Steve Kleppin recalled that when took the helm as town planner 11 years ago in New Canaan’s Land Use Department, after spending six months as assistant town planner, the agency’s perception in the community was poor.
Some on staff at the time had faced criticism from the public and many relationships between the two had gone sour, he said.
Yet “through the people that were here and the other people that came on board, we changed that, as a group,” Kleppin recalled Thursday, hours before the town announced that he had taken the role of town planner in neighboring Norwalk.
“It’s a well-run area. Even though people might not always like the outcome or the decisions that are made, they’re treated appropriately, treated well and the decisions are thought-out.”
A steady, soft-spoken figure who is highly respected among colleagues, building professionals and property owners in New Canaan—often delivering unwanted news that touches on the largest single investment that residents will ever make—Kleppin will work his last day here on Oct. 14.
Working with care and deliberation among the granular details of the New Canaan Zoning Regulations, collaborating with and making recommendations to the two volunteer groups that oversee land use matters in town—the Planning & Zoning Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals—and tuning into the town’s unique sensibility while balancing individual desires with larger community needs, Kleppin has been a central figure in some of the most nuanced, tightrope decisions that come before any municipal body.
Those include planning for the development of the Cross-Vitti corridor, disagreements that arise out of so-called “institutional uses in residential zones” such as Grace Farms, Philip Johnson Glass House, New Canaan YMCA and Silver Hill Hospital, and bitter, often litigious disputes among neighbors.
P&Z Chairman John Goodwin called Kleppin’s departure “a big loss to the town.”
“Steve has put in many, many good years,” Goodwin said. “He’s felt passionately about this town. He has worked long hours. I have pinged him on weekends. I understand the reason he is leaving is for career purposes. He’s taking on a great job—it’s a bigger job. So I am bummed but I certainly respect Steve and wish him all the best, and the town is actively working on a successor.”
A New Milford native who still lives in his hometown, Kleppin graduated from New Milford High School, then earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Lyndon State College in Lyndonville, Vt. and a master’s degree in geography with a specialization in planning from Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
He worked for the city of Stamford doing zoning enforcement and inspections before coming to New Canaan in April 2005 as assistant town planner.
Asked how he’s feeling about the prospect of leaving New Canaan for Norwalk, Kleppin said: “Lots of mixed feelings, to be honest.”
“I’m leaving a position where I feel I have a good grasp of everything. I have a good comfort level. I get along with a great commission, I like working with all of the people that I work with, so I’m leaving all of that which is known and going to something that is completely different and in a bigger environment. But I’m excited about the possibilities there too.”
Norwalk presents new challenges and “my sense is that there are more things that need attention there, that need a set of eyes on it,” he said.
He will be missed, his colleagues said.
His immediate supervisor in New Canaan, Brian Platz, the director of Land Use, said he would miss Kleppin personally and professionally both.
“Besides the fact that he’s so bright, professional and pragmatic in his approach to enforcement, he is just an absolute gentleman,” Platz said. “He’s a pleasure. I actually would count him a friend. And I’m going to miss him. He’s set the bar so high for his replacement, he has left some very big shoes to fill. There is actually going to be claw marks in the blacktop all the way up 123 with me grabbing onto the bumper of his car and trying to get him to stay. I’m going to miss him. He’s a great guy, and Norwalk is lucky to have him.”
Norwalk officials on Wednesday voted in favor of bringing Kleppin on, and the head of human resources in New Canaan on Thursday confirmed that the town planner had issued his resignation.
Asked about the challenges that New Canaan now faces as regards planning and land use, Kleppin said: “I think the path that the commission has been on for the last several years is the correct one.”
“I think the trickiest part going forward is making sure that what development occurs is not done just for the sake of development, that it is done for the benefit of the town. In my opinion, there is needed growth downtown in terms of adding housing to support the downtown, but we don’t want that to happen just for the sake of development. It has to be well thought out, and make sure that as it grows that there are no negative impacts in terms of too much added traffic or too much increased demand on infrastructure that can’t be managed.”
One prominent local builder indicated during a public meeting on Wednesday that New Canaan’s Land Use Department faces the prospect of additional, and perhaps unwelcome, changes.
Scott Hobbs of Hobbs Inc. during remarks to the Town Council following a matter involving the Housing Authority, which he chairs, said: “As we may be headed for some turmoil inside our Land Use Department, I would love to throw in a plug that whatever we can possibly do to help to keep the key members happy and there and if we go through a sad disruption that it stops at the current sad disruption and does not go any further. When it comes to the actual accumulated knowledge of all of the professionals down there, it is big. And when the next developments come up, the next issues, having that history is really big. So I’d like to put in a plug for them. Having worked with all of Fairfield and Westchester County, we have a really good Land Use Department.”