Planning & Zoning Commissioner Dick Ward’s continued participation in hearings regarding the Philip Johnson Glass House is unseemly, unhelpful and poses a legal risk to the town. He should recuse himself from related votes and discussions in the future.
A neighbor of the Glass House who has faced criticism in the past for refusing to recuse himself when the organization has applied to amend its zoning permit, Ward during P&Z’s July 30 meeting once again spoke out against an application made on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation site.
He did so unreasonably, unnecessarily and inconsistently with his own past practice as a commissioner.
Ward’s Winfield Lane house sits a five-minute walk or two-minute drive from the Glass House property on Ponus Ridge, according to Google Maps. In the past, he has pushed back on the recommendation to recuse himself from Glass House hearings by saying that he doesn’t discuss the organization’s application with others who live in the neighborhood, and that he lives beyond the legally required 100-foot “notification area” for land use applicants.
Yet it’s not clear that such a standard would apply should New Canaan find itself defending a lawsuit claiming that Ward has a conflict of interest. These properties sit in the two-acre zone, where the size of the lots means that formal notification under the Zoning Regulations is typically limited to those who live next-door only.
What’s more, during last month’s meeting, Ward by way of pushing back on the Glass House’s proposal to allow visitors to park nearer to the site than downtown New Canaan, said, “The streets in that neighborhood are not main arteries. They are neighborhood streets with the kids on the bikes and the joggers.”
Where exactly, in this pedestrian enclave of lower Ponus Ridge, does one cross into a different neighborhood, in traversing the .3 miles between Ward’s home and the Glass House driveway?
In any case, Ward himself doesn’t need to be the one making this point. His neighbors addressed the very same concern in taking to the podium during the hearing. In fact, hours before the July hearing, the owners of two properties that abut the Glass House had filed an objection letter with P&Z asserting that “added traffic will be a burden to our neighborhood,” citing Winfield Lane specifically as one road where Glass House attendees have parked in the past.
Ward’s apparent suspicion, even distrust of the Glass House, once again veered into irrationality.
Three years ago, in pushing back on the idea that the Glass House needed to expand its operation in order to fund itself, Ward repeatedly asserted that “a subsidiary” of the National Trust had raised about $1 billion since 2000, and urged the organization to work with its “parent” to find funding there. (They’re two completely different entities, and the funds of one are not available to the other.)
This time, Ward focused on the Glass House’s proposal to change this sentence in its permit, describing the lone large annual fundraiser allowed on the site—“The increase from 250 to 400 people is permitted for the 2016 season only and is subject to annual approval thereafter”—to this: “The Glass House may request approval for a maximum of 500 persons, which shall be subject to approval by the Zoning Inspector.”
In other words, the Glass House is seeking to raise by 100 the number of attendees allowed at the fundraiser.
Yet Ward called the wording “a little curious” and implied that the change would open the door for the Glass House to hold not one but two large events.
“It almost reads to me as though it provides the opportunity to have one 400[-person event] and then, if the zoning inspector agrees, you might have another 500.”
Faced with that suggestion, the Glass House’s attorney, Diana Neeves of Robinson+Cole, was compelled to respond, “We weren’t trying to be cagey here.”
Ward also appears to be treating the Glass House application differently from others that have come before P&Z.
For example, at one point during the hearing, he flagged a proposal from the Glass House to change how it would receive approval for some types of events—for reasons of turnaround time, the Glass House is seeking a standard whereby it notifies the town rather than seeking formal sign-off.
“For some of these larger events that currently require you to submit the event to the zoning officer for approval, you now want to eliminate the approval and just say you will notify the zoning officer,” Ward said. “I don’t understand that, because I think a notification is meaningless if the zoning officer can’t do anything, because there is no approval that the zoning officer can make. That doesn’t make sense.”
Yet Ward himself two years ago voted in favor of an amended special permit for another nonprofit organization that operates in a residential zone, Grace Farms, that is allowed to schedule an event five days out with simple notification to the town planner (see condition 93 here).
In speaking out against the Glass House’s application instead of recusing himself, Ward has broken with the regular practice of P&Z: In recent years, Commissioners Jean Grzelecki (Merritt Village), Dan Radman (Field Club) and Kent Turner (Silver Hill Hospital) all have recused themselves from applications that came before the appointed body, to name a few examples.
Ward opened his comments on the Glass House by noting that it is “undeniably an asset to the New Canaan community.” We note that Ward and his fellow P&Z commissioners are undeniably diligent, considerate and, nearly always, conscientious local volunteers, tasked with coming to very difficult, often divisive and consequential decisions. Thank you all for your dedication to the town and what’s best for it—we ask that P&Z kindly make a change here to that end.
Here’s a video of the July 30 P&Z meeting, Ward comes in at 2:02:20: