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Save Westport Now

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16 Owenoke Park

Westport, CT 0688o

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via email
 

December 5, 2016
Mary Young
Director, Westport Planning and Zoning
Town Hall
110 Myrtle Avenue
Westport, CT 06880

 

Re: Text Amendment #722; New Procedures to Give Residents Better Access to Information
 

Dear Ms. Young:
 

Please accept our warmest congratulations on your promotion. We wish you every success in this
new post and look forward to working with you.

 

The other reason we are writing is to ask for your help. In July, we wrote to your predecessor with a
few suggestions that we believe will increase transparency and ensure that the public is
provided with better—and more timely—information
. A month later, we followed up with an
email. Unfortunately, Mr. Palmer did not reply to either our letter or email. In light of Text Amendment
#722, we are now writing again in the hope that you will consider and implement our suggestions.

 

Background. Over the years, many of our members have expressed concern that they were
sometimes unaware of proposed text amendments, variance requests, or other planning and zoning
matters until it was too late to comment. Part of the problem, we suspect, is that fewer and fewer
residents subscribe to local newspapers. People now get their news, if at all, from private blogs (like
06880). But the sheer number of text amendments, variances, and zoning applications is also a
factor. Even the most diligent homeowner would find it difficult to keep track of everything. And even
if a resident is aware of a proposed amendment or application, the public notice is often written in
legalese, which makes it difficult to understand and virtually impossible to evaluate in terms of
practical consequences. Finally, we have reason to believe that some applicants for variances may
be skirting the notice rules.

 

Recommendations. To address the above concerns, we propose the following:
 

1. Create an Electronic File for the Public.
 

(a) Post All Zoning Related Applications and Documents. We propose that the town establish
an electronic archive online (perhaps similar to a Google Docs file) where ALL zoning applications
(including, without limitation, 8-24 applications and applications for zoning permits, zoning
variances, and text amendments), together with all related surveys, building plans, drawings,
specifications, reports, staff memoranda, and other materials, are posted as soon as they are
received by the town or created by the staff. (Note: To make this easier, the town could require that applicants post electronic copies at the time that they submit the application—or pay a fee in lieu to have staff do it. Everything could be filed according to the Text Amendment number, by street address, or by whatever system the staff determines would be easiest for residents to navigate.)

(b) Post All Proposed Amendments. We propose that any proposed changes or additions to
already approved plans be required to be posted to this new archive/website before the changes
can become effective. This is especially important since the Building Department, which currently
supervises this process and which is another location, does not provide electronic access to this
information. It is imperative that any proposed changes to building plans be managed by P&Z. This
will avoid the inconvenience of having to trek to two departments to get a complete picture of a
project—and will ensure that residents have timely access to ALL relevant info on project.


(c) Post Hyperlinks. We propose that public notice of any application and any meeting agenda
contain a hyperlink to the new online file/archive.
We understand that other towns are already doing much of this and we believe that it is a
reasonable request in this electronic age. We also believe that such a system would ultimately
save time and resources as fewer people would need ask the staff to locate or make copies of
documents and it would avoid the troubling problem of documents “disappearing” from a file.

 

2. Require a Plain Written Narrative Summary with All Applications and Proposals. We propose
that each application for a variance, text amendment, or other similar application be accompanied
by a plain language, written summary that: (i) was either prepared by staff or previously approved by
staff, and (ii) explains the proposal and its practical consequences. This narrative summary would
then be posted online along with the application.

 

3. Require Additional Documents for Text Amendments. We propose that no text amendment
application (regardless of whether the applicant is the town or a private party) be deemed complete
or scheduled for a hearing unless and until all of the following documents have been delivered to
staff:

 

(a) the name, address, and contact information for the party (i.e., buyer, seller, investor,
landlord, tenant, etc.) actually seeking the amendment (the “Actual Applicant”).


(b) a certified list of all properties in town that would be affected by the proposed
amendment and the owner of any property located within 500 feet of any such property, along
with an assessor’s map showing each such property (each, an “Affected Property”).
This
certified list shall be based on the assessor’s list and similar to what an applicant for a
variance must provide in connection with a variance application. Such list shall be certified
under oath as being correct to the best of the knowledge and belief of the Actual Applicant.

 

(c) a notice of the proposed text amendment (the “Notice”) to be mailed (see below) to
the owner of every Affected Property.
Each such notice shall:
  (i) contain the language of the actual proposed text amendment;

  (ii) the plain language narrative summary described above; and
  (iii) be placed in a stamped (but unsealed) envelope, which is addressed to the
        recipient in at least 12-point font and which contains a red legend on the outside of
        the envelope that says
“WARNING: THIS NOTICE RELATES TO A WESTPORT
        PLANNING AND ZONING MATTER IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD”
(the “Legend”).


We propose that if and when an application for a text amendment is accepted and complete, the
Notices shall be mailed by P&Z staff, which shall be responsible for cross checking the envelopes
against the certified list, obtaining a U.S. Postal Form 3877, and keeping a record of the mailings.
We further propose that no hearing on a text amendment be scheduled until at least 35 days has
elapsed after the Notices are mailed.

4. Tighter Rules for Mailings Related to Variance Requests. We propose that the rules regarding
notice to abutting landowners, etc. in connection with proposed variances be tightened by requiring
the applicant to include the Legend (see above) on the outside of each envelope and by requiring
staff to double check that the mailings are actually done.
We believe that the above steps will benefit the entire town. Thank you for your time and attention.

 

Sincerely yours,
Valerie Seiling Jacobs. Co-Chair
Ian Warburg, Co-Chair

 

cc: Katherine Daniel, AICP Planner