Updated, 4 p.m. Nov. 5: Copy edit. Updated, 8:46 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – The long-awaited first draft of the 2018 city-wide master plan received its first criticisms Tuesday, and some proclaimed it well-done.
“I think you have made tremendous progress in the last four or five months,” Planning Commissioner David Davidson said, during a joint meeting of the Common Council and the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) Oversight Committee. “I think you have a plan here that covers most of the things that have been discussed. My only concern about this plan is that it should be an action-oriented document.”
The meeting was the first opportunity for the Committee, made up of community and staff members, to look at the document, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said. The Committee’s comments will be incorporated into the draft, which will then be offered to the public for review, probably by the end of November.
The Planning Commission will hopefully hold a public hearing in January, the Common Council will vote on the plan. The Planning Commission will give final approval, Kleppin said.
Larissa Brown, a Stantec principal who has served as the lead consultant for the City in developing the latest 10-year-plan required by state statute, explained the plan’s “big themes,” and spoke of transitions happening in Norwalk and the nation overall, with challenges and opportunities for Norwalk.
“Change is a reality in every community,” Brown said. “… One of the things that’s sort of a theme that goes throughout this plan is that Norwalk needs to be more proactive, more systematic and more data-driven in order to shape change to be successful. Because, it’s like saying, ‘Change happens.’ Either it happens to you or you’re in the drivers’ seat and you kind of decide what you want to see happen and you work to try to make it happen.”
Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King said that it would be helpful for citizens who are not deeply immersed in City politics to know that he plan has “a lot of things identified that are priorities of the city already that are currently being worked on.”
King mentioned that Mayor Harry Rilling was not in attendance because he was at a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) conference. Former Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton and some of her supporters snickered derisively when King said that CCM is bestowing an award on Norwalk for work done to get regular Zoning permit functions online.
“A lot of things are currently underway so as we are starting to go through the prioritization process I think it would be really helpful to either have a side document or some notes in this document about things that are in process,” King said.
“I cannot know everything that is even going on,” Brown replied, adding that she included references to Rilling’s reorganization. Former Brinton campaign treasurer Debora Goldstein, one of about 20 people in attendance, leaned to Thomson to joke about “brownie points.”
The draft document has a chapter devoted to Land Use, which states: “No real ‘culture of planning’ exists within the city. Longstanding conditions make the city responsive to immediate developer proposals rather than proactively guiding long-term change. Instead, planning initiatives should lead to and directly influence land use and zoning actions.”
The plan refers to “placemaking” and explains “Performance Zoning,” “Form-Based Zoning,” and “Hybrid Zoning,” later referring to “Tactical urbanism.”
Norwalk has been complaining for 10 years that its Zoning regulations have the power of law but its master plan does not, Board of Education member Bruce Kimmel said. Kimmel is a former member of the Common Council. There was talk about “totally revamping” the Zoning regulations but “that’s a bigger job than we thought, we didn’t get very far,” Kimmel said.
He asked if once the plan is approved a consultant could be hired to draft Zoning regulations in accordance to the plan because “the Zoning folks find themselves in incredibly ridiculous situations sometimes” and “having an ad-hoc task force of volunteers I don’t think will cut it going forward.”
Brown said that in her opinion, the highest priority should be given to the plan’s recommendation that the Zoning regulations be rewritten.
Those comments drew applause from Brinton and her supporters.
“It’s in your plan,” Davidson said. “… You’ve got, 1,000 actions in here; I haven’t counted but that’s my rough estimate… unfortunately they are not prioritized so you have a serious problem with implementation.”
Brown said it’s not her place to prioritize, and Planning Commissioner Mike Mushak said that’s a legislative function, not for a consultant.
“I think the idea of prioritizing is not what the master plan is about,” Mushak said. “Because it’s a wish list and it’s all going to cost money. Rewriting the zoning code is going to cost, could be a few hundred thousand dollars.”
“It will cost more than this plan,” Kleppin said, referring to Stantec’s $195,000 contract.
“I think as a document this is way beyond our current master plan,” Mushak said. “I think you have done an amazing job and with all the criticisms… the idea that you are going to tell us what our priorities are is just a misdirection. I can see it evolving into something that is really going to be useful for the city.”
The plan suggests a four-year university in Norwalk’s downtown, an idea that drew some comments.
“I agree with you, I think the more we bring academics into the city of Norwalk the more we can grow,” Planning Commissioner Nora King said, asking how that could be accomplished.
“The idea is not necessarily that Norwalk will attract a four-year college or an actual university,” Brown explained. “At a minimum, there will be some NCC presence downtown. Now they are already going to have a presence in the mall.”
The institution could be regional, a business college or an arts department, to generate activity, ideally something to spark economic or entrepreneurial growth, she said. “I don’t think it’s realistic that Norwalk can get a research university but … to get some kind of academic presence.”
Kimmel and others suggested that there should be a plan to monitor the process inspired by the plan, when it’s approved.
“We don’t have a process to monitor what we are doing,” Kimmel said, suggesting periodic formal reviews to be inserted into the POCD as an appendix.
“It’s about also looking at opportunities that we didn’t know, that don’t happen to be in the plan, or are there barriers that turned out to be bigger,” Brown said. “…It’s really to have a discussion of how we’re doing in moving toward the goals.”
King said she agreed that there should be a formalized review.
Common Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said it’s always bothered him that goals and priorities aren’t set every term, that maybe it should be done as part of the election cycle. He predicted that capital budget funds will be diverted next year to address flooding issues.
With an annual report, departments and agencies would discuss priorities as part of the budget process, Brown said.
“If you have a plan, you can tell economic development people to go out and look for the kind of development that you want, plus developers don’t have to be mind readers,” Brown said.
Members of the public were given three minutes each to speak.
“I think it’s a very thoughtful plan. It’s thorough. I wish I had more than a day to read it,” real estate broker Jason Milligan said.
NancyOnNorwalk received a link to the draft via email; Kleppin and the Planning Commission did not plan to put out the draft until the Committee had weighed in, sources say.
Milligan went on to recount some of his issues as a Wall Street property owner, speaking of a young dentist who wanted to open a first floor dental office only to be rebuffed by the current Zoning regulations, and of “Mr. Mango,” a cardiologist from Colombia who is operating a food truck and is frustrated in his desire to rent from Milligan.
“The roadblocks are way too many,” Milligan said. He argued that small businesses cannot afford to comply with the Zoning regulations. Milligan’s remark inspired Brinton to call out from the audience with her only comment: “You’ll never be able to fund the schools unless you have businesses in this town.”