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.