000).

Are restaurants required to seat only parties with reservations? Are
restaurants required to keep a log of everyone for potential contact tracing?

It is strongly recommended that you require patrons to reserve tables in advance to assist with any necessary contact tracing and to minimize having people waiting for tables. In the event a patron or employee becomes ill, contact tracing will be facilitated by strong record keeping. It is recommended that you keep a log of all walk-in customers for this reason as well.

Can restaurants create a designated waiting area?
No. Restaurant should take the contact information of people waiting to eat and
should call or text the patrons when their table is ready. You may not designate a
waiting area, and your staff should actively discourage patrons from waiting at the restaurant to be seated.

How frequently must the bathrooms be sanitized and is there a
recommended sanitizing solution or product?

Bathrooms should be cleaned frequently, implementing use of a cleaning log for
tracking. Sanitizing solutions and/or products need to follow federal guidelines (CDC, EPA) on what specific products to use and how:
• Use products that meet EPA’s criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2 and that
are appropriate for the surface. Prior to wiping the surface, allow the
disinfectant to sit for the necessary contact time recommended by the
manufacturer. Train staff on proper cleaning procedures to ensure safe and
correct application of disinfectants.
• Disinfectants are irritants and sensitizers, and they should be used
cautiously.
• Avoid all food contact surfaces when using disinfectants; these surfaces
should be sanitized instead.
• Clean and disinfect common areas, high transit areas, and frequently touched
surfaces on an ongoing basis (at least daily) and more frequently if used
more often. Clean and disinfect shared objects after each use including but
not limited to: entrances and exits, payment devices (e.g., PIN pad)
and chairs.
For more details regarding the Governor’s Re-Open Connecticut
standards, click here.

(For direct links on the town’s official P&Z page, click here.)

Restaurant Reopenings: What’s On The Menu For Westport?

This Wednesday — May 20 — marks the day Connecticut restaurants can reopen for more than curbside takeout and delivery .

There are restrictions: For example, outdoor dining only is permitted; there is no bar service. Tables must be 6 feet apart.

That should be good news for owners, employees and diners. The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus.

Le Penguin’s mascots are making it through the pandemic. Like restaurant owners all over town, their owners are figuring out how to adapt to new state reopening regulations. (Photo/Marcy Sansolo)

But don’t expect a rush of al fresco options 2 days from now. Several steps — beyond simply configuring space (and ordering single-use menus) — must be taken first.

Westport Planning & Zoning chair Danielle Dobin notes that Governor Lamont has temporarily suspended municipal laws regulating outdoor dining. So instead of the traditional permitting process, restaurateurs here must submit a simple application to P&Z director Mary Young.

Westport Police and Fire Department officials, along with the Westport Weston Health District, must sign off on each application. Restaurants that already have outdoor dining must apply too, ensuring they comply with revised health regulations.

Romanacci already has an outdoor dining permit. Under new regulations, tables — shown here last year — now must be 6 feet apart. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Lamont’s executive order “provides tremendous flexibility to restaurants looking to create an outdoor dining space,” Dobin says.

“Normal requirements for parking and setbacks have been waived. Restaurants can even explore using neighboring properties or parking lots, so long as the owners of those properties approve of the plan.

“Residents should expect restaurants all over the state to create larger outdoor dining areas than in the past. Our outdoor restaurant spaces will often look and feel a bit different.”

Sherwood Diner prepares for outdoor dining. (Photo/Dan Woog)

You won’t hear a lot of live music, however. Previous noise regulations remain in effect.

Dobin says that the board of selectmen are also looking at “the creative use of certain town roads to facilitate outdoor dining and outdoor shopping.”

Matthew Mandell, executive director of the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce, is the restaurant liaison for the ReOpen Westport Advisory Team. On Friday he led a Zoom call, with over 3 dozen restaurant owners.

Restaurant owners and town officials joined a conference call on Friday.

“Our restaurant owners are committed to providing a safe environment for their guests,” Dobin says.

“There is no rush to reopen. Many owners will take their time. I hope that all of our residents are supportive and patient with our fabulous Westport restaurants, as they find their way in this new world.”

“This is not a race,” Mandell agrees. “Slow and steady will win this one. The goal of ensuring health and safety for customers, staff and owners will ultimately lead to everyone’s success.”

As restaurants announce openings, lists compiled by the Chamber of Commerce and OneWestport will be updated regularly.

The owners of Harvest, Tarantino and Romanacci met on Friday, to discuss the best use of Railroad Place.

