Greene defends, dismisses Norwalk Master Plan

Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene, left, waits along with Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord and Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan to speak to the Board of Estimate and Taxation recently.
Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene, left, waits along with Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord and Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan to speak to the Board of Estimate and Taxation recently.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s master plan is routinely referred to by citizens expressing opinions on developments being considered by the city, but the plan is little more than an idea and has no power, according to Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene.

“The plan is the consensus of the community as to what they see the vision for the community for the next 10 years,” Greene said of the 2008 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD). “So you reach that consensus and, as I have said at the beginning of every plan, it’s everything and it’s nothing.  … It has the power of a good idea. That’s the only power it has. It’s a non-binding plan – it’s not even binding on the Zoning Commission.”

Norwalk is required by the state to come up with a new master plan at least every 10 years. To hear Greene tell it, it’s not a very functional document but, within two years, it’s time to begin making a new one – or, because it’s expensive, simply amend the old one to satisfy the state.

Greene recently told the Board of Estimate and Taxation that the ballpark figure for a consultant to guide the process of making a new plan would be $100,000 to $500,000. His dismissive attitude toward the POCD drew some frustrated comments from BET members, as well as some sympathetic ones.

Jim Feiganbaum said it almost seemed like well-intentioned folks got together to come up with a plan but there was no cohesiveness in the final result.

Erik Anderson called the POCD rambling and incoherent. Anderson asked why Norwalk would put so much money into a plan if it is being disregarded.

“People think it’s important,” Greene said. A master plan is required to get funding through the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (OPM), he said.

“I can see the need for a plan,” Ed Camacho said. “It makes sense to have an idea, at least aspirationally, what you want your city to look like in 10 years, but I don’t understand how it can be disregarded so cavalierly. In other words, what’s the point of requiring you to have a plan if the law or the statute that authorizes you to have a plan also makes it so that you don’t have to consider the plan in some quantifiable way?”

“Those are very important questions that I would think the legislature would answer,” Greene said.

Camacho is not the only frustrated community member.

“Please also note that the document is really called the Plan of Conservation and Development, not the Guidelines or Wish List of Conservation and Development,” Diane Cece said in December. “After all, what is the sense of dozens of people working for years to finalize the plan, only to have it be tossed aside when it suits other agendas?”

“There are reports and studies sitting on shelves that the staff does not seem to use in advising the elected and appointed officials of this city,” Diane Lauricella said last week, protesting the proposal to expand a private transfer station near the Stepping Stones Museum for Children.

Greene said the POCD is used in the capital budget process.

“When the capital budget goes through, the Planning Commission looks at the capital budget requests and says was it in the plan. Sometimes we get contradictory things, but in the real world there are contradictions and people make choices,” Greene said. “… It doesn’t make it wrong, it’s just the real world. You’re not in 10 years going to predict every possible thing; in fact there could be things that we never thought of in the plan.”

The POCD calls for the Department of Public Works to spend $1 million a year on drainage projects.

“That is not always what they get as far as I know, but it’s up to them to decide what to ask for and it’s up to the various finance people to decide how much they get,” Greene said. “I mean, it’s not because ‘it’s in this plan.’ Doesn’t mean they get it. In fact, my experience was, when I asked for some things to be done and submitted a capital budget to my own Planning Commission that I work for that implemented the plan, the staff brought it to them and they didn’t give me all the funding for all the projects I asked for.”

That was intended to be a humorous story, he said.

“That was with fresh hot document, you would think every reference in that would go through,” he said. “That’s the reality of it … if you funded everything in here you couldn’t afford it.”

BET Chairman Jim Clark had asked Greene and other department heads to come in to explain the studies that had been done, what percentage of the recommendations had been accomplished and what impact the remaining recommendations would have on future budgets.

Clark pressed Greene, expressing frustration that he hadn’t gotten the type of “bullet list” he was expecting about fulfilled recommendations. Anne Yang-Dwyer suggested Greene go down the list of recommended implementations on pages 48 and 49 of the POCD.

