Sheehan: Norwalk RDA works well with Zoning

 Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan.
Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan.

NORWALK, Conn. – The rumored animosity between two Norwalk department heads does not appear to exist.

Nancy On Norwalk has been told several times that Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan does not get along with Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene because Greene and his department are difficult to work with, holding up progress. Asked about that this week, Sheehan laughed and said that isn’t the case.

“I know that that’s out there, I just don’t think that it’s real,” Sheehan said.

The RDA and P&Z have worked together on several projects, Sheehan said, listing the Parking Master Plan, the mid-Harbor Plan and the first “South Norwalk neighborhood plan that was pushed by the Planning Commission.”

But he said there are other issues, such as, “The need for zoning to be brought into the development process earlier. I have always been of the position that we shouldn’t even have redevelopment plans going up to the council without zoning to implement the plan. I mean, that seems pretty basic, doesn’t it? I think there’s a sense from zoning that they are the last ones who are brought into the process. I think that has been just a result of how Norwalk approaches redevelopment.”

“Are there more effective ways to integrate staff? If I were on the Zoning Commission I would want to understand how the Redevelopment Agency is looking at a plan, developing a plan early on so I could look at what the zoning implications are going to be of that plan. I think that’s all pretty basic,” Sheehan said.

However, the RDA is only responsible for a fraction of the city, Sheehan said.

He recalled comments made by former Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak in July when Torgny Astrom was reappointed to the Planning Commission. Mushak said, “I think it’s a good time to really think about the Planning Commission expanding its responsibilities into what the city charter originally intended, which was to be the commission that oversaw and coordinated the departments because the word is coordinated.”

“Mike Mushak said there should be more effective joint planning,” Sheehan said. “I mean, it’s hard to disagree with that. Yes, we all should be on the same page with planning. You shouldn’t have one department that’s doing a plan that the other department is going to have implementation aspects over is either not supportive or isn’t participating in the plan. That doesn’t seem to make sense.”


14 responses to “Sheehan: Norwalk RDA works well with Zoning”

  1. Yankee Clipper

    I think Sheehan is doing a bit of CYA … Does the Norwalk Zoning Department even know the Master Parking Plan exists? Has there been one step of implementation?

  2. Suzanne

    Two articles of double speak this morning and this is one of them: Zoning and Redevelopment “get along” but they don’t know what each other is doing and they ought to coordinate that better. What? It sounds like they don’t WORK together or at least not effectively. So, maybe when the two principles see each other, they slap each other on the back or shake hands and say, “Hey!” But, what they do that the right and left hands should know about in order to be effective and workable on our behalf? This article says they don’t know. Is this what is called “getting along to go along?” I guess this means that two integral departments that create the fabric and framework of the City of Norwalk get to be nice to each other but, golly, just don’t seem to work with each at all or very well. How is this effective governance?

  3. Jlightfield

    If you actually read the “master plan of parking” you will quickly find it is not a master plan. And since zoning initiated the effort to study parking and received $25k to get a plan started, of course zoning staff is aware. But leadership matters, and Five years later we still don’t have a district wide parking plan. Zoning still requires on site parking and the City gives away streets and parking assets. And then there’s the parking authority.
    Sheehan raises a good point that redevelopment plans should not be approved without the underlying zoning in place, but that is more of a function of the City thinking that the redevelopment agency puts plans forth in the best interest of the city. They don’t they are in the business of redevelopment, the City is in the business’s of planning what it needs and wants for all of the city, not just the urban renewal areas.
    Maybe it’s time to ask the question of why we need urban renewal plans that need constant zoning tweaks and complicated financing along land disposition agreements that construct huge parcels that require … Well you get the point. We keep doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

  4. Openyoureyes

    Tim Sheehan needs to go.

  5. One and Done

    One look at the RDAs website and you can tell we are dealing with a totally out of control unaccountable entity. Zero transparency on the monies they get and fritter away and even less accountability to taxpayers. Time to end this scam.

  6. West Norwalk Neighbor

    Our zoning regulations are flawed and need to be fixed, along with that goes consistent enforcement, not just enforcement done to further the petty agendas of the Zoning Chair. We need credentialed staff with experience beyond Norwalk. It’s amazing that how anytime there is a criticism of anything to do with the City, the wagons get circled and people with their own various agendas come out of the woodwork to defend the status quo. Clearly, the city’s planning, zoning and redevelopment functions need to be re-thought and from what I hear and read, most Norwalkers agree.

  7. Nora King

    Really Tim? Wow!

  8. Dennis DiManis

    What redevelopment?

  9. Carol

    Jackie we need you back on zoning-a clear head and understanding.
    rda has needed “adjustment” for a long long time.

  10. Mike Mushak

    This is an important debate, and great to see happening through good journalism. We have all known for years that the Planning and Zoning Department (P and Z) and the RDA (I always called the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency the NRA for obvious reasons, but I guess that’s been changed to the gun-neutral RDA as I read above) are at odds most of the time. That is no secret. Tim Sheehan has to be diplomatic in public, as does P and Z Director Mike Greene. No surprise there. What goes on behind closed doors in City Hall is another story. Enough said about that.
    What is most encouraging is investigative reporting like this from NON, with sunlight shining into once dark corners of City Hall’s business. The internet can be a nasty place, but it can also be the best thing to happen to a community long suffering from cronyism and guaranteed promotions regardless of qualifications, with no performance reviews and proper management best practices, which many key staff in City Hall have lacked for decades.
    We aren’t unique in that regard for sure, but “good governance” demands that transparency and accountability take precedence, and when that does happen, the truth of how the city is actually run reveals itself, whether its in lawn signs sprouting like mushrooms demanding planning reform, auditoriums full of angry residents who feel like the planning and zoning process has failed them, or developers investing millions in our city pleading privately that something needs to be done to fix our struggling neighborhoods and fill empty storefronts. All of the above are happening now at the same time, which is a pretty clear indication that some kind of change in our planning process is needed.
    My quote mentioned in the article above about the long-neglected responsibility of the Planning Commission is appreciated, but let me elaborate on my exact words at that recent Common Council meeting. I quoted an excerpt from the city website, describing one of the main responsibilities of the Planning Commission:

    “Planning and coordinating the physical, social, and economic development of the city.”