Spectacular New Site Makes Helping Local Businesses Easy

For the past few days — as the rippling cascading effects of COVID-19 on the local economy have become apparent and frightening — many Westporters suggested ways to help.

One of the best is to purchase gift cards from local stores, restaurants, salons, gyms and the like.

A group of friends approached Danielle Dobin with the idea. She loved it. Like the others though, she wondered: Who needs help? How can I contact them? Who even sells gift cards?

Danielle — who in her spare time chairs Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission — brainstormed with them. Their solution : a website showcasing all the spots in town that need help, with clickable links to every one.

James Dobin-Smith

Then her family and theirs — the Weilguses, Kamos, Cammeyers, and the Posts and Rutsteins (you know those last 2 from the WestportMoms.com platform) — got to work.

Over the past few days they tracked down dozens of local stores, restaurants and service providers. They compiled tons of information.

And they handed it all to Danielle’s son James Dobin-Smith.

The Staples High School freshman is a member of Staples Players. He’s an honor student, keenly interested in world affairs. But he had absolutely no background in web design.

No problem! He’s smart, creative, and a digital native. Almost instantly, James taught himself.

The result — rolled out just moments ago — is OneWestport.com. It’s visually appealing, chock full of links, and insanely easy to use.

The homepage of OneWestport.com.

All you do is click to purchase gift cards online (or by phone or email, if no online option exists). You can use them tomorrow, or months from now. (One added feature: the hyperlinks take you directly to the gift card page. It’s truly one click — you don’t have to search for it yourself on a business website.)

From sporting goods to sushi, furniture to flowers, paintings to pasta, and clothing to cupcakes, Westport retailers sell everything and anything.

Nearly 200 places are listed, by category: Clothing/Jewelry, Fitness, Salons, Nails/Spas, Miscellaneous (Compo Flowers, Earth Animal, Age of Reason, Rockwell Art, Splatterbox, Stiles Market, The Toy Post, Westport Hardware, Bungalow, photographers).

Age of Reason is a great place to use a gift card right now. Kids need items for education and entertainment. And the store offers free delivery.

The Restaurants category can keep you busy (and well-fed) until this crisis is over — no matter how long it lasts. It includes places you might not otherwise think of, like Aartisan Chocolates and The Cake Box.

(It’s also a great way to order takeout or delivered meals, from those restaurants, delis and markets that offer them.)

“Purchase a gift card today for use in the future to purchase a birthday gift, an anniversary gift, or simply an everyday purchase for your family,” OneWestport suggests.

“Our local retailers need to make payroll, cover their expenses, and pay rent.  Buying gift cards now for use later can help our local businesses manage this near-term cash-crunch and ultimately weather this uniquely challenging storm! Together, we can make the difference for our local retailers!”

As extensive as the families’ work has been, they know it’s not complete. They’ll update the website daily, until school restarts. To add a business to the resource, email jamesdobinsmith@gmail.com.

This is these Westporters’ gift to the town. OneWestport does not profit from any purchases, in any way. All gift cards go straight — and fully — to the retailer, restaurant or service provider.

It’s the gift that will keep on giving. And helping save our town.

Oh, yeah: If you liked the awesome cover photo — a drone shot of downtown by John Videler — you can purchase it (or any of his work too). Just click here!

Danielle Dobin: Middle School Views Posted Today Are My Own

Today’s post on Westport’s middle schools generated plenty of comments. The author of the piece — Danielle Dobin — writes:

I wrote this opinion piece. It represents my personal views, not those of the Planning & Zoning Chairman, or any other Planning & Zoning commissioners or P&Z department staff.

The October 22 session will be a meeting of the PZC’s Plan of Conservation & Development High Level Review Subcommittee, to hear public comment regarding Chapter 14: Address Community Facility Needs. Click here to find the 2017 Plan of Conservation & Development.

[OPINION] Danielle Dobin: A Vision For Westport Middle School Education

Danielle Dobin is the mother of a Staples High School 9th grader and a Bedford Middle School 6th grader, and vice chair of Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission. Like many Westporters, she has followed the debate over the future of our middle schools — begun a year ago, when mold caused the closure of Coleytown — with great interest.

School district officials, the Boards of Education and Finance, and a special committee are moving ahead with plans to renovate CMS, and reopen it next fall. However, Dobin says, that may not be the right move. She writes:

While the closure of Coleytown Middle School has been a challenge for our community, we can turn it into an opportunity. We can create a modern and innovative middle school that delivers excellent education to all students.