Green got this far: 

  • Continue to provide budget funding to redevelop the West Avenue, Wall Street, and Reed Putnam areas with new housing and mixed-use developments (A.2.1.3, page 11) “Done,” Green said.
  • Update Restricted Industrial Zones, Industrial 1 Zones, and Industrial 2 Zones, to allow on a case-by-case basis certain types of office and multifamily residential uses, to reflect current economic trends in Norwalk (A.5.1.1, page 13) “To some degree, done,” Greene said.
  • Update the mapping and evaluations of inland and tidal wetlands by the Conservation Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection as soon as possible and provide Capital Budget funding (B.1.1.5, page 16) “Not done,” Greene said.
  • Maintain up-to-date mapping resources in the city (B.1.1.7,page 16) “I dont know that that was done, Greene said. Finance Director Tom Hamilton said, Weve done quite a bit, actually.
  • Develop, maintain, and evaluate a Natural Resources Inventory including an update to  the inland and tidal wetland maps, indicating areas with severe or considerable  natural constraints to development (steep slopes, excessively poorly drained or excessively well-drained soils, 100-year floodway areas) (B.1.2.1,page 16) “That I don’t think was done,” Greene said.
  • Provide a fishing pier and picnic tables at Veterans Park (C.3.1.2, page 26) That was done and then redone, Greene said.
  • Implement the recommendations of the upcoming study regarding the future use of the transfer station (B.6.1.4, page 19) “I don’t know if that was done or not,” Greene said.

“Remember, this is not the Planning Commission’s function to just do this,” Greene said, stopping. “It’s all the various departments, so what you could do is pass this around to every city department and have them go through and tell you which things they did implement and which things they haven’t.”

Clark said he would have liked to have more specific answers to his questions. He had wanted to know what the major recommendations are, he said.

“I think that was an impossible task,” Greene said.

“We are driving this car, Norwalk,” Clark said. “I think we do a pretty good job of looking down the road. We’re looking out for the obstacles but what we are not always looking at where we are headed? That is what this is. What’s our final destination, what is our goal?”

“Who does that?” Greene asked. “This is not some 10-year plan where there is the bureau of planning who controls what every department does. This is the plan adopted by the mayor. Should the mayor be sitting there telling every department what to do? Should the Common Council? Should the Planning Commission? By what authority?”

“This is a guide for future growth and development,” Mayor Harry Rilling said. “If you’ll notice, it’s very non-specific. It tells you what needs to be done, it doesn’t tell you how it needs to be done, so I think in that regard it’s a good document.”

The Planning Commission, the Zoning Commission, the Common Council and department heads should be looking at the POCD continually, he said, but he knew from evaluating police departments around the country when he was police chief that isn’t generally what happens with plans.

“What unfortunately happens with most plans is the plan gets done and a lot of work and time and energy go into it, and then people change, positions change, people leave, we hire new people and pretty soon it becomes a document that’s catching dust on a shelf which is not unusual,” Rilling said. “It’s not just happening here in the city of Norwalk. The plan is done, paid for and very little gets implemented. So it’s incumbent on everybody who has a responsibility in the city, each department head – planning, zoning, Common Council – to be constantly aware of this and make this their guide for the decisions that they are making and to be aware of what is in it.”

Plan of Conservation and Development


15 responses to “Greene defends, dismisses Norwalk Master Plan”

  1. John Hamlin

    Great article — thanks for once again shining the light on Norwalk’s inadequate and wholly dysfunctional planning process.

