Letter: Norwalk candidate Rilling doesn’t understand obstacles

By Victor Cavallo

Planning Commissioner

NORWALK, Conn. – It’s election season, when our senses are overloaded by strident candidate pronouncements along the lines of: “I can lead you to the promised land better than the other guy.” Some candidates, especially the inexperienced ones, are silent or incapable of demonstrating how to get there. The devil is in the details.

In particular, mayoral candidate Harry Rilling calls for a halt to building big box stores. And because he doesn’t quite specify how he’s going to accomplish this lofty goal, he leaves hanging in mid-air the implication that if elected mayor in 2013, he can autonomously exercise power to stop them.

So, what, if elected, can Mr. Rilling or any other candidate do to single-handedly implement a ban against big box stores? The answer is: almost nothing!

An implementation of municipal policy against big box stores is statutorily within the purview of the Norwalk Planning Commission, its counterpart, the Norwalk Zoning Commission, and the Common Council. The Planning Commission is the policy gatekeeper and sets policy through the Plan of Conservation and Development (the Master Plan). Anything that the Zoning Commission does must adhere to the Master Plan (there’s nothing in the existing plan that bans big boxes).What happens at either commission then goes to the Common Council. Before anything can be done, it all goes through several public hearings, reviews and revisions. It’s devised through review and comment by the Planning Commission, citizen committees, the regional planning commission, SWRPA, and dozens of public officials and policy makers. The policy implementation must comply with guidelines and mandates established by state statutes and with strict notice timelines for public hearings.

So, it’s not a goal that Mr. Rilling or any other candidate can accomplish autonomously. Neither can he accomplish it anytime soon. Not until … perhaps … 2018.

The current Master Plan – one that is NOT big-box unfriendly – was adopted in 2008. By statute, the Master Plan is changed every 10 years and is not due for statutory revision until 2018. Thus if candidate Rilling is elected in November for the 2013-2015 term, he quite likely won’t see any changes to the Master Plan. He would have to win an election in 2017 before he might hope to have any impact by way of opinion on big boxes. And then he would have to rely on the advice and consent of the planning commissioners and the Common Council members in office at the time.

Not only does the current 2008 Master Plan NOT discourage big box stores, it strongly encourages job-creating business and commercial development, especially along Route 1 – Connecticut Avenue – and Route 7 – Main Avenue. From all across the political spectrum, and from all walks of life, in 2008 there was a veritable “who’s who” of experienced citizens, influential policymakers and professionals who lent their approval to the 2008 Plan – and who recognized the importance of encouraging business and employment, and who apparently were not horrified at the prospect of having big box stores. Among others, they were the then-members of the Common Council: Fred A. Bondi, (D); Rev. Phyllis Y. Bolden (D); Richard Bonenfant (R); Amanda Brown, (D); Andrew T. Conroy (R); Michael K.Geake (D); Douglas E. Hempstead (R); Carvin J. Hilliard (D); William M. Krummel, (D); Nicholas D. Kydes (R); Laurel E. Lindstrom (D); Richard A. McQuaid (R); Steven Serasis (D); Kelly L. Straniti (R); and Douglas W. Stutton (D). So, too, were the members of the Planning Commission, and their staff and consultants on board as signatories to the Master Plan.

Thus, Mr. Rilling, despite his pronouncements and wishful thinking, can’t part waters without the consent of dozens of members of independent committees, commissions and the Common Council. And, if at all serving as mayor in 2018, he would have to be quite persuasive about changing a broad consensus of opinion among dozens of public officials and policymakers before he could influence a policy against big box stores.

In fact, nowhere in the statutes is the mayor charged with any role in the Master Plan except in the event that the municipality fails to revise it decennially. And then he is merely required to write a letter to the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management and the commissioners of Transportation, Environmental Protection and Economic and Community Development that explains why the plan was not amended on time.

So when the Master Plan is renewed in 2018, will there be such a sea-change of public opinion on big box stores that Mr. Rilling can take advantage of to ban them? Perhaps. But to accomplish his lofty goal, Mr. Rilling, if in office, would have to be mayor in 2018. Will he be? We can’t predict. But the next 2013-2015 mayoral term will not see a ban on big box stores, no matter who is mayor, not even Mr. Rilling, and in spite of his promises and good intentions. As I said earlier, the devil is in the details.

Victor Cavallo



7 responses to “Letter: Norwalk candidate Rilling doesn’t understand obstacles”

  1. LWitherspoon

    Interesting letter. Thank you Mr. Cavallo. I wonder what Mr. Rilling’s response is to the charge that he’s advocating something that can’t even be put in place until 2018.

