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Greene defends ‘advisory’ Norwalk master plan

Planning Committee Mike Greene 110614
Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene explains the master plan process to Norwalk Common Council members Thursday.

NORWALK, Conn. – The merits and enforceability of a master plan for Norwalk were debated Thursday in a discussion that touched on the expense of such a project in contrast to the possible benefits.

“I am wondering why on earth should we pay money to get stuff done that we are going to do probably whether or not we have a master plan – because it’s not cheap,” Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said as the Planning Committee meeting turned to the a presentation on the whys and wherefores of a new Plan of Conservation and Development.

“It’s a huge philosophical question. … A lot of things are going to get done whether you ever have a master plan or not, that’s the truth of the matter, that people are planning whether they call it a master plan or not, people are thinking towards the future,” Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene replied.

The state mandates a new master plan every 10 years; there’s some confusion about when Norwalk needs a new one. The last one was authorized by the Council in 2008 but begun in 2004, causing Jackie Lightfield to say that a new one is due now. Greene said by statute it’s not necessary to have a new one completed until 2018.

The city hired an outside consultant to create the last plan. Kimmel threw out a possible $500,000 price tag for this.

Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said he had Greene there to begin peeling back the onion on the process for new Council members. “My goal at the end of the day is for the committee, I hope, to understand what the master plan is,” Hempstead said.

He said he had asked the law department to define what the Council’s power is, what the state allows and what local codes call for, so maybe this Council could hand over “kind of a guidebook” for the next Council, which should be more involved in the process, he said.

The discussion began with questions about whether a master plan is advisory or something that must be followed. While Greene has said “it only has the power of a good idea,” former Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak read a state statute to the committee that said otherwise. “It’s advisory when it comes to zoning. It’s controlling when it comes to municipal improvements. That means that 90 to 95 percent of the master plan, maybe 99 percent, is controlling. It is not advisory,” Mushak said. “You do not take one sentence out of this state statute and then apply it to the entire master plan and say ‘It’s useless, it doesn’t matter.’”

Planning Commissioner Victor Cavallo said case law says it’s advisory. That was Greene’s assertion throughout the meeting.

Kimmel pushed to make the next plan more focused, something that could be enforced.

“Why would you make it controlling though?” Greene asked, “It’s not controlling by law.”

Hypothetically the Council could spend $500,000 only to have the next Council throw the plan out, Kimmel said. “Other than that (possibility) I don’t really understand why this helps,” Kimmel said.

Kimmel said he has never heard the master plan brought up when the Council is approving projects. No one mentioned it in the context of the recent debate about a proposed mosque at 127 Fillow Street, he said.

The contradictions in the POCD seem to invalidate its merit, he said.

Yes, the plan is contradictory, but it helps when the city attempts to get grant funding from the state, Green said.

A document meant to plan for 10 years by necessity becomes less valid as time goes by, he said.

Greene said that Planning Commission chairman Torgny Astrom and Cavallo had disagreed on the application of the POCD in reference to the Washington Village project – which is in violation of the plan. The Commission sided with Astrom.

“I thought it was a very intelligent discussion,” Greene said, “… Guess what? None of them was wrong. What they did was evaluate what was the most important thing for the city at this time, with conflicting pieces of the same plan.”

He suggested that the Council will need to get a feel for if the public wants a broad plan or a narrow one. If it’s something more than just an advisory document there will be more of a fight, he said, because everyone will know that it will be acted upon.

“We might end up with gridlock. I am not predicting that but it’s certainly is tougher to approve a document that is binding,” Greene said.

Getting a document approved by nine Planning Commission members, 15 Council members and a mayor is not easy, he said. They sign off on it even if there’s something in there that they hate because the law mandates that there is a plan, he said.

“That’s another logical reason why a plan isn’t binding,” he said.

Plus, if it were binding, there would be no need for a capital budget process, he said. You could just look at the POCD, he said.

