The Minuteman monument has historically been a symbol of Westport. But how do zoning regulations define the town’s character? / Photo, westportct.gov

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — “Character” can have many different meanings, but to Connecticut’s General Assembly, the word “character” sometimes has been used in local zoning regulations to discriminate against applicants whose plans are not considered representative of the so-called “character” of a town or city.  

In October 2021, the state legislature passed a bill making it mandatory for all municipalities in Connecticut to change zoning regulations by removing or defining the word “character,” or possibly face lawsuits for denying zoning applications that cite “character” as a criteria for passing judgment. 

Westport, like other communities in the state, has to rectify its zoning regulations to meet the state mandate, but can choose among four options, Planning and Zoning Director Mary Young told the commission last week.

 Options for addressing zoning “character”

  1. Do nothing, but the commission would have to be careful with wording it uses when denying applications to prevent lawsuits citing misuse of the word “character.” 
  2. Pass a text amendment to remove or replace the word “character” wherever it appears in all town zoning regulations and replace it with words such as “qualities” — a procedure that could require hundreds of changes.
  3. Add a definition of the word “character” each time the word is used in applying regulations to a specific application.
  4. Pass a general text amendment to define the word which, presumably, would mean the same thing in all instances.

Town Planner Michael Kiselak has spent hours combing the town’s zoning regulations to find every use of the word “character,” Young said. If the commission were to choose Option 2 or 3, those instances where character appears would require removing or replacing the word.

“We have no choice”

P&Z Chairwoman Danielle Dobin told the P&Z she favors Option 2, which she said would give the P&Z more flexibility when reviewing applications. 

“We have no choice, we have to make a change or face liability for our decisions,” she said. “The word character has often been used as a euphemism — other words can be used to communicate what we wish to convey.”

Most of the P&Z members agreed with Dobin. 

“It’s better if we don’t leave it to future generations to define character,” Paul Lebowitz said. “The meaning changes over time.”

Dissenting views

Two members — Patrizia Zucaro and Amie Tesler Bentley — did not agree, however. 

Zucaro said she likes Option 4, which would allow the word character to remain in the regulations, but would define it.  Character is an important word in Westport, she said. 

“I would like to see it defined … I think character means more than one word,” Zucaro said.

Tesler Bentley agreed, and both voted against Option 2. 

“Character” to be removed from regulations

The final commission vote was 4-2, with one abstention, in favor of Option 2.

A text amendment will be drafted with all references of the word “character” removed or replaced, and the new version will be presented at a future P&Z public hearing.

Other decisions the P&Z made based on state zoning mandates during last Thursday’s meeting include opting out of an amendment related to the number of parking spaces for occupants of multi-family dwellings, and a second amendment addressing size requirements for accessory units. 

In both cases, Westport’s zoning regulations are already stricter than the proposed state mandates, Dobin said.