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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.

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