The process for a new master plan includes two Planning Commission public hearings and a Common Council public hearing, he said. If the Council changes it, the POCD goes back to the Planning Commission for approval. When both bodies approve it the mayor gets a chance to change what’s in it. If that happens it goes back to both the Council and the Commission.

Greene said he thought a new plan could reasonably be done in two years. Most of the people involved are volunteers with lives to attend to, he said.

Lisa Thomson suggested that the committee get input from the neighborhoods, and put money in the budget for neighborhood master plans. Kimmel said that would make it more unwieldy. “We may have 150,000 requests which sometimes contradict each other,” Kimmel said. “Sometimes we just don’t know what to do with and we end up putting it aside.”

Hempstead acknowledged Thomson and others, who last month suggested that the Planning Committee needed to consider the entire city and be advised by Planning and Zoning staff, not just the Redevelopment Agency, as that panel is only concerned with a limited area.

He said Greene would be back.

“This was the start of a new way that hopefully in the future the Planning Committee is going to do, out of the rut we have been in,” Hempstead said. “I am glad for the public’s suggestion – an ‘I should have had a v-8’ moment.”

He said he would put the master plan on the agenda of future meetings, with the plan of spending half an hour on the master plan process.

Comments

14 responses to “Greene defends ‘advisory’ Norwalk master plan”

  1. Susan Wallerstein

    Folks, why not check out how other towns and cities grapple with this. With a free phone call or email to CCM you could get Info about how communities set up municipal improvement (MI) review and approval process, which often relates to but is separate from zoning. Lots of good and helpful models out there….enough egos, personality clashes, time to do the work to secure Norwalk’s future. Kudos to Planning Committee for listening to those who advocated for expanding its role & responsibility re POCD.

  2. Lisa Thomson

    Just to clarify, I wasn’t suggesting a town hall or in our case ‘Concert Hall’ style of community input..but rather a methodical approach to each of the unique neighborhoods by establishing
    a way for the city and the neighborhoods to interact regarding future planning and city goals. One might think that role could or was fulfilled by district commissioners or local common council members representing their districts. But as we have all seen time and time again, that modus operandi only occurs once we are in crisis mode.

  3. Mike Mushak

    It is so discouraging to see literally thousands of hours of meetings and volunteer efforts wasted on trying to fix our dysfuntional planning process, that has clearly been run into the ground by decades of incompetence and bad decisions by manipulative career bureaucrats instead of actual qualified professionals. I asked if we had any professional AICP Certified Planners in City Hall last night, and there was no response, because we have none. A city of 85,000 without any professional planners, despite millions of salaries and benefits paid out every year by Norwalk taxpayers to have just that. In Norwalk’s planning process, we celebrate mediocrity and despise excellence, paying top dollar for it . Brilliant.

    How many more ruined neighborhoods and wasted millions will we tolerate before something is done?

  4. diane lauricella

    Look forward to continued discussion on this topic so intrinsic to our City’s future!

    Am happy the Council Planning Committee is reviewing, and feel a similar discussion take place sooner rather than later with any board, commission, council committee, authority, agency and task force that has ANYTHING to do with land use.

    It is all about process, or lack thereof. Am disappointed to hear that some long time officials think that the POCD document is a worthless effort and that finding a process to include neighborhood input would be so daunting….I could not disagree more.

    I agree with Ms. Thomson’s assertion that a mechanism/process be created to include the established neighborhoods in a focused, individual basis….

    History shows that in early 2003-4 then-Planning Commission Chairman Walter Briggs welcomed individual neighborhoods to present “Mini Masterplans” that should be on file at P&Z offices. I believe Silvermine, Cranbury, East Norwalk, West Norwalk and possibly Rowayton submitted PowerPoint presentations that neighborhood leaders lovingly pulled together. Please dust these off now and read them.

    I have participated in the Masterplan update process 2X over the last 20+ years and never felt we went through these exercises “for show” to satisfy a state mandate. The state instituted this mandate because so many towns were growing without enough reasonable planning management…this unfettered local growth had the “unintended consequences” of causing massive traffic jams on state roads and straining sewage treatment and rail systems that have state oversight.

