Edit Module

From the Founder I

Planning Our Town's Future

Bob Capazzo

Last June, the Planning & Zoning Commission issued its preliminary draft of the 2008 Plan of Conservation & Development (POCD). The 185-page document, amply and colorfully illustrated, is the result of nearly a year’s work by the Commission’s five regular and three alternate volunteer members, headed by P&Z chairman Don Heller, and its five member professional staff directed by Diane Fox. The plan represents a wish list of what they would like the town to be by the end of the decade, with recommended steps on how the plan can be implemented. It is a directional guide that can be reviewed and amended during this time. Of necessity, it is general; to be overly specific would make it restrictive and more likely to be rendered obsolete.

Fundamental to the creation of the first draft was the input of interested citizens as expressed in over a dozen public meetings sponsored by the P&Z throughout town.

Yet the document is still a work in progress. The final version is scheduled to be presented to the RTM for approval in December. In the meantime, the commission is continuing to hold meetings with RTM committees, service organizations, town department heads and interested members of the community. And as a result, a number of changes in the plan are already being considered.

GREENWICH Magazine believes this document can be of such significance that, in the interest of stimulating further public participation, we are examining its content in a three-part series. We will focus on the most critical areas, how they relate to one another, and why the stated goals are important for our town to pursue.

In this first installment, we look at issues relating to the environment.

Preserving Open Space
High on the list of POCD recommendations is continuing the acquisition of open space. About 13 percent of the land area of Greenwich is open space, some of which is permanently protected and much is not. This includes golf courses, cemeteries, land trusts and the properties of the water company, the Audubon and the Nature Conservancy, but excludes town-owned land that may or may not be dedicated to open space.

Still, in the past five years, just over 900 acres, or 19 percent of open land, has been lost, and in the past thirty years, we have lost 46 percent of our vacant and undeveloped land. The 2008 POCD calls for the continued implementation of the 2002 Open Space Plan. It strongly recommends that we continue to acquire parcels of vacant land, especially the acquisition of Aquarian Water Company watershed property; to encourage the use of conservation easements; to require set-asides for subdivisions; and to partner with conservation organizations like the Greenwich Land Trust to find ways to permanently preserve excess private land. The plan encourages attached cluster housing to create open space within a development, and it recommends
a town-sponsored program in which tax incentives are offered to property owners who donate excess land to open space in perpetuity. The tools are there to make a difference.

Protecting Our Water Resources
More precious than oil and more critical to human survival is fresh water. Although we are blessed in Greenwich with a greater natural supply of potable water than in many other communities, in the face of continuing loss of open land to development, we can no longer take it for granted. High on the list of priorities of the POCD is the protection and maintenance of both an adequate supply of water and its quality. Many of the homes in Greenwich dependent on well water are facing an ever-lowering water table. In addition, they lack access to water mains for fire protection. Fortunately, there are things we can do as citizens and as a community to reverse the trend and recharge the supply of groundwater before wells run dry.

The plan calls for the protection of watercourses, wetlands, water bodies and groundwater. It recommends regulations to limit the amount of a lot’s impervious surface in order to reduce runoff and discourages the redevelopment of properties that would add large areas of such surfaces. Even with a four-acre lot, when a  swimming pool, tennis court, terraces and driveways are added to the footprint of a 10,000-square-foot house, there may not be enough permeable land left to recharge the groundwater consumed by five or more bathrooms, laundry and dishwashers and the loss through evaporation of a lawn irrigation system. The plan also recommends an educational program aimed at developers and property owners to encourage use of low-impact ways to maintain the water table. These include infiltrators (leading rain water from roofs into underground absorption wells), and rain gardens and swales (depressed areas planted with native grasses and bushes that catch and retain rainwater).

The ability to manage storm water and drainage effectively is a major factor in maintaining water quality. In fact, Phase II of the EPA’s regulations addressing
the discharge pollutants have made it imperative for all communities to have programs in place to manage drainage into both inland and coastal waters.
The POCD calls for an evaluation of all potential sources of water contamination, such as roads and parking lots, from which runoff enters streams and Long Island Sound. It calls also for an updating of the town’s Engineering Drainage Manual to address drainage and flooding issues as well as adherence to the new Phase II standards.

