Planning in Greenwich

Submitted by H. Franklin Bloomer

The following is an Op Ed piece that appeared in two local newspapers in Greenwich, CT, during the week of May 27, 2007.

 

* * * * *

 


Planning in Greenwich is broken, and it needs fixing. The fix is to follow the Town’s Charter.


Planning for the CBD The problem is most evident in connection with planning for the Central Business District (CBD). The Town’s comprehensive, long-range plan, the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), prepared by the Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) and adopted in 1998, noted the “public criticism of…congested traffic and shortage of parking” in the CBD.


In response, the Town commissioned separate studies of traffic and parking in the CBD, both of which were completed in 2002. Both made multiple recommendations.

One of these was to create a new Parking Services Department, headed by a parking specialist. This resulted in better management of existing parking spaces. However, when the First Selectman proposed a tiered parking structure on Benedict Place, which was called for neither by the parking study nor the POCD, the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) declined to appropriate construction funds and the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) voted against funding architectural and engineering work.

While many of the recommendations in the two studies were implemented, many were not, and traffic congestion has continued to worsen. The 2006 United Way Assessment of Needs for Greenwich found traffic congestion still to be “one of the community’s most frequently stated concerns”. Nonetheless, the Town’s capital planning includes no projects to address traffic circulation at any time in the next 15 years.

Meanwhile, the Board of Education indicated a desire to relocate its administrative offices from the Havemeyer Building. For its new location, the First Selectman proposed moving them into the existing Senior Center and moving the Senior Center to a new building adjacent to Town Hall. Many seniors objected. With traffic and parking still not adequately addressed, the RTM adopted a sense-of-the-meeting resolution to the effect that no appropriation for any capital project within the CBD should be made until a comprehensive plan for the CBD has been adopted.

Nonetheless, the First Selectman sought funds for four projects: (1) architectural and engineering work in connection with relocation of the Senior Center and/or the Board of Education, (2) design of cosmetic improvements to the streetscape on Greenwich Avenue, (3) redesign of the park between the Avenue and Town Hall, in part to accommodate conversion of the Havemeyer Building to an arts center (which has yet to be approved by any branch of Town government) and (4) introduction of traffic lights on the Avenue. The BET declined to appropriate funds for the first, and the RTM turned down the remaining three.

Our Current Top-Down Process The RTM took all these actions by large majorities, indicating public dissatisfaction with the projects at issue. The projects were developed top-down, without sufficient attention to public wishes or effort to build consensus. One unfortunate result was that taxpayer funds were spent planning projects that did not enjoy public support. When such projects reach the RTM, it can only disapprove them.

For the last several years, the Town has followed a capital planning process known as the CIP process that is not contemplated by Charter. The goal is to schedule capital projects in a 15-year Capital Plan. This is a desirable goal, but identifying the projects to be scheduled, and prioritizing them, is largely controlled by the First Selectman and Town officials who report to him.

Projects are prioritized on the basis of a set of objective criteria that militate against smaller projects that require year-to-year funding to achieve a goal (such as traffic-calming) in favor of urgent needs (such as leaky roofs) and major projects (such as the Public Safety building). No weight is given to whether or not a project is contemplated by the POCD.

The process whereby these criteria are applied is not open. The committee of Town officials that established priorities for the 2007-08 Budget met only twice and kept no record of how individual members ranked different projects.

The Charter’s Bottom-Up Process By contrast, the Charter makes P&Z the branch of Town government responsible for planning. It requires P&Z to prepare the POCD and, to ensure that it reflects the wishes of the public, that it be approved by the RTM. Thus the Charter contemplates a bottom-up process, by which planning proceeds from the public’s vision of the goals to be achieved. This approach is consistent with the best practice in municipal planning in America.

Considerable public input went into preparation of the 1998 POCD. It was prepared using data from informal meetings between P&Z members and staff with Town leaders to identify issues, public hearings in five areas of town on concerns, issues and trends in these neighborhoods, and separate public hearings on major topics.

While it reflected public opinion, the POCD in the past was prepared mainly to serve as a guide for decisions P&Z makes on zoning regulations, subdivision regulations and municipal improvements. As a result, many of its recommendations were broadly stated and did not describe the capital projects that would be required to implement them. However, the Charter calls for the POCD to be a comprehensive, detailed document and specifically to address infrastructure needs.

A resolution adopted by the RTM in October 2006 called for a more detailed POCD and for its periodic updating so that it remains current during the 10 years before a new one is prepared. A special committee of the RTM is currently examining how best to link the POCD with the Town’s capital planning.

P&Z’s new chairman has announced that he intends to devote more time and attention to planning. To do this, P&Z will need greater resources, either in the form of additional staff dedicated to planning or funding for outside consultants, or both. In particular, a transportation planner should be added (as recommended in the 2002 traffic study).

P&Z is tooling up to prepare a new POCD, which is due next year. To ensure that it is based on an appropriate amount of public input, has the requisite detail and scope (including a comprehensive plan for the CBD) and is completed on time, additional help from consultants may be needed. This would be a good use of the money intended for the CBD projects disapproved by the RTM.