    My recollection is that the POCD had an implementation chapter…officials and staff chose to reduce its importance and that unwise notion has to change.

    In addition to CCM input, I recommend having outgoing SWRPA Director Floyd Lapp and other professional Regional Planners come in as guest speakers.

  5. Oldtimer

    It would be interesting to know just what Mike would expect if a certified land use planner were found and hired. Would he/she have broad authority to decide when certain capital projects should be done (road widening, sewer mains extended, etc.) to support commercial development ? Would he/she have the authority to revise existing zoning regulations as neighborhoods changed ? Would he/she be constrained to research assistance for Zoning ?

    It is not likely an expert would be hired and given broad authority to tell the City when and how much to spend on capital projects, or to do anything more than advise zoning when certain changes should be made. It is possible a certified planner could do some of the studies and develop master plans for the city, but it is questionable if that would result in any real savings over the present system of paying outside contractors once every ten years.

  6. Suzanne

    Once every ten years as a mandate? How about now because the City needs to? Paying outside contractors episodically for an ongoing, entrenched and necessary process is blowing in the wind. A real person who has the expertise and vision for process and change over time that creates a town we can all live with is what is needed. Consultants cannot possible do that, hired every ten years based upon a mandate.

  7. Don’t Panic

    The fact that there are councilpeople who suggest they’ve never heard mention of the POCD (“master plan”) during various development discussions is troubling. I’ve observed dozens of occasions when members of the public have referred to the master plan in public hearings, common council meetings and in committee meetings during public comment. It goes to show how little focus there is on the details of what members of the public are saying during public comment periods.

    What I have never heard in those same sessions is STAFF referring to the master plan, except in the way Mr. Greene suggests in this article–as a check the box item on the way to asking for state funds.

  8. Suzanne

    Oh! And Ms. Wallerstein is correct: why is Norwalk always so bent on reinventing the wheel? There are plenty of towns out there that have been on this side and the other side of this issue. Talk to them (including those who are recognized nationally for urban renewal.)

  9. Kevin Di Mauro

    @Oldtimer

    Well said. I couldn’t agree with you more. This so-called planner position would ultimately be just another useless, redundant job title on the shoulders of Norwalk’s taxpayers.

  10. Suzanne

    The planning job would be redundant if there was already a universal, all neighborhood vision of what Norwalk should look like and how it would develop into the future. Currently, the willy nilly approach is not doing Norwalk nor taxpayers much good.

  11. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    It’s clear already that there are many (some valid) caveats from Mike Greene and others that lead to the conclusion that professional planning will not work in Norwalk. Possibly, it’s too late to make much difference. Should we just give up the idea right at the start? Quoting some of the issues raised:

    “The process for a new master plan includes two Planning Commission public hearings and a Common Council public hearing, he (Greene) said. If the Council changes it, the POCD goes back to the Planning Commission for approval. When both bodies approve it the mayor gets a chance to change what’s in it. If that happens it goes back to both the Council and the Commission.

    “Greene said he thought a new plan could reasonably be done in two years. Most of the people involved are volunteers with lives to attend to, he said.

    “Lisa Thomson suggested that the committee get input from the neighborhoods, and put money in the budget for neighborhood master plans. Kimmel said that would make it more unwieldy. “We may have 150,000 requests which sometimes contradict each other,” Kimmel said. “Sometimes we just don’t know what to do with and we end up putting it aside.”

    If getting the “Master Plan” to be meaningful, updated, etc. is such a problem as described in these postings by many, and additionally, if “most of the people involved are volunteers with lives to attend to”, as Mike Greene said, how could a professional planner with no more than an advisory capacity and no legal muscle make a bit of difference? So far as one can tell, it’s those “volunteers” that may have been a large part of the problem. One would like to know if in past deliberations by these volunteers, established architects or anyone with a city planning background was ever included in those meetings?

    Furthermore, as Mr. Kimmel points out, opening up the process to “input and moneys from neighborhoods” with “150,000 requests” sounds like a recipe for bloodshed or, at the very least, pouring money down a rabbit hole.

