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Wednesday, December 18, 2002

12/21/02 - Rethinking the town's FAR regulations


Rethinking the town's FAR regulations
December 18, 2002

The drumbeat of anti-FAR sentiment in town has been constant for several years. Even so, the Planning and Zoning Commission has been working to reinstate a modified form of the floor area ratio rules that were adopted in part to regulate the size of houses built in town. Now the Representative Town Meeting has weighed in with a resolution asking for another look at the situation.

Foes say the FAR regulations didn't work when they were in effect between 1998 and earlier this year. A court decision tossed them out because of problems in notifying the town about the rules when they were adopted.

While the commission's initial reaction was to simply vote anew on the FAR regulations -- with a few alterations to deal with conservation zones and other nuances -- townspeople opposing this house-sizing strategy have pointedly questioned whether other approaches wouldn't be more effective.

The genesis of the Planning and Zoning Commission's FAR strategy was a resolution approved by the RTM back in 1998 seeking an initiative to control the development of oversized houses within our town. Now the matter has come full circle, with the RTM's sense-of-the-meeting vote Dec. 10 that urges a new examination of how best to implement appropriate controls.

While some RTM members told staff writer Ryan Jockers the 2-1 vote doesn't rule out the use of floor area ratios as a tool for controlling construction, it is plain to us that community sentiment supports different tactics. Failure to get this message could pose problems for the Planning and Zoning Commission, which sometimes has seemed out of touch with town residents.

We've been critical in the past of the unwieldy way the RTM can sometimes conduct its business. But in this case, the 229-member town legislature showed its value as a democratic institution, conveying a message from the public to another branch of town government. The vote -- 119 to 54, with 13 abstentions -- to us reflects enough of a consensus for the Planning and Zoning Commission to re-think its plans.

In the past we've suggested that pinning all the town's efforts at controlling the size of new residences on the floor-area-ratio calculations approved by the commission didn't reflect the best use of available zoning tools. Now that the RTM has suggested a review of the problem, we hope the commission will look at other measures, such as setbacks and side-yard limits, that combined with floor-area regulations might better address the needs of our town.

We also agree with some of the FAR critics that whatever regulations are adopted in an effort to prevent the spread of so-called McMansions, the rules should not unduly penalize people by preventing them from building houses consistent in size to their neighborhood. Fairness in this matter is particularly important, because it involves people's homes and their families.

One way the commission might deal with this challenge -- and enlighten some tough critics -- could involve enlisting their help in looking into how other municipalities in Connecticut and elsewhere have addressed the same problem. Greenwich isn't the only place where huge houses have marred the landscape.

In the meantime, now that the RTM vote is on the record, it wouldn't hurt for the Planning and Zoning Commission to openly discuss where it stands and where it will be going as it tries to address the issue. Candor would be better than consistency in building support for the tough task the commission is facing.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

12/17/02 Enforcement is key on teen drinking


Enforcement is key on teen drinking
December 17, 2002

The arrests of a mother and daughter who hosted a party at which police allege alcohol was served to Greenwich High School students signal a new interest by authorities in dealing with a problem that has been discussed for years: teen drinking. Those in Greenwich who have spoken out about the issue should support stricter enforcement, as well as the stalled community substance abuse program that seems to be gathering fresh momentum.

Our town sometimes needs to be shocked into action. The problems with underage drinking that occurred during the GHS homecoming celebration may have provided townspeople with the equivalent of a slap in the face. Six girls and one boy, all of them freshmen or sophomores, were suspended by school officials for drinking. Two of the girls, who allegedly attended the party in question, were taken to Greenwich Hospital, where one was treated and released and the other spent three days being treated.

The ages of those suspended are 14 and 15. If that is shocking to readers, consider that experts in town say children younger than 10 are among those who abuse alcohol in Greenwich.

Nonetheless, the situation apparently was so troubling that Greenwich police were able to bring charges against Mary P. Pool, 47, and her daughter, Mary B. Pool, 17, who held a party at their North Street home. They were charged with risk of injury to a minor. The Mrs. Pool's husband, Harry, who was out of town at the time of the party, has said he is sure no alcohol was served at the event and has hired an attorney. Both mother and daughter are to appear in court Friday in Stamford.

Regardless of the outcome, this case raises questions about where the teens got alcoholic beverages and who should be responsible for underage drinking. Police note that too often they lack evidence to charge adults who own the houses where drinking parties take place, even though state laws can make the owners subject to arrest. That's why we have suggested that state officials look into laws prohibiting possession of alcoholic beverages by youngsters, as well as more thorough enforcement of existing statutes.

Making it illegal for people under 21 to have alcohol could have a chilling effect on young people who are asked on college applications whether they have ever been arrested. Colleges around the country are also caught up in efforts to eliminate binge drinking, which has become a dangerous way of life on many campuses.

Of course, heavy drinking isn't only confined to colleges, as the GHS homecoming dance debacle indicates. That's why we're glad to see concerned parents and officials from social service agencies and the Police Department rekindling discussions about the problem. A Dec. 11 meeting to begin to form a townwide coalition could be the first step toward putting initiatives to counter teen drinking back on the community's radar screen.

Over the years, the problem has remained important for some individuals, including many teenagers. Young people who support events at the Arch Street teen center, those involved with the Safe Rides program and members of Students Against Drunk Driving have made clear their concerns. So have the parents who make it a point to know where their teenage children are going and when they will be home.

But too many parents not only turn a blind eye to underage drinking but encourage it. Serving alcohol at a teen party on the theory having them home can ensure their safety is fallacious reasoning, for when the young party-goers leave, any control lapses.

That is why we are glad police are taking harsh steps in the pending case. We would like to think other communities would do the same, for this is a widespread problem. But unless our town, other municipalities and the state begin to address underage drinking with stricter measures, we fear a bad situation will only get tragically worse.

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