On the subject of coastal waters, the POCD sees a need for harbor management, more public access and maintenance and creation of water views. Currently, the P&Z has authority to review applications from waterfront property owners in the interest of preserving views, which it did recently in requiring modification of the new Byram River development plan.

Protecting the Land
Water resources and land management are inextricably linked. What we do with our land, whether in the private or public domain, inevitably affects the supply and quality of our water.

Take grading. One of the contributing factors to the recent dramatic problems we have had with flooding can be laid on the doorstep of property development and the regrading of lots. It is no longer a question of individual property rights when the actions of a property owner or a developer have a destructive effect on the neighbors or the community at large. Currently, regulations governing land development have been inadequate to protect neighborhoods from the destructive action of storm water runoff, erosion and sedimentation, usually the result of an increase in impervious surface areas and changes in grading. Adjoining property owners affected by runoff onto their lots now have only after-the-fact recourse in the court.

There are specific recommendations contained in the POCD that seek to provide greater control over significant grade alteration, including special permits for regrading over 50 percent of a property, standards for building on steep slopes, limitations on soil and rock removal, and a requirement for grading and drainage plan for all excavations. The POCD draft even recommends that all applications for residential building permits include a grading and drainage plan with oversight by DPW Engineering.

Upstream development in both Greenwich and Westchester, with attendant increases in site coverage and impervious surfaces (which include house footprint, driveways and patios) has caused runoff onto adjacent properties and led to major flooding along the Byram River last year. It should be noted that the town has a little-known Flood and Erosion Control Board with members appointed by the RTM and funded with a half million dollars by the BET so far this year. It was established by an act of the RTM in 1957, receives administrative and technical support from the Department of Public Works, and may enter into agreements with the state and federal government in pursuing its mission. The board, along with the DPW, P&Z, Conservation and the Wetlands agency, have formed a working group to coordinate efforts to prevent a repeat of major flooding in Greenwich.

Preserving Our Trees
An essential part of any effort to protect our environment must involve the preservation of local trees.

Trees retain moisture and stabilize soil; they reduce carbon monoxide, the main cause of global warming; they add oxygen to the air we breathe; they cool us in summer; and they add scenic beauty and character to our neighborhoods. Yet, in the path of residential development, they are no match for the chain saw, and the ability to legislate against clear-
cutting to date has been limited.

Nevertheless, the POCD recommends developing new regulations that would limit clear cutting on private property where the loss of trees could cause flooding of neighboring properties. It urges adopting conservation easements for areas of mature and specimen trees; planting a large number of public trees over the next ten years; and conducting an inventory of trees and tree coverage using our geographic information system to monitor unauthorized removal of trees. Still, the most effective tool may be public education to create awareness of the critical importance of trees to our lifestyle and to life itself.

Protecting Small Villages
and Scenic Resources

Greenwich is often described as “a town of small villages.” It is one of the charming and appealing characteristics of our town. Villages are often the main source of local pride, and whether it’s Glenville, Byram, Cos Cob, Banksville or Old Greenwich, they are part of our environment. The POCD recognizes the importance of preserving the distinctive character of our villages by devoting a separate chapter to each. It recommends establishing village districts or historic districts where approval of property owners can be obtained.

Hand in hand with preserving the traditional ambience of villages is identifying and maintaining our scenic assets, roads with vistas across fields and through woods, views unobstructed by the recent proliferation of high fences and higher walls. Here the plan urges a limitation and better regulation of their height. It suggests appropriate signage to identify scenic roads and points of historic interest.

In the November issue of the magazine, we will examine the POCD’s recommendations for meeting workforce and other critical housing needs, for downtown development, and for considering changes or modifications of our zoning regulations. In the December issue, we will take up the plan’s approach to ameliorating the perennial problem of traffic and parking. — Jack Moffly