    Possibly, what’s needed is to contact the Brits and ask them to come over and burn Norwalk down, as they did once before. Then we can start again from scratch.

  12. Mike Mushak

    Will Norwalk taxpayers be satisfied knowing their PLANNING and Zoning Director is not expected to plan, but to only process zoning applications for $165,000 and 2 full months paid vacation per year? I don’t think so. Where are the fiscal conservatives on this subject? Since when do we promise life-long jobs with guaranteed annual raises with NO performance reviews, to people with dubious qualifications who would not have lasted 6 months in the private sector? It is the height of cronyism, and the Norwalk GOP is on the record in defending it, as the GOP thug Victor Cavallo did the other night by calling me a “disgusting human being” for simply demanding better planning and that laws and expensive studies be followed.

    If the GOP insists on defending Mike Greene and his corrupt “that’s not my job” policies, and defends his lack of performance reviews and guaranteed raises as he makes fools out of all of us, then this will be a huge issue in the next election. Norwalk voters and taxpayers will not stand for it when they find out the truth behind why they had an overscale mosque application that followed the broken code exactly,, potentially the largest BJ”s on the smallest property in the country on the most dangerous traffic-clogged road in southwest CT, , and a house in the middle of a salt marsh, and that we are paying milllions in salaries an benefits to our Planning and Zoning staff while having NO professional planners on that staff. Unbelievable. This is a huge issue, and will not go away with the next news cycle. The future of our entire city, including our individual investments in our homes and businesses, is at stake.

    The P and Z staff work for the Zoning Commission, and until that body is filled with a majority of responsible citizens instead of political hacks who defend the broken system and underperforming staff, and who will take the action that is necessary to restore faith in our planning system including replacing key staff with qualified professionals, this issue will not go away.

  13. Suzanne

    Fresh eyes are needed: it is a good examination of the unwieldy process by which Norwalk “organizes” its development, RLF. What you describe needs to be re-evaluated and re-structured.

    Right now, the Town works withing the constraints of the “way it has always been.” “New” is threatening to those who have worked under the process as described by Mr. Greene as well as “change.”

    If nothing else, a truly experienced city planner ready to get their hands dirty could evaluate the dysfunction and route it out in the name of creating a DOABLE plan based upon an OVERALL VISION of what Norwalk can and should be.

    Right now, taxpayers keep giving their money away to a “system” that not only does not work but creates “neighborhoods” and buildings that are scattered about with no cohesive insight as to what the place might be, relative to other existing elements in the landscape.

    It is developer driven not neighborhood (what is that?), town driven and reminds me very much of a mini Houston where a house can be built right next to a skyscraper.

    Maybe not that bad but, remember, not too long ago an over sized structure at a dangerous intersection was planned for a quiet residential community, a building 10 times the size for the lot recommendation was seriously being considered built hard by residential areas and a large house on stilts placed on a spit of land surrounded by sensitive habitat is “planned.”

    The current iteration of the LDA (which I admittedly have never seen) is apparently ready to be thrown to the wind to appease a deep pockets developer.

    Norwalk cannot catch its breath to increase tax rolls long enough to see they are giving away any sense of identity, “placemaking” as referred to on another thread and destroying its history and what makes it unique. Anywhere, USA, is the thrust for developer driven construction without any planning.

    Norwalk needs an individual who can evaluate and update an antiquated process that is undermining every aspect of living here. Someone who can see “the forest for the trees”, see what is left that is good and worthy of preservation integrated with the new.

    Not that this will in anyway be politick of comfortable for those who have been here for a very long time and used to “doing development” in the same dysfunctional way. But “Change is Good” and, in this case, very necessary if the quality of life here is to be distinctly Norwalk and good.

  14. Oyster

    @RLF,
    if you look at the appendix for the master plan you will see that this was not done in a vacuum. Experts were consulted and several studies were incorporated by reference. The masterplan process may not happen overnight but ot is the act of ignoring it that is making it useless, NOT the design of the plan itself.

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