An activist citizens group has scrapped plans to question planning and zoning candidates, publicize their answers, and offer election endorsements based on their stands.
The group, Citizens for Responsible Planning, filed a lawsuit in June to reverse the commission’s adoption of a retail ‘Gateway Zone’ on Route 7. With the suit pending, the Planning and Zoning Commission’s attorney advised incumbents not to answer the group’s questionnaire.
“Both my attorney and the town’s attorney said not to comment because we’re in court, and we’re going to go to court, and there’s a legal issue,” said George Hanlon, a Republican incumbent.
The commission’s attorney, Thomas Beecher, said, “As with just about any case, I advised my clients not to discuss on-going litigation, or the issues involved in on-going litigation,” he said.,
Ellen Burns, an organizer of the citizens group, was unapologetic about the effort to draw attention to candidates’ positions on a variety of issues — the ‘gateway zone’ but also affordable housing, Schlumberger, Main Street, Branchville.
“We had wanted to try to get their thought process out in public, since we have a contest for planning and zoning for the first time in a number of years. We’d hoped it would help people become informed about their view of people running for this powerful commission,” she said.
“Our feeling is the Planning and Zoning Commission, other than the first selectman, is probably the most important board in town, governing how it looks and how it feels to live here.”
Susan Cocco, chair of the Democratic Town Committee, charged that “There is high-stakes pressure and entrapment being engaged in, in regard to the Planning and Zoning Commission race this year.”
She singled out Ms. Burns and Helen Dimos, another committee organizer, for being plaintiffs in the gateway zone lawsuit and then asking questions about it as part of their election activities.
“They are now acting as an illegal PAC and are attempting to entrap seated Planning and Zoning Commissioners and prospective Planning and Zoning Commissioners, into answering a questionnaire,” she said.
“Town counsel advised seated commissioners not to answer, because it would put them in jeopardy because there are matters in front of the commission where comment is required in the questionnaire. Then, there are matters that are the subject of lawsuit,” she said.
“This is not only a breech of ethics, it is a form of entrapment!”
Ms. Burns said her group is cooperating the town attorney’s concerns, and has dropped its effort to have candidates answer questions.
She said the group accepted the position and “advised the other three candidates who are not currently sitting on the Planning and Zoning Commission, to also not answer, since the others could not.”
But the organizers still plan to have an active role in the planning and zoning election. “A number of people — some of whom are members of Citizens for Responsible planning, and others who are not, it’s not the same people — have formed a PAC, called Smarter Planning for Ridgefield, and we will be making endorsements on a non-partisan basis,” Ms. Burns said.
The two groups are separate, Ms. Burns said, but have some members in common.
“Citizens for Responsible Planning, that’s probably between 15 and 20,” she said. “We haven’t done an active effort to solicit funds for that yet. The people who contributed were those who came forward on their own and said they wanted to help.
“Smarter Planning for Ridgefield is six or seven, but we haven’t reached out yet. We only just formed this week,” she said.
Three names are on paperwork filed for the new PAC in town hall: Ms. Burns, Ms. Dimos, and Dave Goldenburg.
Ms. Cocco objected to a letter Ms. Dimos had emailed out, supporting some candidates and opposing others, before anyone answered questions.
“On the very day the questionnaire goes out, one of the two organizers of Citizens for Responsible Planning sends out an email that endorsed three candidates and urged people to vote for only those three,” Ms. Cocco said. “Not only are they engaged in entrapment, their questionnaire process is a sham, because their decision had already been made,” Ms. Cocco said.
Ms. Burns said Citizens for Responsible Planning will continue its lawsuit, while Smarter Planning for Ridgefield will pursue politics.
“That’s going to be an on-going political committee for this election and future elections and referendums that relate to land-use planning,” she said.
She provided a “statement of purpose” that members of Smarter Planning for Ridgefield has been working on.
“The future of any community depends on its ability to plan for that future — economically, culturally, educationally, and in the use of its most limited asset, the land,” the statement says.
“Smarter Planning for Ridgefield is a nonpartisan group of Ridgefield residents and business owners who feel that our town is increasingly suffering from the effects of poor land-use planning…
“Smarter Planning for Ridgefield will advocate for policies that promote good planning and smart growth; identify, create, support and promote initiatives consistent with our goals; and support candidates who share our views.”