  2. jlightfield

    It wasn’t that long ago that the zoning commission would start each year with a review of the master plan and determine what items would be worked on and implemented. But let’s be realistic about the current master plan, it’s a poor plan that was hastily put together after the City funded a handful of neighborhood mini-master plans that proved to be contentious and never got approved or adopted by the common council. I feel like I’m on a repetitive theme here, everything snakes back to the common council.
    There’s a reason for that of course, Norwalk has a strong council form of government and over the years the council has not opted to cede control of responsibilities, despite the needs of the City becoming more specialized and requiring a higher degree of subject matter expertise. The issue of funding an integrated GIS based database for municipal records is a perfect example. Individual council members have played gatekeeper on funding requests for technology solutions generated by departments and have done nothing to support an examination of the woefully inadequate IT department.
    Whatever your flavor of political philosophy, the time for modernizing and streamlining government process and back office work is long over due. This is the major driver of cost savings and increased service levels across municipalities of all sizes, and much of the technology is in 3rd and 4th generation versions. None of the City’s department heads can pull up a budget versus actual report of spending. Stop for a moment and think about that. Many run spreadsheets that they manually update on antiquated computers that can’t even run the latest versions of office tools.
    I’ve digressed a but off the subject of the Master Plan, but of course nothing in the plan suggests that the City focus on its own IT infrastructure either. Many cities actually include implementation plans as part of the planning process. Those implementation items specifically address the actions needed to accomplish a plan goal, whether it is to update a zoning reg, city ordinance or invest in a new plan, capital project or change a process. The current Master Plan does not do this. It is, IMHO, a wish list of ideas, very much an incomplete document of what the City’s development, preservation educational, economic and quality of life goals should be.

  3. anon

    @Chapmen and @Lightfield very good explanations.

  4. EveT

    @Lightfield, thank you for this amazing bit: “None of the City’s department heads can pull up a budget versus actual report of spending.”
    Isn’t that one of the very basic functions of management — to compare actual spending to what was budgeted???

  5. Mike Mushak

    What a disturbing article, and one that every taxpayer, resident, and business in Norwalk, whether Republican, Democrat, or non-affiliated, should be very worried about.
    I am not surprised at all to hear our “esteemed” Director of Planning and Zoning have trouble describing how a master plan should guide a smart planning process, since he has NO professional planning credentials along with the the rest of the P and Z staff, according to the American Planning Association, the official licensing entity for certified planners. The staff have refused to release their credentials, saying they are a secret from the public, even though they are public employees paid 6-figure salaries to have certain minimal qualifications in knowledge and skills to do their jobs. That’s right, we are not entitled to know their qualifications even though we give them all guaranteed raises every year no matter how poor their performance which by any professional standard has been abysmal at best. Just look around our traffic-clogged city full of blighted neighborhoods and empty lots if you don’t believe me. Norwalk is a city of lost potential, that is struggling to be something else, but no one really knows what that is, including our own Planning and Zoning Director who doesn’t even understand what a Master Plan is for and how it should be used. Unbelievable.
    The fact that our PLANNING and Zoning Department is not headed up by any certified professional planners, but by career bureaucrats who are expert manipulators of the system to avoid doing any real planning (which is hard work that takes skills and knowledge they just don’t have), is as absurd as having no accountants in our Finance Department, or engineers in our DPW, or lawyers in our Legal Department. Yet that absurd situation is where we find ourselves.
    Mike Greene was hired in 1978 as a zoning inspector, and was promoted to Director of Planning and Zoning in a climate of cronyism where qualifications didn’t matter at all. In fact, Zoning Chair Joe Santo, who believe it or not is still serving on the Zoning Commission since the late 1980’s, freely admits that he didn’t bother asking Mr. Greene for his qualifications when he and the Zoning Commission at the time in the early 90’s promoted Mr. Greene to Director upon the untimely death of the former Director. Greene just happened to be the most convenient choice, and besides who needs all that extra work of a professional search for the most qualified candidate for one of the most important jobs in the city? Greene played the game well, doling our favors and petty retaliation in a corrupt highly politicized process that continues to this day. His many victims are scattered across the city, including many folks who had their dreams shattered as they tried to open businesses but were faced with numerous obstacles, while others were given free rides if they had the right connections.

