Editor’s note: Republican candidates running for the Planning and Zoning Commission submitted the following statement.

P&Z Candidates Discuss Due Process Issues in Relation to Current High-Profile Applications

and the Election

By John I. Bolton, Esq. 

As candidates for the Planning and Zoning Commission we have often been approached by several of our constituents asking where we stand on two key issues at the forefront of voters’ minds this election cycle: 

Parker-Harding project (since withdrawn but not going away) and Long Lots School / Community Gardens issue. 

Although we are less than a week away from the elections — the timing is right for our slate of candidates to provide some clarity on these issues — as much as the law will allow. 

What the Law Allows

Any matter brought before the P&Z Commission must be received with complete impartiality. What that means is ultimately we will render our determination(s) and act with indifference in doing so. As Commissioners, our primary motive will always be to issue a proper decision under Westport’s Zoning Regulations. Where discretion is afforded to Commissioners — our standard will always be what is best for Westport. Much of that standard will be predicated upon the input we receive from you — the voters. 

The Westport Planning and Zoning Commission is a quasi-judicial and legislative body where objectivity, evenhandedness and impartiality should always rule the day. It is about equality and will always be about equality for every applicant and stakeholder that comes before the Commission. When deciding on a specific matter we are limited to act on the evidence presented during a hearing. We do not pursue our own independent investigations of the facts presented or expected to be presented. We will always entertain feedback and input from our constituents, but we cannot be swayed, guided, or influenced by anything not presented at a fair hearing. We act as ambassadors and gatekeepers for economic development, environmental conservation, individual property rights, and every stakeholder in this town. We also retain plenary power to review town projects that fall under the purview of C.G.S. §8-24 — the statute governing municipal improvements. 

At the very core of our democracy is the notion of equality. Every applicant and stakeholder that comes before our Commission has an unalienable right to be treated fairly. Predisposition and bias to a particular matter can be revealed in many subtle forms. “I really like the architect or the attorney representing the applicant” or “These folks have already done so much for Westport.”

While these examples are benign and likely have little relation to a specific application or text amendment — they could also be signs of a predisposition that undermines the Commission’s impartiality in the treatment a particular applicant receives. We are mindful of the many forms for which bias can be revealed. 

If we as candidates for Planning and Zoning were to opine or critique on a matter before a scheduled hearing, or before receiving an §8-24 application from the First Selectwoman’s office or during the intervening time between a continued matter – we would place in serious jeopardy an applicant’s procedural and substantive due process rights. 

What Is Procedural Due Process?

Procedural Due Process requires a minimum standard of fairness during the process of making public decisions that impact private rights. Relevant standards include proper public notice; a fair hearing which allows for the presentation of all sides of an issue; reasonable and impartial standards for decision-making; accurate and accessible public records, and assurance that public decision-makers act without bias or conflict of interest including avoidance of ex-parte contact. 

While some aspects of procedural due process can seem overly detailed or a series of technicalities, the importance of assuring procedural compliance cannot be over- emphasized. Violation of procedural due process is the most common way that planning and zoning decisions have been successfully challenged. 

What Is Substantive Due Process?

Substantive Due Process invokes more conceptual and esoteric requirements for planning and zoning decisions. Substantive due process protects private citizens against arbitrary or capricious public decisions made administrative boards. By the same token, it also requires that the regulations, limitations, and safeguards we as a Commission implements have a rational basis for their adoption, and are reasonably related to the public health, safety, and welfare of our town. 

A salient and hypothetical example of substantive due process is when the Commission receives a master plan for remediating a large municipal parking lot. When a determination is rendered, and it’s based on the substance of that master plan — the central questions are: 

Did Westport’s plan of remediation (in the hypothetical above) deprive any stakeholder of their life, liberty, and property? 

If the answer is YES — was this action justified by a compelling state interest and a sufficient purpose. 

The Voters Want to Know

In relation to the Parker Harding project and the Community Garden issue – the former was scheduled for a continued hearing on November 6th. However, as of October 31st — the First Selectwoman withdrew the §8-24 application from any consideration — for now. Parker-Harding is still a wide-open issue that will ultimately come before the P&Z Commission in the near future. 

As it relates to the Long Lots school, an athletic field, and the Community Gardens — as of November 1st — no §8-24 application has been presented to the Commission. Rest assured it will come and not too far down the road. 

Despite the application status for both matters — nobody can dispute that the Planning and Zoning Commission will be tasked with either approving or a disapproving these two expected §8-24 applications. 

For your candidates to opine on both the Parker-Harding and the Long Lots/Community Gardens matters before November 7th and before any scheduled evidentiary hearings as noticed by the Town — would patently imperil any notion of due process. 

We understand why we are being asked about these matters before the election. 

We encourage public participation and the electorate doing its due diligence before voting next week. 

We believe in transparency. We always will. 

However, our refraining from offering an opinion on both matters is not a choice — but a legal obligation

For those trying to elicit an opinion from your four candidates as merely private individuals as opposed to public officials – that distinction does not mitigate the risk of undermining due process and far outweighs any perceived benefit from a premature statement before all of the evidence has been submitted. 

What We Can Say About Both Issues

We are acutely aware of the multiple stakeholders that will be affected by both proposed municipal improvements. 

Both downtown merchants and those who have worked so hard to cultivate the land at Long Lots are committed and passionate. For that we have only respect for those constituents. 

Our children are our greatest treasure and deserve a safe, accommodating, and state of the art school that promotes learning, critical thinking, and the values of a decent, inclusive, and caring town. 

We respect the interests of the parents and taxpayers all of whom have some skin in this game. 

In early August 2023, we learned from a fact-finding visit generously hosted by Lou Weinberg that the gardening community has a passion and commitment that is inspiring and not representative of some “fly-by-night” consortium of gardeners. 

We saw first-hand how the Garden provides so many with emotional nourishment, beauty, and a sense of community while in a most bucolic setting. 

In a time where we are all burdened and inundated with stress and anxiety that exacts quite a toll on our mental and physical health — We know The Community Garden is Westport’s very own unique place where tranquility, supportive calm and well-being is not only promoted but prevails. 

We know fiscal responsibility is the cornerstone of good government. We know that a vibrant downtown is essential to Westport’s well-being. 

We know we have been uniquely gifted to have beautiful beaches, parks and a river that provides scenic optics like no other town in Connecticut. 

We do not believe either issue has to be reduced to a “zero-sum game”. 

Leadership

As your Zoning Commissioners we are ready to exhibit the leadership that does not fall prey to the easy, quick, band-aid and politically convenient solutions. 

We will never sacrifice due process for our own political gain. 

We promise to afford every stakeholder – despite one’s economic station in life – the right to be heard, with respect, compassion, and an open mind. 

If necessary – we are ready to embrace bold solutions to these issues that may not be readily apparent to others. 

Where others ZIG — we will ZAG. 

Most of all, we will exhibit transparent, substantive, and accountable leadership so very much required with these two prominent issues. 

Respectfully submitted, 

John Bolton, Michael Calise, Amie Tesler, Patrizia Zucaro