Correction 3:12 p.m. May 3: Next public hearing is 7 p.m. Monday, May 9.
NORWALK, Conn. – Planning and Zoning issues continue to dominate the discussion on charter revision.
Monday’s Common Council public hearing on the results of its Charter Revision Commission began with Council President Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) pushing back on a suggestion that has been made by Lisa Thomson and others to give the Council power over Planning and Zoning, and progressed to Thomson saying, “The mayor campaigned, as did many of you, on Planning and Zoning reform. I ask that we get on with that.”
It ended with Kimmel saying that “the timeline may not be satisfactory but we are doing the best that we can.”
“There are a lot of thoughtful comments about our land use policies that could be debated and debated and debated, but these are not simple,” Kimmel said to NancyOnNorwalk after the meeting. “The charter already provides the Council with a fair amount of power, vis-à-vis combining or separating P&Z.”
Thomson and Planning Commissioner David Davidson said, in the Charter Revision Commission’s second public hearing, that charter section 1-189.2 should be changed to remove the line that makes Planning and Zoning an exception to Council oversight.
“When you read it, it is anything but simple,” Kimmel said in opening Monday’s meeting. “To remove the exception gives the Council power to ‘establish and amend by ordinance such rules, regulations, policies and procedures as it may deem necessary or appropriate to define and govern the powers, duties, responsibilities and operations of such administrative departments.’”
Much of Planning and Zoning is subject to litigation and is governed by state statutes, he said.
“This is a legitimate issue but not a simple issue. It’s too complicated to get involved with. I agree, it’s something that has got to be reviewed, but it’s also something that is very, very complicated, it’s not simple,” Kimmel said.
And, “Mayor Rilling, for probably about a month and a half, has been involved in a search for a certified planner. … There have been differences of opinion about who would report to whom,” Kimmel said.
The Charter Revision Commission, following the mandate of the Council, has drafted a revision that would make the mayoral and town clerk terms four years, with no term limits. The Council had suggested that perhaps Council terms could be changed, but the Commission did not opt for that route.
This figured into Thomson’s strong commentary.
“I’ve been critical of the assigned items by the Council to the Charter Revision Commission because I’ve felt they address the wants of politicians and not necessarily the needs of residents,” Thomson said. “In an election where the national narrative, on both sides of the aisle, has been about a rigged system, I feel that at the municipal level can sometimes appear rigged, at worst rigged or at best inconsistent, particularly as it applies to Planning and Zoning.
Yes, it’s complicated but, “I ask all of you, how many of you feel empowered to address the pleas from your constituents to address the myriad Planning and Zoning issues that we come to on almost a daily basis?” Thomson asked.
She asked, “Why is there no employee from Planning and Zoning on the Common Council Planning Committee?” and suggested a “task force to investigate the alleged under-valuations of various commercial and multi-unit family properties in the city.”
“Wouldn’t residents ‘go ape’ if they thought the city wasn’t doing its due diligence when it comes to commercial properties assessment – placing an undue tax burden on homeowners?” Thomson asked.
The meeting featured some frequent fliers who haven’t made it to previous charter revision hearings.
Diane Cece said she agreed with Kimmel on the P&Z issue.
“It’s a very complicated issue and I think it’s something that really needs to be well thought out and well investigated, especially when you take a look at some of the changes that have been requested where the Common Council would have more authority,” Cece said.
“For my mind, if you have that kind of power in the Common Council, coupled with potential 4-year mayoral terms – that’s unlimited terms – I think it could be maybe a slippery slope into an area that could – I don’t know how I want to say this, politically correct – but maybe it would have undue influence over the final results of those Boards,” Cece said.
Former Councilwoman Patsy Brescia spoke on other topics, using her experience as a 1960s leader to emphasize that the Council has a tremendous amount of responsibility in a weak mayor-strong Council government.
She suggested that at-large Council members be given 4-year terms and supported lengthening the mayoral term.
“To have a mayor who has a vision that is given to the community, and the community can follow up on the vision, when you have major construction, it takes more than two years from the conception to the planning to get the shovel in ground,” Brescia said. “Then it usually takes two or more years for completion. So a four-year term for mayor would be I think an improvement for our community.”
“I feel strongly that this (charter revision) is such a positive step forward for the city of Norwalk that I wanted to come and give a little different opinion on why this is so important,” Brescia said.
Joe Tamburri said that he had been unable to speak at previous public hearings. The four-year mayoral term is great but term limits should have been addressed “for various reasons, without getting into any personalities, going back 20 or 30 years ago,” he said.
“I say that specifically with the climate that has been out there for the last seven or eight years or even earlier, on the state and national level,” Tamburri said. “I am sure we don’t have those concerns here in Norwalk. I think we are way above the national and the state when it comes to … situations, but I think it’s something we should be addressing, term limits.”
Others returned to speak again.
The Charter Revision Commission should stay in place for several years, Bob Hard said. One priority would be to “condense the language to make it more modern. … That would result in no substantive change at all but would result in a charter that can actually be read,” he said.
“We might be squandering a real opportunity here,” Diane Lauricella said, eventually advocating for the change supported by Thomson.
“Without this trigger being done this year, we are going to delay a possible reform of our land use planning, this city, for two or three years or more,” Lauricella said. “… It’s not a big deal allowing you just to consider reorganizing planning and zoning. … Why wait? The public can handle this extra question.”
Also, she suggested adding five more Council members – one from each district, for a total of 20 – would mean more people to do “due diligence,” she said.
There is another public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday, Kimmel said, in closing the meeting. “We understand there are a variety of issues out there. … We do believe these issues are important.”
Speaking to NancyOnNorwalk, Kimmel said, “The more we looked into it, the more complex we realized Zoning is. Providing more power to the Council, vis-à-vis, the Zoning Commission, is really much more complicated than we originally thought.”
“We can’t willy-nilly create situations where the Council is looking over the shoulders, or possibly micromanaging, Zoning, which has to conform to laws, which creates laws and has to conform to state law – and who end up in court quite often,” Kimmel said. “So to give the Council more power, vis-à-vis Zoning, requires a lengthy discussion on what we want to do, or how to do it, or if we do it. That’s the reason we are saying slow down, let’s wait on this. It’s not that there is disagreement among folks.”
Saying that taking out the exception in 189.2 is like saying, “What’s the big deal” with lengthening the mayoral term, Kimmel said.
“If the Council members are elected every two years and they are being pressured by constituents, will they go micromanaging Zoning?” Kimmel asked. “Do we really want to have a Zoning Commission that is answerable to the Council? Do we really want that? These are all legitimate issues to discuss and believe me, it would take a long time because there’s a lot of difference of opinions out there. That’s the issue here. It’s not simple and it would take time.”