Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Chairman's View: The Best Small Town in America (New Canaan Advertiser June 13, 2019)

New Canaan was just named one of the “15 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2019” by Smithsonian magazine. Every year their editors search the entire country for places that sing to our imaginations and offer a distinct sense of place. New Canaan is now recognized as the best of small town America.

That’s some well-deserved recognition at a time when we need it. Local news is often negatively focused on the slings and arrows directed at us from Hartford, our few self-imposed problems combined with certain wistfulness about the way life used to be in our small town. That can make us feel vulnerable and low.  Thank you, Smithsonian, for recognizing New Canaan is beautiful and vibrant and has much to be thankful for. We are not only a great place to live but also a great place to visit.

So, what did the Smithsonian editors find here to crow about? First, they began New Canaan’s story with architectural pioneer Walter Gropius and his influence on the Harvard Five architects who lived and built 80 extraordinary houses here.  The editors called our architecture an “unusual blend of modernism” that has continued with the “sleek” River Building at Grace Farms, and is juxtaposed with the “stunning” Waveny castle and our stone Carriage Barn. Most importantly the magazine recognized that architecture is alive here: the Glass House summer party, the Historical Society’s Mad for Modern gala, the New Canaan Library’s “Glass House Presents” lecture series and heck, just slowing down for afternoon tea with Frank at Grace Farms are just some of the ways we continuously celebrate and live with New Canaan’s uniquely great architecture. (By the way a new architectural foundation is opening its columned porch on God’s Acre and planning their first exhibition)

Second, the Smithsonian called our walkable downtown a “Fairfield County rarity”. It is. They noted the tented home of Summer Theatre of New Canaan on the way into town as well as the vibrant mix of boutique shops, high-end retailers, cozy breakfast eateries and Elm Restaurant which they called “high-end” but is only one of 50 first-class restaurant choices spanning the full range of family to formal.

We are beginning to appreciate the value of attracting visitors to our town and recently created a 15-person committee of experts (the TEDAC) to identify, cultivate and grow what is awesome about this town and begin to communicate it to others. 

I’d like to add one essential thing that Smithsonian failed to mention: the people. There are plenty of pretty, but mostly empty, towns across America. New Canaan’s fabulous downtown with its awesome architecture and all of those arts and non-profits wouldn’t be worth visiting if they weren’t full of the most interesting people. We are out shopping, spilling on to the sidewalks on restaurant row, waving out our windows at the crossing guard, beeping hello at baby carriages along South Avenue. We are out walking the Irwin paths, running the Waveny trails, biking the back-country, filling our pretty churches Sunday mornings and our bleachers on Friday nights. Thousands come to the Caffeine & Carburator car shows, picnic on the 4thof July, light the menorah and carol on God’s acre. If you are a visitor to our town it’s the people you’ll meet who make up the foreground, behind whom a 200 year tapestry of fascinating architecture and commerce are only the physical record of the way New Canaan lives. It’s a great time to re-discover New Canaan.

Chairman's View: Honing Our Zoning (New Canaan Advertiser May 23, 2019)

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.