Last night the Zoning Commission did something I wish all legislative bodies did more often. We took a look at a regulation that has been kicking around since the 80s and tweaked it because it wasn’t doing what it was intended to do.
Taking a look at laws and regulations to see if they are working is a very important thing. Too often legislators just add new regulations without looking at the current regulations to see what they are doing. The state law on driving while using a cell phone is a good example. There are laws that address reckless driving, and reckless driving is the problem. It shouldn’t matter why someone serves from lane to lane, the act itself warrants enforcement. Yet we get another law on the books instead of looking at what laws aren’t working and either tweaking them or getting rid of them.
Awhile back the Zoning Commission repealed a regulation on the books that required that no two liquor stores be less than 1000 feet apart from each other. It was a regulation that dated back to the days of prohibition. After review, and a study of neighboring towns, we opted to remove the law. Since that time new liquor stores have opened, and some have moved from previous locations.
The regulation we tweaked last night had to do with the parking requirements of downtown SoNo. The regulation had required that businesses had to pay a fee in order to meet the onsite parking requirements. Onsite parking may make sense in a suburban setting, but downtown SoNo, and for that matter, Wall Street, have historic buildigns built long before automobiles were on the scene. The City, back in the day, built municipal parking lots to provide parking. That decision helped preserve the architecture of Norwalk’s past for the most part. But as regulation creep settled over the intervening decades, we sort of lost sight of what downtown used to be like, chiefly that people used to stroll through the downtown areas because there was activity and people milling about.
The regulation, as it was designed, was to create a pool of money to be used specifically to build new municipal parking facilities, or retire the debt of municipal parking facilities, or pay for capital improvements of those facilities. What this bureaucratic-speak really means was that it was intended to pay for parking, which at the time was free. But in 2003 or so, the City decided that parking should not be subsidized, at least by taxpayers, and that the Parking Authority was created. The decision at that time was to have the people who use the parking facilities pay for that parking. This meant that the zoning regulation had basically lost its intended purpose.
The issue of parking in our downtown areas, including how much we need and where it should be located is still an important consideration of Zoning. But, having a regulation that creates an economic imbalance when the City had adopted a different policy direction, is a good reason to take a look and tweak government to make sense. In this case, last night we changed out regulations so that businesses no longer were required to “buy out of building parking spaces” by contributing $20k per space that was required under our general regulations. We are conceding that it should be the users of the parking lots who pay for the parking, and that also includes the business owners who pay per use as well.
One thing that did not come out at our hearing last night, was the plan to conduct a parking study, city wide, to determine what the parking needs should be in our urban core. This study will enable us to plan for more types of district based parking, rather than forcing on site parking, which just creates a suburban mall effect, rather than the traditional downtown look of people strolling and enjoying the many stores and restaurants lining the historic streets.
It is important for all aspects of government to work together to achieve policy goals, and I am pleased to say that the Mayor, Zoning, the Parking Authority and Redevelopment worked together to identify this issue as one that could be tweaked successfully, with all the checks and balances that good policy should have.