From the Founder: What’s SWRPA?
If you have heard of it, you might know that the acronym stands for South Western Regional Planning Agency, but most people have only a vague notion of what it actually does. Yet, it is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and it has an important behind the scenes influence on our lives and the future of the towns of Fairfield County.
There are eight municipalities incorporated in SWRPA: Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, Wilton, Weston and Westport. The organization is one of only two such regional planning agencies in the state. Regional planning in the rest of the state is served by Councils of Government, or Councils of Elected Officials. Which of these is the more efficient form has been debated, but for Fairfield County SWRPA remains the structure of choice. The genesis of the agency results from the unique structure of government in Connecticut. According to SWRPA’s chairman, Jerry Ellis of New Canaan, when the state abandoned county government in the 1950s and delegated home rule authority to its municipalities, the administration for the federal highway program, launched in the Eisenhower era, had no county organization to turn to in order to allocate highway funds. The need for regional planning organizations became apparent.
The mission of SWRPA is to preserve and improve the quality of life and economic vitality of southwestern Connecticut by focusing on inter-municipal issues. Funding comes from the federal government and the state, along with relatively minor contributions from the municipalities. The federal government mandates that 80 percent of the agency’s $1.3 million budget be spent on transportation. However, its area of study is actually considerably broader, encompassing housing, the environment, economic development and other quality of life issues for which transportation is a critical component.
The twenty-two volunteer members of the board of directors are appointed by the mayors, first selectmen and planning and zoning commissions of each of the eight municipalities. The board overseas and has fiduciary responsibility for a permanent staff of ten professional planners led by Executive Director Dr. Floyd Lapp. In his nearly fifty-year career as an urban planner, Lapp has been affiliated with the Westchester and New Jersey planning departments, the Tristate Regional Planning Commission, was director of transportation planning for New York City, and is an adjunct professor of urban planning at Columbia University.
SWRPA’s responsibilities include periodic preparation of an overall Regional Plan of Conservation and Development. It acts as a forum bringing together town officials to address inter-town issues. SWRPA performs a critical service by providing technical information and creating a socioeconomic database and maps for the region. And it undertakes a transportation planning process for the region’s guiding planning body, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), consisting of the city mayors, first selectmen, and transit districts’ heads.
Exits 14 and 15 in Norwalk have long been traffic choke points. Data provided by the agency’s professional planners gave DOT the statistical data needed to make its case for funding the redesign and rebuilding of these interchanges. And when the proposed controversial Route 7 interchange and extension of the limited access highway through the heart of Wilton died for lack of funding, SWRPA’s in-depth transportation studies of the Route 7 corridor helped engineer the widening of Route 7 as an alternative. Because the agency’s studies are directed primarily to town planners and chief elected officials, SWRPA’s contributions receive relatively little public recognition.
Whenever recommendations are made by an agency of the state or federal government, the issue of encroachment on home rule inevitably arises. It is important to know, therefore, what SWRPA can and cannot do. For one, the agency has no power of implementation. It can provide direction, quantify need, conduct in-depth analysis and make recommendations, but it is up to others to translate plans into reality. This can take years, and even the best-made plans may die on the shelf. But Floyd Lapp points out that it is difficult to predict in the public sector when projects may be approved, and it’s better to have a plan in place when they are. SWRPA is also instrumental in resolving potential zoning conflicts between towns. When proposed developments come within 500 feet of adjoining borders, the towns are required to call upon the agency to provide referrals on zoning changes. While the agency has no power to force adoption of its recommendations, town planning officials often use SWRPA’s reports to bolster their own recommendations.
According to SWRPA vice-chairman Bob Byrne of Greenwich, the agency is in a position to provide a collective voice for the region to promote constructive legislation in the state house. A case in point, he says, is the concerted effort that was made to remove an onerous part of a state statute on zoning enforcement that has been on the books for many years. If you have ever wondered why our zoning ordinances are so poorly enforced, you need look no further than this section of State Statute 812A (tacked on by a disgruntled developer, and no doubt passed in a midnight session) that makes the zoning enforcement officer, not the town, personally liable for treble damages in suits brought in connection with the execution of enforcement. Heading the legislative committee tackling this problem was Gayle Weinstein, first selectman of Weston, who advised us that, happily, this stipulation has recently been removed from the statute, and zoning enforcement officers are now treated the same as other municipal employees. This is one of four major issues that the board of SWRPA has identified and targeted for special attention with subcommittees dedicated to pursuing each.
The others are:
• Obtaining funding for improvements for facilities and tracks on the long neglected New Canaan Metro North branch line
• Persuading the state to make more equitable allocations of grants among municipalities so that smaller towns get their fair share
• Encouraging transit oriented commercial and residential development, i.e., creating middle income housing within walking distance of railroad stations.
Ongoing, of course, is finding some solution to the intractable problem of an overburdened I-95. We have heard every possible (or impossible) proposal from double decking the highway to getting trucks off the highway by building a rail freight tunnel under Manhattan to New Jersey. The DOT will be conducting a study of I-95 from Greenwich to New Haven that is due for completion by the end of 2013. Floyd Lapp believes that a partial answer to I-95 may be found in adopting the “managed lane” concept. During heavy traffic periods a lane is dedicated to high-speed travel for a fee. Technology exists that eliminates tollgates and reads license numbers by digital camera on the fly, known as “Boothless technology.” Motorists are billed for the privilege of using the lane with fees based on time of day. He points out that managed lanes are actually in place in a number of cities, including Miami, Houston, San Diego and Minneapolis, as well as in many foreign countries. SWRPA is on the technical advisory committee to study the adoption of high speed managed lanes. If it can be done elsewhere, just maybe it can be done here.