WESTPORT — Five candidates are vying for three open seats on the Planning & Zoning Commission next month.
Ron Corwin, Coalition for Westport candidate, and Jack Whittle, a Republican — both of whom previously served two terms each on the P&Z — are hoping to get seats back from the three incumbent Democrats running for reelection — P&Z Chair Danielle Dobin, P&Z Secretary Michael Cammeyer, and Neil Cohn, who also are endorsed by the group, Save Westport Now.
Along with sharing a brief biography, we asked each candidate to respond individually to the question: “If you had the power to completely overhaul Westport in relation to Planning & Zoning, what would you prioritize? (Please include reference to Baron’s South & Downtown) ?”
Here’s what they shared …
MICHAEL CAMMEYER (Democrat/Save Westport Now): Michael is the elected Secretary of the P&Z. Michael lives with his wife and two sons, who attend Coleytown Middle School. He is the current commissioner of his son’s basketball league and past commissioner of the soccer league. Active sports dad and coach. Healthcare M&A Banker. MBA in Corporate Finance from Fordham University and MS in Finance from the University of Wisconsin.
I would prioritize planning to create a better balance between our commercial areas, the environment, our athletic fields and more robust town amenities.
- Envision a Westport where our downtown embraces the river and nature where shoppers walk along a riverfront esplanade, where parents eat brunch while their kids go paddleboarding and where families or friends go for a hike right near downtown.
- Envision a Westport with world class athletic fields, the best in Fairfield County. Currently, our youth teams have to fight for use of fields and most fields are unusable after it rains.
- Envision a Westport with a network of sidewalks and a system for all residents to ride bicycles safely to get into town or go to school.
- Envision a Westport where traffic and parking would not be words that always came up in dialogue with your friends because prior P&Z Commissioners would have prioritized smart traffic decisions – like moving the house at 1 Wilton Road to fix the intersection at Wilton Rd/Post Road.
- Envision a heated, inviting Longshore pool complex with comfortable seating and picnic tables along the Long Island Sound.
- Envision 30 years ago the town planned for the affordable housing required by the state. There would be no oversized apartment buildings and we would have saved all the money we’ve spent in legal fees.
- Envision a Westport P&Z that planned ahead for climate change – where our coastal areas and inland flood zones and wetlands were better prepared for intense storms and rising water.
NEIL COHN (Democrat/Save Westport Now): Neil Cohn has served on P&Z since 2018 and was an environmental advisor to Obama’s first Presidential Transition. Neil is a cleantech investor and is currently focused on Chia, an eco-friendly blockchain designed to deliver sustainable growth and prosperity. Neil also serves on Westport’s Public Arts Commission and Little League board. Neil lives in Westport with his wife and three kids.
Westport is a treasure! I would not want to completely “overhaul Westport” but hindsight is 20/20 and given what we know now about climate change, quality of life issues and the impact of the pandemic, past P&Z Commissions should have prioritized:
Climate Change resilience:
Westport has a beautiful coast, but it leaves us exposed to the effects of climate change; flooding, utility outages and erosion. Our team at P&Z is now playing catch-up to address drainage issues and adapting local infrastructure and building codes to withstand this new reality because past commissioners were climate change deniers. The language proposed by the Green Task Force in the 2017 Plan of Conservation & Development should have been highlighted, not removed!
I have well-researched plans for incentivizing energy audits and green building tech. With the right team in place, it is not too late to do better.
Plan to adapt:
Our team has worked to introduce flexibility in zoning. Westport is a significant beneficiary of COVID-induced hybrid work that has brought an influx of new families. Remote work is a game-changer and an opportunity for many that have left work to focus on family. For so long, our code was too rigid. We have begun to modernize but there’s more work to be done to adapt to changing commuting patterns and the needs of today’s Westport families with regard to sidewalks, bike lanes and public transportation.
For the benefit of all, the P&Z requires the ability to impose meaningful penalties when violations are not addressed. State enabling laws must give more power to local P&Z Commissions to ensure bad actors don’t simply pay fines and get away with breaking the rules.
RON CORWIN (Coalition for Westport): 35-year Westport resident. 3 kids graduated Staples HS; “Grampa” to 6. Coached boys and girls baseball. President of Coalition for Westport.
Senior executive: Citigroup (US and Europe). EVP: American Stock Exchange. Executive Leadership coach. Former member and chair Westport P&Z. Board of Directors: New Neighborhoods, Inc.
Academic career: undergraduate and graduate faculty at NYU and SUNY. Chair: NYU Sociology; EVP: Empire State College (SUNY). BA: U of Wisconsin; Ph.D. Syracuse U.