    The out-of town developer of the failed Sono Market on Wilson Avenue, which was such a great idea if it succeeded, said this was one of the worst cities and planning and zoning departments he had ever seen, and he had worked on successful projects in cities all over the world. I actually visited many of them in my travels, by invitation. Instead of welcoming this project and trying to make it work which they should be doing, the P and Z staff hit them with multiple zoning violations days after Sandy flooded the project, just weeks before they were scheduled to open. Welcome to Norwalk, and thanks for nothing! The fact that Mr.Greene showed up to the ribbon cutting after trying so hard to shut them down in a fit of petty retaliation just illustrates how bad it actually is. Mr. Green might even be thrilled that the business failed, which by far wasn’t the first business in Norwalk he tried to destroy with his petty retaliation. The list is long.
    So, Norwalk’s planning process, which was once well-respected and dynamic back in the 1980’s, when SoNo was saved from the wrecking ball of the out-of-control Redevelopment Agency that gave us 50 Washington Street and ruined Wall Street after the Great Flood of 1955, has basically become just a silly exercise of “Whac-a-mole” in a purely reactionary mode, instead of any visionary approach guiding us into the future.
    When most well-managed cities around the country have up to date Sustainability Plans already in place to guide every move they make for a healthy future of economic and environmental sustainability, Norwalk is left with the embarrassing spectacle of having NO Sustainability Plan in place yet, and our Planning and Zoning Director lecturing all of us heathen as to how Norwalk’s Master Plan is just a useless document. As George Bush once tried to explain, “Fool us once, shame on you, but fool us twice, shame on us.”
    Shame on all of us for paying Mike Greene $165,00 a year, with a guaranteed raise every year with no performance reviews, along with a European-style 8 weeks (yes, 2 full months) of paid vacation, and a lifelong pension worth millions alone, for basically turning Norwalk into a case study around the state of how NOT to plan a city. We can thank Mr. Greene, who doesn’t even live in Norwalk despite working here for 38 years (why would he ever choose to live in such a city he helped ruin?) for helping turn Norwalk into a huge mess of big box sprawl, stifling traffic jams and neighborhoods full of speeding cars with little traffic calming, inadequate sidewalks, struggling downtowns with rampant blight and empty storefronts, lack of any coordinated alternative transportation plan, obsolete housing projects with concentrated poverty that are decades behind other cities in being rebuilt into mixed-income complexes, and obsolete drainage standards that still allow polluted water to enter our precious river and harbor (on that last item, just as an example, Mike Greene routinely approves parking lots that drain trash and polluted oily water directly into streets and into our river and harbor, saying he and he alone has the power to interpret the regulations any way he wants. He actually said this in front of the entire commission.)
    Mr. Greene also threatened the Zoning Commission with “subpoenas” in 2012 if he ever heard us discuss the possibility of performance reviews again, when I mentioned that in a meeting when I served on the commission. The Zoning Commission has the sole responsibility of supervising and hiring and firing Mr. Greene according to the City Charter, yet he basically threatened the one entity in the city that could control him with legal action, a bogus threat but one he felt compelled to make to simply intimidate the commission. In the private sector, Mr. Greene would have been fired long ago with his arrogant attitude and superiority complex, but here he is, like the Eveready Bunny, continuing in his own fanatasy world where he and he alone controls the city, and petty nuisances like our Master Plan and any sense of transparency and accountability to that pesky Zoning Commission or Common Council or BET can all just be ignored, because he assumes his union will protect him. I am sure no union representative would ever defend this behavior,but that is what strikes fear in other city leaders apparently. I say risk any lawsuit, which in any event would cost the city much less than the money we are wasting now on his continuing reign of terror in City Hall.
    Mike Greene is simply bad news for Norwalk, and has been for years, and any attempt to reform our seriously broken planning process while keeping him in his position is just a huge waste of time and energy and is just adding lipstick to a pig, to quote Sarah Palin’s famous phrase. The evidence presented in this article, that Mr. Greene has disdain for the Master Plan which is the very document that he is responsible for creating and implementing, should be reason enough for our leaders to ask him for his immediate resignation, with a great big party and all the usual decorum promised, so that Norwalk can finally move on and stop wasting millions in salaries and bad planning decisions resulting in an underperforming grand list and stifling property taxes. I would think any business-friendly and tax-averse Republican and Democrat in this town would support such a decision, but then again, this is Norwalk, where mediocrity and incompetence have been celebrated for decades. Enough already. We cant afford this petty nonsense any longer.

