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Time to combine Planning and Zoning Commissions

Bruce Kimmel

Following the recommendation of Norwalk’s new Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), the Ordinance Committee of the Common Council has begun to examine the merits of combining the city’s Planning and Zoning Commissions. I support this effort and hope the two commissions are combined.

The new POCD also calls for a major overhaul of the city’s antiquated zoning regulations. I served on the Common Council for 14 years and was perplexed as residents repeatedly were forced to come to City Hall to voice their opposition to projects that made little sense to them but conformed to antiquated zoning regulations.

Planning should always be the driver of development; zoning regulations need to support the goals of the city’s long-term plans. Sadly, that was not the case in Norwalk for many years.

Until 2014, when Mayor Rilling took office, members of the Common Council with reservations about our cumbersome and non-existent planning process did not have the support necessary to push for major changes. For most of my time on the Council (1997-2005) and (2011-2017), four separate agencies handled the land-use issues that found their way into City Hall.

  • The Common Council’s Planning Committee: Until recently, this committee was staffed not by the city’s top planning official, but by the head of our Redevelopment Agency. As a result, much of what that committee addressed had virtually nothing to do with long-term planning. Its members spent the bulk of their time dealing with issues in urban areas under the purview of the Redevelopment Agency.
  • The Redevelopment Agency: This quasi-independent agency focuses primarily on areas of the city that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development deems to need further development. Members spend much of their time on the copious paperwork required when receiving federal dollars. This agency does not deal with the city’s overall long-term development.
  • The Planning Commission: This commission reviews land-use initiatives to ensure they conform to the 10-year, state-mandated Plan of Conservation and Development. Trouble was, until recently, these 10-year plans were so general, so devoid of priorities and specifics, virtually anything conformed to the plan and was thus passed along to Zoning. The Commission is also tasked with reviewing capital budget requests to ensure they dovetail with the POCD.
  • The Zoning Commission: This commission ensures that all land use projects conform to existing zoning regulations. It’s common knowledge that many of these regulations are antiquated and make no sense, but that’s irrelevant. Thus, the Zoning Commission, for years operating without a long-term vision (because the city had none) has been forced to rely on questionable regulations when evaluating projects.

 

A few years back, at one of the first meetings of the task force put together by Mayor Rilling to create the new POCD, I asked, “What do we want Norwalk to look like in 10 years, 20 years?” Some of the folks in the room looked at me as if I were crazy.

Fortunately, things have begun to change for the better, but slowly. Soon after the 2013 election, Mayor Rilling realized our zoning regulations needed an overhaul and appointed a task force to examine them and make recommendations. But the problems were too numerous and too complicated for volunteers to address, and the effort fizzled. The Mayor and the Council then hired consultants to do a comprehensive review, with resident input, and come up with a new set of regulations. That review is happening right now.

Mayor Rilling also hired top staff with credentials in planning, and they have been working with city agencies to devise a more cohesive long-term approach to planning. Part of this effort was the creation – for the first time – of a new POCD that was specific, prioritized and set out a long-term vision of where we want to go as a city. The plan contains timelines and benchmarks that require periodic departmental review.

The Council’s Ordinance Committee is addressing another piece of the puzzle: For too many years, the absence of serious planning allowed zoning to drive development. Now that we have a credible POCD, we should combine the Planning and Zoning Commissions to ensure that our soon-to-be-updated zoning regulations conform to the specific and prioritized goals set out in the POCD.

 

 

7 comments

David McCarthy August 17, 2021 at 7:53 am

Committed quitter Bruce Kimmel always pops back up, normally to push for the worst and most corrupt ideas that come out of the Democrat Town Committee. Good to see nothing has changed up north. Makes me feel solid that I moved.

Separation of duties is, and always has been, a good idea. Sorry folks, logic wont prevail here with the foxes running the henhouse. Whatever project is driving this change must be going to line some pockets….

John O'Neill August 17, 2021 at 9:36 am

Speaking of planning and zoning:
I read in The Hour that we are spending $ 1,000,000 to rebuild a softball field at McMahon High School. I find that a travesty. There are not more needy programs to support? No offense, but there’s almost zero interest in Girl’s softball at that school. They can barely field a team for goodness sakes. There will be state of the art lighting to be used 13 nights per year..13!! I’m not sure what the back story is for this largesse, but it proves that fiscal discipline and common sense does not reign in Norwalk. Good for the AD at McMahon – He gets a first class field which should be worth 5 wins per year if history is any indication. This is beyond ludicrous as we scramble to fund our schools…

Barbara Meyer-Mitchell August 17, 2021 at 10:12 am

It does not surprise me that Mr. Kimmel approves of concentrating power into fewer hands. However, I have found the Planning Commission to be an important balance where citizens can be heard and adjustments made to further the interests of residents. Because members of the Planning Commission are not elected, I have often found them to be more practical and less influenced by the crowd.

James Cahn August 17, 2021 at 3:16 pm

Ordinarily, the POCD has been done as a “tick off the box” exercise every 10 years and is then immediately ignored. (Unless, obviously, it’s near election time and can serve as a prop to wave around and talk about “vision” and “leadership.”)

Suddenly, though, we have the political will to implement one of its directives which nobody asked for and that most Norwalkers tend to disagree with? That should concern people.

Also, Bruce does a great job of selling me on this idea. It seems like the reductive version is: Planning is supposed to be guided by a document which everyone ignores in the interest of doing what they want anyway, so they’re pretty much a ghost ship. Zoning makes sure that everything confirms to our zoning regulations but everyone agrees that those regulations are mostly silly and old, so they’re pretty much useless. Plus, sometimes, can you believe that the regulations make it LESS easy for developers to dump projects that would never see the light of day in our neighboring municipalities? Won’t someone think of them?!? Obviously, the way to fix two broken organizations is to combine them!

I guess all that’s left to do is to spray tax incentives around.

Victor Cavallo August 17, 2021 at 5:18 pm

“The Planning Commission: This commission reviews land-use initiatives to ensure they conform to the 10-year, state-mandated Plan of Conservation and Development.”

I’ve been on the Planning Commission. “Ensure”? If you believe that, Bruce, I know I can sell you a bridge in Brooklyn.

Piberman August 18, 2021 at 1:38 pm

Looking back over the last 3 or 4 decades its not apparent that combining Commissions would have made a difference. City officials remain reluctant to take the vigorous actions to change our long depressed Downtown embarrassment into a vigorous Downtown with a corporate presence advertising Norwalk as a major City. Without a major redevelopment effort our 10% Poverty rate continues well into the future. Without encouraging an major rebuilding of our shabby Downtown we’ll not attract good jobs to improve the lives of our most needy.

Nora King August 19, 2021 at 10:17 pm

This is long over due. As someone who has been on the Common Council, a zoning commissioner and a planning commissioner…this should have been done years ago. I also think it should be an elected position and not appointed. These groups were only separated in the 80s because Norwalk was violating EPA laws and the city was afraid of being sued.

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