Right now, we are on a path to spend $32 million (minimum) to renovate CMS.  But many in town question that path. They wonder about the wisdom of revamping a building designed by the standards of 1965. They are beginning to see the demographic challenges of running 2 middle schools with declining enrollment. Most importantly, they are beginning to question the rush to get back into CMS without carefully considering all options.

Coleytown Middle School is closed due to mold. Right now, it is set to reopen next fall.

It’s time to pause, and review all the new data and information at our disposal.  It is time to finally have the kind of community conversation a decision of this importance demands.

I want to be clear for those who are only now engaged in this process: When CMS closed, there was no thoughtful discussion — much less a town-wide debate — about what kind of middle school structure would best serve the needs of 21st century education in Westport.

Other important matters like the Downtown Plan and Saugatuck Transit-Oriented Development involved meaningful public outreach and various charettes, surveys and meetings to gauge public opinion. There was nothing like that last year.

Timing (“get CMS back as quickly as possible”) was prioritized over thoughtful consideration of all options available to us. The Board of Education did begin a process to explore options, but this was quickly circumvented. As a result, we did not plan for the future. We simply opted to re-create the past.

So what has changed?

First, let’s recognize that we have time to develop a thoughtful solution. Middle school at Bedford is working well. With the improvements of additional teaching and office spaces, a 9-period day and a merged student population, students are thriving.

We are no longer in the time crunch we thought we were in. We have the flexibility to take the time necessary to decide the best path forward in terms of design, budget and vision.

Bedford Middle School currently houses every 6th, 7th and 8th grader in town.

Second, as is becoming increasingly obvious, our demographics no longer easily support the choice to maintain 2 middle schools. Moreover, the work of the Board of Ed and the many maps circulated by their demographer make clear that while some redistricting plans may create parity in the middle schools in terms of balanced enrollment, it comes at great cost to our elementary schools.

At the elementary school level, these plans create immense disruption. They lead to dramatic under- and over-utilization of various schools. No simple re-balancing solution on the table achieves all of the criteria set forth by the Board of Education.

This was not understood by most residents — or even many elected officials — until quite recently.

Third, the CMS Taskforce under the strong leadership of Don O’Day has done a fine job of researching the cost to repair CMS and managing a complicated process. My call to rethink our path is in no way a criticism of their important work.

In fact, they can concurrently continue their process while as a town we mull whether we want to actually repair CMS.

Construction has not yet begun at CMS, so sunk costs are minimal. Before we decide as a town that we want to spend millions of dollars repairing a circa-1965 building, let’s confirm that the cost will be limited to $32 million.

Let’s also figure out our tipping point. What if the cost to repair is $35 million. What if it’s $45 million?

I propose we take advantage of all the new information, and reconsider the path we are taking. Let’s take a thoughtful look at all the options: continuing on the current path, building a new state-of-the-art middle school, or creating one spectacular unified middle school for the entire district.

One unified middle school campus — with an addition designed in concert with our educators and administrators — has many advantages:

1. Every middle school student will be educated in a modern space, thoughtfully designed for the team-teaching method and reflective of our needs in 2020 and beyond.

2. A unified middle school will drive all our resources to a centralized campus, where our talented educators can collaborate and innovate across grade cohorts and areas of study.

3. A unified middle school will resolve our demographic issues for a long time, without a disruptive redistricting to achieve the optimal balance.

4. We can look as a community to the current CMS site to create a resource for all our schools: a modern computer lab to provide for coding and programming classes, a science lab for our Science Olympians, and indoor fields for our athletes.  We can dream big.

The Planning & Zoning Commission invites every stakeholder to a special planning session to discuss this important topic on October 22 (7 p.m., Town Hall).

Public comment from all Westport residents is welcome and encouraged. If you want to leave a written comment, please comment here — in the sunlight where everyone can see — and not on private Facebook groups that have segmented us into elementary school parents, middle school parents and everyone else. (Click “Comments” below — and use full, real names.)

The P&Z staff will ensure that every comment left on this public forum is included in the public record. Whether you favor a unified middle school, a newly built state-of-the-art CMS or a rehabbed CMS, please voice your thoughts.

The CMS Taskforce has not yet begun to spend the full $32 million. It’s time to be deliberative, not impulsive. There is a lot of new information to consider regarding demographics, redistricting and the benefits of a unified middle school.

This is a huge expenditure for our town. It will impact everyone’s taxes.

Let’s be sure it reflects how the public envisions our middle school institutions over the next 3 decades.