I would actively participate in the key proposals and zoning changes that affect Westporters’ everyday lives.
First, I would establish a new process for routine applications through more efficient Commission subcommittees. This would speed up response time to residents and allow the Commission to focus on town-wide planning and proposals.
Next, I would set up 2 working groups to review all the zoning changes and plans currently in discussion, on the shelf, or languishing in the Commission’s work flow. Each group would then bring their recommendations to the full Commission within reasonable time frames to hold hearings and get public input. And make decisions.
And, most importantly, I would put priorities of Westporters on the Commission front burner:
- Realistic plans for converting Baron’s South from unused, wasted and inaccessible property into a major green open space that town residents can enjoy, using no more than 3 of the 22 open space acres for recreational or leisure activities;
- A plan to optimize our beautiful riverfront for the enjoyment of shoppers, residents and visitors, instead of an asphalted parking lot along the river. The Coalition has backed this concept since 2012.
- A downtown parking plan that works for shoppers, merchants and diners and which pays attention to flooding and climate issues.
- An activist program for preservation of our most distinctive natural and built resources.
In sum, I would be an engaged participant in an efficient, well-functioning Commission, focused on planning for both immediate and future needs.
DANIELLE DOBIN (Democrat/Save Westport Now): Danielle is the elected Chair of the P&Z with two decades of commercial real estate & zoning experience as an attorney & investor. Danielle serves on the Staples Parents Music Association Exec Board, co-chairs ArtSmart for the PTA Council and manages F&O for the Staples Players Boosters. Danielle lives with her husband, two sons & their dog in the Compo/Longshore area. MS in Real Estate Finance from NYU, JD from Georgetown Law & BA in Political Communication.
Given the chance to completely overhaul Westport’s Planning & Zoning history, there is much we would do the same way. Brilliant choices were made to preserve our beaches as public beaches (not as private clubs), purchase Longshore to be a town owned club, prevent the powerplant from locating on Cockenoe (thank you Save Westport Now!), etc. but …
Imagine a Westport where every road was designed with sidewalks and bike lanes.
Imagine a Westport where common sense prevailed in decisions about traffic. By way of example, imagine if the prior P&Z Commissioners voted yes to fix the intersection @ Wilton Road/Post Road instead of institutionalizing the terrible traffic there, if bizarre offset entrances (Trader Joe’s to CVS, Bulkley Rd @ Stop & Shop) weren’t approved and if the dangerous intersection at Daybreak/Main Street/Easton Road was thoughtfully designed to be safe and efficient.
Imagine if instead of ignoring 8-30g for decades (the state law which allows developer to bypass our zoning laws with oversized affordable projects) the P&Z had spent the last 30 years planning for affordable cottages along with small, low density buildings, all funded by a town development fund (the way New Canaan funds housing) … Westport would have plentiful affordable housing that fits in with the fabric of our town and would be safe from predatory developers. Even better, imagine a Westport open to everyone from the start, where racially restrictive covenants were prohibited by the P&Z even before they were prohibited by the federal government.
Imagine a downtown Westport that embraced the river instead of turning its back on it with playing fields and open spaces along the Saugatuck and imagine a POCD that acknowledges climate change with a plan to address it.
JACK WHITTLE (Republican): I work as a corporate and regulatory lawyer; I grew up in Westport, went to Westport schools, and then chose to raise my own family in this wonderful town. I was previously elected to the P&Z in 2011 and again in 2015, and have a proven record of working hard to preserve our unique small town charm while guiding appropriately scaled commercial and residential development, always placing the interests of Town residents first.
I would start by investigating what Westport residents want, with public sessions followed by publicly-shared design and planning proposals.
Based on what I understand residents want, I would prioritize (1) maintaining the current open space zoning of Baron’s South and push for restoration & improvements (as was intended 6 years ago) with landscaping, walking trails, parking, and access / signage; and the development of a dedicated, “yellow-brick road” pedestrian walkway connecting Baron’s South from the Imperial Ave side across the Imperial lot and pedestrian bridge to the Library and riverfront; (2) development of the riverfront portion of Parker-Harding Plaza with a wide pedestrian and green area along the riverfront and adjoining dining pavilions, combined with an unobtrusive, single deck parking structure in the rear portion of the Baldwin parking lot; (3) zoning regulations that favor a mix of dining and retail establishments in the Downtown and Saugatuck areas with accommodation for outdoor dining spaces; (4) revising zoning regulations to place greater emphasis on identification of traffic generation and intersection impacts of projects, with incentives for improvements; and (5) increase requirements for trees in commercial projects, and consider reasonable limitations on tree removal in residential projects.