  6. Suzanne

    It is ironic to me that Mr. Greene apparently has knowledge of picnic table replacement at Veterans’ Park but no knowledge of the status of the Transfer Station. I would assume the latter would be a conversation with Mr. Alvord, apparently an impossibility in the fiefdoms of Norwalk government departments.

    It is clear that, whatever the standards adopted, whatever back office improvements and procedures are updated, whatever plan is examined, whatever statue or regulation “on the books”, there are at least two department heads so saturated with politics, their ability to manage or even be politic with Council members supports a glaring lack of service to the community of Norwalk.
    Just like the DOE, I think it is time to do a national search to replace these people with educated and trained individuals who are experienced in working with municipalities and know where their paycheck comes from. As a reference to some of the information that should be at the fingertips of such a candidate:
    It would not be difficult given the breadth and depth of social media to advertise such a position at the salary and benefits level currently received by Mr. Greene and Mr. Alvord.

  7. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Much as I hate to say it, the city should bring in qualified outside expertise to do a comprehensive review of our planning and zoning process (or lack thereof), the staff skill sets, zoning regulations, as well as the skillsets, roles, and function of the planning, zoning and redevelopment agencies and make recommendations for what needs to be improved. Without this, it is pointless to spend any time, energy or money on revising the Master Plan of Conservation and Development, as clearly, it is largely ignored by the Department heads and the Commissions who actually have the power to implement it.

  8. Ms Ruby McPherson

    Sounds Good, But I know people who have no degrees,but they have experience and go 360 degree to make sure operation is as it should be. We have so many Norwalk City employees who don’t live in Norwalk, and aren’t really concern about Norwalk. Only the big salary and what they can swirdle out of it. We also have a habit of taken other towns corrupt persons to employ.

  9. Jackie and Eve, regarding Jackie’s comments that “None of the City’s department heads can pull up a budget versus actual report of spending. Stop for a moment and think about that. Many run spreadsheets that they manually update on antiquated computers that can’t even run the latest versions of office tools.” We now have this capacity at the Board of Education, and our Finance Director, Rich Rudl, provides the Board a monthly update will a full print-out of budget vs. actual spending.

  10. peter parker

    There you have it Zoning and Planning are as broken as DPW. A mess all around. They all have to go union or not.

  11. Taxpayer Fatigue

    “None of the city’s department heads can pull up a budget versus actual spending report.” This is incorrect, the reports are available on demand at anytime and have been for years for the city departments excluding the BOE, which has recently implemented a system.r

  12. Susan

    While MUNIS is not the most user friendly application , finance staff routinely provide budget vs. actual reports when requested for commission with which I’m involved. In my experience, when people create their own spreadsheets it’s usually because they haven’t learned how to use an application and/or the application doesn’t meet their needs.

  13. Scott

    Did anyone catch the $100,000 to $500,000 pricetag for the master plan study? How much are we paying Mr. Greene and his department? To do exactly what if we have to hire an outside firm?

  14. diane c2

    I haven’t been commenting on many things lately, but think I will just copy and paste the question below in response to the many local articles on nancyonnorwalk:
    How much longer will this city suffer under the direction of incompetent/arrogant/dismissive department heads, many of whom don’t even live or pay taxes in Norwalk?

  15. EveT

    What can we the ordinary citizens do to get rid of incompetent/arrogant/dismissive department heads, many of whom don’t even live or pay taxes in Norwalk?

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