  2. 0ldtimer

    Mr Cavallo writes as if he assumes Harry Rilling isn’t already familiar with existing process. His letter is condescending, at best, and indicates he doesn’t know Harry very well. There are other ways to accomplish zoning changes, with the right leadership. Zoning rules get changed frequently without changing the “master plan” as Cavallo would know if he had been paying attention.

  3. 0ldtimer

    And, to make it worse, Lwitherspoon reliably agrees with Cavallo’s premise.

  4. LWitherspoon

    Nowhere in my comment did I agree with Cavallo’s premise. I am simply glad to see letters and comments that make an argument and back them up with factual statements, as opposed to those that rely largely on emotion, speculation, or sleazy insinuation.
    I said it above and I’ll say it again – I wonder what Mr. Rilling’s response is to the charge that he’s advocating something that can’t even be put in place until 2018. Since you’re in Rilling’s camp, will you enlighten us? You state that there is a way to change zoning rules without changing the master plan. How would one go about doing that? Again, will you enlighten us?

  5. Joe Espo

    Strange that Harry is on the Zoning Commission but hasn’t done anything to eliminate these stores. He even voted for the Lloyds store when it was up for approval. And he was at the ribbon cutting for the others. Disingenuous? I think he knows the process but he wants to deceive the low information voters into thinking he can snap his fingers and make it happen if he’s mayor.

  6. Tim T

    Joe Espo
    What is a Lloyds store??

  7. Mike Mushak

    Mr Cavallo seems to have a different copy of the Master Plan than I have, or he is interpreting it much differently than what it actually says, which is strange since he sits on the Planning Commission and should be quite familiar with it.

    He states that the Plan is “not big-box unfriendly”, which is the same as saying “big-box friendly” if you take out his tricky double negative. In fact, there is no reference at all to big-box stores in the Master Plan, but an emphasis on balanced growth and encouraging retail in pedestrian-friendly environments!

    Let me quote what the Plan does say about retail, and you can be the judge to decide if Mr. Cavallo’s letter above was accurate, or if it was just another unfair GOP attack aimed at Harry Rilling, which seems to be Mr. Cavallo’s main goal in completely mis-interpreting The Master Plan of the City of Norwalk, a shocking move for a sitting Planning Commissioner.

    Here is the Master Plan’s description of ‘balanced growth” of retail in the “Balanced Economic Growth” Chapter “A”, on pages 8-12, (which is the core concept of this Master Plan, which is “balanced growth”):

    A.1.1.4: Preserve and enhance the character of Norwalk.
    A.1.1.9: Encourage development that that seeks to provide maximum returns to the city in the Grand List tax revenue consistent with public purpose.(my note: mixed-use office/housing/retail provides a much greater return than single-use retail only, as many studies show.)
    A.4.1.1 Encourage retail activity in the West Avenue/Wall Street and Reed/Putnam areas and place EMPHASIS ON PEDESTRIAN-ORIENTED ENVIRONMENT. (my emphasis with the capitals.)
    A.4.1.2 Encourage subsequent retail and service sector growth along Routes 1 and 7 WHERE THE INFRASTRUCTURE SYSTEM CAN ADEQUATELY SUPPORT DEVELOPMENT: PLACE EMPHASIS ON PEDESTRIAN ORIENTED ENVIRONMENT. (my use of capitals again to make the point.)

    Perhaps Mr. Cavallo, along with his friends Dave McCarthy and Dick Moccia, should spend more time actually reading the Master Plan and helping implement it, rather than mis-interpreting it to use it as a tool to attack their most feared candidate for mayor, Harry Rilling.

    For starters, the Master Plan calls for bike lanes (E.3.1.7)and managing truck traffic through residential areas (E.3.2.4), two concepts I have been fighting for for years with much pushback from the GOP leaders in Norwalk. For example, folks are desperate on Fairfield Ave., in SoNo where I live, to get relief from the constant truck traffic, and we hear every excuse in the book from the GOP as to why we can’t ban trucks from that street. Also, we have the honor of being the ONLY city in CT to not install on-street designated bike lanes, as we hear a litany of excuses from the GOP leaders and DPW as to why we can’t do it. It’s embarrassing, actually.

    It’s all about priorities, and improving quality of life and public safety clearly seems to NOT be on the GOP’s radar screen, even though it is one of the main concepts of the Master Plan, along with BALANCED GROWTH WITH AN EMPHASIS ON PEDESTRIAN_FRIENDLY ENVIRONMENTS. This last phrase means basically: encourage growth in the downtown areas, and only elsewhere on two main corridors, Routes 1 and 7, where the infrastructure can support it.

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