By Victor Cavallo
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.