Washington, CT

September 2011 - Zoning Race Tightens

Zoning Race Tightens As Dutton Withdraws

[9/28/11] On September 23, Phil Dutton, one of the Republicans’ two candidates for two full-member seats on the Zoning Commission, withdrew from the race. His name will not appear on the November 8th ballot. Only three names will appear on the line for two full-member seats on the Zoning Commission: Democrats Nick Solley and Ralph Averill and Republican Dave Werkhoven. Voters will be instructed to "vote for any two" of them.

No Reason for Withdrawal

Mr. Dutton gave no reason for his withdrawal. He may have learned belatedly that, under state election law, it was legally impossible for the Republicans to elect both of their candidates; it would have violated the so-called “minority representation” rule, which allows no more than four members of one political party on a five-member commission, like our Zoning Commission (more details).

Possibly, the Republicans had hoped to get around this rule by nominating Mr. Dutton, who is not, in fact, a Republican, but a Democrat. Such an end run would also have been blocked by state statute. Connecticut’s election law provides that a candidate like Mr. Dutton, though a Democrat, “shall be deemed to be a member of the party of which he is [a] candidate” [CGS 9-167a(g)].

Zoning Race Not a Popularity Contest

Now that this little intrigue has played itself out, the main drama comes into focus: Whom does Washington elect to its Zoning Commission? Which two of the three candidates for Zoning Commission should you vote for?

The Republican candidate, Dave Werkhoven, is a well-known and respected Washingtonian. He has been involved in community affairs for years. Indeed, if the Zoning election were a popularity contest, he might well win.

But it isn’t a popularity contest—or, at least, it shouldn’t be. The Zoning Commission is probably the most important powerful board in Town. It determines what you and your neighbors can—and cannot—do with your property. It decides where schools, inns, and businesses can—and cannot—go (like maybe next door to you).

Experience Counts: 33 to 0!

The Zoning Commission’s decisions, its regulations, have a direct impact on your quality of life here. To maintain that quality—to protect the value of your property—you need Zoning Commissioners whose experience equips them to make wise informed judgments about smart land-use policies in Washington.

Washington Democrats believe that their two candidates are so equipped. Between the two of them—Nick Solley and Ralph Averill—they have 33 years of experience in land-use regulation. In contrast, Mr. Werkhoven has none.

Nick Solley’s 27 years

Nick Solley will bring to the Zoning Commission the benefit of his 27 years’ experience in land use: He was Washington’s Zoning Enforcement Officer from 1974 to 1991. For nearly ten years (1991-2001), he was Chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals. (During the last ten years, Mr. Solley has served as a Town Selectman.)

In his 27 years of hands-on land-use work, Nick has visited almost every land parcel in Town. He’s talked to and worked with property owners and has a unique appreciation of their needs and hardships as they confront the strictures of Zoning. He knows how to balance the competing needs of neighbors in order to achieve a town-wide sense of harmony.

Ralph Averill’s 6 Years

Ralph Averill’s Washington roots run deep. He is the ninth generation of the Averill family to live here. (The next time you pick apples at the Averill orchard, notice the sign on the weathered barn: “Averill Homestead Founded 1746.”) Mr. Averill lives in New Preston and works as a construction electrician.

Mr. Averill is a full member of the Washington Zoning Commission. “My last six years on the Zoning Commission have been a tremendous learning experience,” says Mr. Averill. “Between attending seminars on land-use law, drafting sensible new regulations, and participating in the intricate procedures followed by the Commission, I have learned how challenging it is for commissioners to act as both legislators and adjudicators. My experience tells me that the Zoning Commission can play a more active role in revitalizing our business districts. Thriving village centers, and the close-knit small town life they create, form the historic heart of Washington’s unique ‘rural character.’”

Prevent Republican ‘Super Majority’

Basically, there are two reasons to vote for Messrs. Solley and Averill, not Mr. Werkhoven: first, to prevent a Republican “super majority” on the Commission; and second, to select the most clearly qualified candidates for the job.

Few in Town even knew what a “super majority” was until 2010. That year the Zoning Commission proposed amending its regulations to permit inns of unlimited size to be built anywhere in the entire R-1 and R-3 (residential) districts. Any such regulatory change must be submitted to the Planning Commission for prior approval. The Planning Commission unanimously rejected the proposal, because it was inconsistent with Washington’s 2003 Plan of Conservation and Development. Why? Because permitting such a high-impact commercial use as an inn anywhere in the residential district (like maybe next door to you) was viewed as inconsistent with a major underlying goal of the POCD—namely, preserving Washington’s “rural character” and quality of life.

So the Planning Commission sent the proposal back to the Zoning Commission. That’s where the “super majority” came in. In order to pass its proposed amendment, the Zoning Commission needed more than the usual 3-to-2 majority. It was required by statute to muster a “super majority” of 4 to 1. And, in this instance, it could garner only three votes in favor. Without a “super majority,” the regulations were not changed, thus protecting huge residential areas from unwanted commercial intrusion.

If Mr. Werkhoven were to be elected, he would add a fourth Republican to the three already sitting on the Zoning Commission. That is not to say that he and the other three Republicans would tend to vote as a block. But over the past few years, some of the Republican members of the Commission have had occasion to articulate rationales for some of their decisions, which seemed at times to be more political, more extra-legal, more—how does one say this?—Republican, than one might have preferred if matters were being decided strictly by the book (i.e., the book of Zoning regulations). Notions of “letting the free market decide,” or steering clear of regulation because more regulation, in and of itself, is bad, are not, strictly speaking, valid legal bases for making zoning decisions. They may be sound Republican dogma, but they are not grounds for good zoning.

No other commission in Washington has four of its five members from the same political party. The Zoning Commission would have a more robust open-minded framework for its decision-making process if, instead of a “super majority” of four Republicans, it continued with its present split of three Republicans and two Democrats. Both of those currently Democratic seats are now up for election. They should be filled by Democrats Nick Solley and Ralph Averill.

Vote for the Best Two Out of Three

On November 8th, the ballot will instruct you to “vote for any two” of the three candidates for Zoning Commission. But voting for any two is a cop-out. You should vote for the best two. And here the choice is clear.
Rarely does a town have the opportunity to avail itself of the kind of experience and expertise that Nick Solley and Ralph Averill have accumulated. Washington can ill afford to squander such an asset, so long in development. That’s especially true when the alternative is an untested beginner, who would face a steep learning curve before even starting to “get it.”

On Election Day, Tuesday, November 8th, remember that you are electing Zoning Commissioners who will have a direct major impact on Washington’s quality of life for the next six years. Elect candidates whose experience equips them to handle the pivotal issues that will come before the Zoning Commission. Vote for two whose judgment you can trust: Nick Solley and Ralph Averill.