Chairman’s View: Honing our zoning

In 1982, New Canaan matriarch Mabel Lamb is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “There are two reasons why people want to live in New Canaan — zoning and schools.” We talk a good deal about schools, but zoning regulation has equal impact on the character and economics of our town.
The Planning & Zoning Commission asked me to speak at its meeting Tuesday, May 28. It caused me to reflect. They might be New Canaan’s hardest working board, with meetings that can last till midnight. When they deliberate on a high-profile project like the Roger Sherman or Merritt Village, it is a major televised event and the room is full to overflowing. Clearly, zoning and its proper enforcement is of interest to us all and a most important function of our town government. They are the first line of defense of our property values.
It has been 12 years since we rewrote our zoning regulations. In 2007, we recognized that something of New Canaan’s character was being lost as boxy McMansions replaced diminutive antiques. If we couldn’t slow progress, we could certainly point her in the right direction. In that 2007 rewrite we added concepts like “loom factor” and made front porches popular again by exempting them from building coverage. The effect of those rules was a better and more varied architecture.
In 2014, we had the foresight to adopt the Plan of Conservation and Development. That document, born of much civic soul-searching, articulates in land-use terms what is important to our community: a healthy downtown, adequate commuter and retail parking, open space, walkability and sidewalks, more senior housing, more affordable housing and so on. More importantly, we formed a POCD Implementation Committee that takes action on the principles of the Plan of Conservation and Development, writing new regulations as necessary. Recent deliberations include sidewalk sandwich board displays in the downtown and Airbnb restrictions.
To keep up with changing times and new demands P&Z has amended the 2007 regulations 46 times, often amending the amendment. Applicants author many of these text changes for the commission out of self-interest. Text changes are becoming the rule, not the exception. If you can’t get a variance, then ask for a special permit. We color outside the lines so often that the original guidelines may become indistinct. As soon as we finish one amendment, we take up the next, a pattern of constant revision. But is revision progress?
Rewrite the zoning regulations. Take the current regulations, the 46 amendments, the principles of the Plan of Conservation and Development and the collective experience of the current board, hire some experts to guide you, and write the regulations for the next 20 years.
We have a conversation about our schools every year during budget season. But there is no annual public review of Planning & Zoning, no periodic event that causes us to ask ourselves if we are getting it right. Bad zoning can have a lasting negative impact. We need to be writing the next set of good zoning laws that reflect the needs of our changing community well into the future.
John Engel is chairman of the Town Council. Chairman’s View expresses the opinions of the chairman and not necessarily any other member of the Town Council.