NORWALK, Conn. – It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.
The job? Telling people what they can – or, more to the point, cannot – do with their property.
It’s called zoning, and it is a crucial element in mapping a successful future for any community. Planning and zoning – they can. Or should, go hand in hand – creates the city’s blueprint, and amends as necessary. Where do we want the commercial center? Where do we want industrial use? What about entertainment?
Then drill down a bit: Where do we want to create a walkable, shoppable area with small shops and restaurants and services? Where do we put the fast food chains? The big box stores? Convenience stores? Gas stations? What about signage? Height, width, illumination, proximity to the road and to the business?
Everyone has a horror story about an area where unchecked growth has destroyed the ambience or created traffic nightmares. One of my favorite examples is North Myrtle Beach, S.C., along U.S. 17 a short ways south of the North Carolina line. What was once a pleasant drive on a two-lane road with some tourist-oriented local family restaurants (OK, there was a Stuckey’s) and family attractions is now an unending visual cacophony of restaurants, bars, more bars, gas stations, T-shirt superstores, more bars, including topless joint.
Over on the beach, hotels and condos encroached on the high-water line. Buildings obscured the city’s main selling point — the beach. Of course, at that time (1987), all but one member of the Zoning Board was in real estate.
Another example: On Manasota Key in Englewood, Fla., there is a major change when you cross the county line from Charlotte County into Sarasota County. In Charlotte, you’ll find a long beach with a boardwalk, surrounded on three sides by thickly settled condos, beach bars, restaurants and beach shops. The condos continue to the Sarasota line, when the road becomes a two-lane country road with beautiful foliage partially obscuring beachfront mansions. There’s an unspoiled beach with an adjacent, nationally known artists retreat, unfettered beach views, and more homes before reaching the northern terminus, where there is another, slightly more developed beach.
Zoning. It’s the difference between desirable and tolerable, and has a big impact on property values.
So it was that my jaw dropped when I heard that certain members of Norwalk’s Zoning Commission are under the impression that they have no business telling people what they can or cannot do with their property. Commissioner Linda Kruk, ex-Mayor Richard Moccia’s appointment to the board to replace Adam Blank, an attorney who specializes in, among other things, land use issues, said this at a recent Zoning Committee meeting:
“I do believe in every individual’s property rights. Somebody decides in one of the bigger parcels down the road — if somebody sold it and wanted to put in a box store, what you are saying is they can’t do it because of this change that we are making. I am not inclined to agree with it.”
Kruk was speaking in regard to Commissioner Mike Mushak’s attempt to include recommendations from a half-million-dollar study in the city’s Master Plan, language that would limit store sizes on Main Avenue. While the study calls for 10,000 square feet, Mushak offered a compromise of 35,000 square feet. Kruk objected to setting a limit.
She joined with Emily Wilson and Joe Santo, who has spent the better part of two decades on the panel, in leading the charge against Mushak’s bid.
When it comes to zoning, it is always better to be more restrictive than less. One can always go back and loosen restrictions, or grant a variance, but once a building is built, the genie is out of the bottle.
It takes action, not inaction, for a city to experience controlled growth.