    Except for creating the Master Plan every 10 years as required by the state, and dealing with subdivisions and the city budget process (no small task there for sure), I cannot find much evidence of the Planning Commission fulfilling its ongoing responsibility to “plan and coordinate the physical, social, and economic development of the city.” If anyone can find any evidence of that huge responsibility being performed, please share. I may be wrong, but I think I am pretty well-informed about what is happening in Norwalk and it seems impossible to miss anyone actually performing that crucial function.

    Considering all of the above, I believe the best and smartest move Norwalk can make now is to pursue a comprehensive review and overhaul of its entire planning process, not through the recommendations of a volunteer task force that will just become politicized and easily ignored after months of exhausting hard work, but beginning with a dedicated return to good governance. This includes a commitment to municipal management “best practices” using proper accountability and transparency, beginning with a return to performance reviews of staff based on well-defined goals which we have abandoned for years.
    Another good first step towards that goal could be a fully independent “operational audit” by an outside professional municipal planning consultant with planning and zoning experience, who will look at our obsolete code as well as our entire planning process including how the Planning and Zoning Department and the Redevelopment Agency are working internally as well as with each other. We need hired guns with national experience to look at our broken planning process, not local volunteers who will most likely be vilified by the usual suspects who will predictably circle the wagons and protect the status quo for self-serving reasons, which has been the real source of our problems for decades.
    It may take a few years, but how many more times can we tolerate our community being torn apart by issues that are clearly resulting from our broken and corrupted planning process and obsolete code? Who will want to live or work in such an angry and divided community afflicted with one bad planning decision after another? How can we trust that we are getting the best planning we deserve when the major players including the Planning and Zoning Commissions and the Redevelopment Commission never talk or sit down together, let alone work together to “plan and coordinate the physical, social, and economic development” of our once great city that is now struggling on so many levels?

    Now is the time to get serious about fixing it, and it is up to the Chairs of the Planning Commission, Zoning Commission, and Redevelopment Agency Commission to work together and develop a strategy for change, including finding and hiring an independent professional consultant to perform an honest and unbiased (and long-overdue) operational audit of our entire planning process, without any influence of staff or politicians on the final results. If they can’t work together (they rarely talk as it is), than the Common Council needs to step up to the plate, along with the mayor, to hire a qualified consultant.
    A smarter and more accountable planning process is what we all deserve, regardless of what side of the aisle we sit on. This is way beyond petty politics or turf wars at this point, since what is at stake is our essential quality of life and our future as a well-planned healthy and attractive city with a strong tax base, protected natural resources, smart growth, great schools, safe roads for all users, multiple housing and transportation choices regardless of income, and an affordable cost of living (including stable property taxes) to raise families or retire in.
    That’s what good planning should be all about. The question is, who is actually in charge of “coordinating” all of that in Norwalk? After 15 years of living here, and as a professional landscape architect familiar with the results of what good planning processes in other cities across the country have produced, I have to say that here in Norwalk, we clearly need help.

  11. anon

    @Mushak yes, minus your personal animosity with some people as it detracts from your otherwise very good ideas.
    As you suggest,
    “(Norwalk)pursue a comprehensive review and overhaul of its entire planning process, not through the recommendations of a volunteer task force that will just become politicized and easily ignored”
    “fully independent “operational audit” by an outside professional municipal planning consultant with planning and zoning experience, who will look at our obsolete code as well as our entire planning process”
    “finding and hiring an independent professional consultant to perform an honest and unbiased ..operational audit of our entire planning process, without any influence of staff or politicians on the final results.”

  12. John Hamlin

    Sounds like this article is trying to justify a totally dysfunctional operation.

  13. Suzanne

    Mike, It is good to “hear” from you. These are well thought out and informed reflections but, I have to ask, what can an outside consultant do that won’t end up in a drawer?
    What incentive do the directors of the various departments and commissions have to meet together to begin evaluating a broken system (and follow a consultants recommendations)?
    Why would performance reviews with accountable standards be renewed if, when employees were evaluated carefully, it would become clear that some pretty heavy hitters in government are not qualified for what they do (it seems like a real possibility?)
    It feels like the constituency just does not matter – it doesn’t matter how many signs or the anger expressed at meetings or the organized efforts of groups to be heard.
    Your vision for Norwalk is valuable (essential) but I am now wondering how doable. If the head of the RDA and the director of Zoning do not know what each are doing, a small symptom of the dysfunction, and with the past excuses of I have read from various commissioners saying that current work precludes them from the time to review or even begin to change regulations, how can an outside consultant assist in making changes when there is no time?
    I don’t disagree with a thing that you have said but I question its plausibility. I also don’t think that Norwalk can go in any other direction than what you describe UNLESS it is content to continue on this dysfunctional path. So far, that has been the case for decades. What is to change this path now?

  14. Kathleen Montgomery

    Thanks Mike for your counsel and Suzanne for your valuable questions. Just wondering here: would an outside professional municipal planning consultant save many difficult and contentious meetings of all involved? If the answer is yes, then it seems like the place to begin. I’m not suggesting that it won’t be difficult, but having an actual, doable plan would be a huge start. Combining this with performance evaluations just may help jump start this arduous task.

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