Saying he would have voiced the very same concerns regarding a recent application to the Planning & Zoning Commission even if he didn’t live near the site in question, a member of the appointed group on Tuesday night nevertheless recused himself from further discussion or voting on the matter.
P&Z Commissioner Dick Ward cited an editorial published this week “basically asking me to recuse myself with respect to the Glass House application,” and said he was “willing to do so,” though he also noted that his Winfield Lane home does not fall within the formal 100-foot notification area as required under the New Canaan Zoning Regulations.
“I did receive a letter from the Glass House several months ago simply mentioning that they were holding a meeting for some neighbors, and I think it said that I was invited to attend, which I did not,” Ward said during the Commission’s regular meeting, held at Town Hall.
“I don’t want the mere fact that you may live in the mere area of the applicant to somehow become a precedent that, whether you are a neighbor or not, just because you may live in the area, you have to recuse yourself,” Ward added by way of making his own recusal. “I think it’s a choice that should be made by the individual commissioner. Clearly, if you are a member of some club and there is an application from the club or something like that, you have an obvious conflict of interest. I don’t believe I have any conflict of interest. My comments would be made whether I lived on the west side of New Canaan or the east side of New Canaan. I am concerned, I think as most of you know, about institutional creep, I tend to comment on that periodically and will continue to do so. But I don’t want this application to get messed up with some rather I thought harsh language in the editorial in that publication, so I have decided that I will recuse myself, which I will do.”
Ward also said that he thought the NewCanaanite.com opinion piece came from outside influences.
“Obviously there was a complaint made,” Ward said. “The editor of the New Canaanite wrote a rather lengthly editorial. I think I know where it came from because of the information that was contained in it. It wasn’t something that the editor himself obviously thought up.”
The Glass House in June applied to P&Z to amend its Special Permit, mostly by proposing changes to how many people may visit the Ponus Ridge site, how often and when, and where they may park in order to do so. During a July 30 public hearing, Ward voiced concerns about parts of the application. This news site on Aug. 25 published an editorial calling for Ward to recuse himself, saying his participation was unseemly, unhelpful and poses a legal risk to New Canaan.
Not everyone on P&Z agreed with Ward’s recusal. Commissioner Dan Radman called it “the wrong move.”
“I think we are caving to a single person’s opinion,” Radman said.
“Our regulations are clear as to what the recusal criteria are. How close you need to be as a neighbor. And if we were to go by what was mentioned in the article, a 2-minute drive or a 5-minute walk to a piece of property—you all read it—I would basically have to recuse myself for a half-mile radius around my house. So, I think we are caving to something that’s creating a precedent that is going to be problematic in the future. I think we should stand by the regulations. And granted, people are welcome to their opinion. They may disagree with what we believe and what we say as a Commission but our regulations are clear as to what the regulations are, in my opinion.”
He referred to the municipality’s Code of Ethics, created nearly two years ago. The Code is designed, in part, to “discourage improprieties and the appearance of improprieties” as well as to “deter conduct that is incompatible with the proper discharge of duties in the public interest or that would impair independence of judgment or action in the performance of those duties.”
With respect to conflicts of interest, the Code specifically prohibits public officials from participating in “any Town or Board matter” in which they have a personal interest.
P&Z Chairman John Goodwin told Ward that he has “always carried out your position with the highest level of integrity” and thanked the commissioner for his recusal.
“I also think that you in your own way have exhibited a passion for what you do here and, as I have said many times before, you are a very good example of this, you try to do what is right for New Canaan,” Goodwin said.
He added, “You indeed have very often been the person who when it involves an institutional use in a residential district, you very often are a leader of trying to make the right arguments that an institution should be curtailed. So I thank you for your decision for the recusal for, if anything, obvious purposes.”
Commissioner Laszlo Papp said he agreed with Goodwin and said Ward “is honorable and does the right thing for the town.”
“This present action to recuse just underlines his [desire] to avoid any negative publicity or with public comment, whether it is right or wrong, he would not like to have that reflected in the Commission and I admire him for that,” Papp said.
During a public hearing in July, Glass House representatives made concessions to their original proposal after hearing the concerns of P&Z commissioners as well as some neighbors. For example, in exchange for being allowed to open at 10 a.m. on Sundays instead of noon, and to be able to remain open until 8 p.m. two nights per week instead of one, the Glass House agreed to stop offering tours on two weekdays when there’s low demand (Tuesdays and Wednesdays), and also said it would withdraw its request that visitors be able to park on a nearby school lot for larger events.
P&Z discussed each request during this week’s meeting, with an eye on voting on a formal resolution in September. Some of the Glass House’s requests appeared to receive approval—for example, increasing the number of guests at its lone annual fundraiser from 400 to 500. Others generated discussion within the Commission, such as whether to require the Glass House to notify town officials about smaller group events on the property rather than apply for formal approval.
Another sticky issue that had emerged during the hearing was the question of whether the town would impose another moratorium on the Glass House that would prevent the organization from requesting further modifications to its Special Permit for a set number of years. The Glass House had been under a three-year moratorium prior to making its most recent application. Attorneys for the organization urged P&Z to do away with the moratorium altogether, while neighbors sought a 10-year ban. Town Planner Lynn Brooks Avni told P&Z that the town attorney has advised that P&Z cannot legally impose such a moratorium.
“If they were to agree to it, then it would be a different story, but we cannot impose it on them,” Brooks Avni said.