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Planning Candidates Eye Westport's Future

WESTPORT, Conn. – From questions about affordable housing and zoning changes, to downtown revitalization and traffic, Westport's Planning and Zoning candidates took center stage Monday night during a debate presented in part by the League of Women Voters .

During the hour-long event, Democrat Jennifer Johnson and Republicans Catherine Walsh (an incumbent), Chip Stephens and Jack Whittle answered some of the questions burning on the minds of Westport residents. Among them was how each candidate felt about changes to commercial zones that would allow for higher and denser buildings.

Across the board, candidates agreed such changes need to be carefully considered, as they can dramatically alter the town's unique character — something all candidates said should be maintained.

"We've got to look at the town like the human body," said Stephens, referring to the body's circulatory system. "When you start hearing about parking lots, tall buildings, large building, start thinking about the consequences on congestion and our facilities. So many things have be considered in terms of the long term and how our quality of life is in Westport."

Although the Planning and Zoning Commission doesn't control traffic, candidates were asked how the commission can help alleviate congestion.

For Whittle, the answer lies in the types of projects the commission approves. "If we continue to position downtown area as a regional shopping mall, we're going to continue to negatively impact traffic in Westport. Whenever the (Planning and Zoning Commission) has before it a significant project, it must continue to carefully access the traffic impact because that's something felt by every resident in town."

Walsh and Stephens agreed with Whittle, saying it's vital the commission carefully consider all possible impacts proposed projects can have. For Johnson, the No. 1 solution to the town's traffic woes is improved pedestrian access.

"Cars dominate our landscape," Johnson said. "I am a firm believer that the No. 1 thing we can do to improve our quality of life is improve pedestrian access — places for us to walk around our neighborhood, places we can meet and greet each other in safety and comfort."

On downtown revitalization, Walsh said she believed the town has already seen smart growth and is on the right track. She added that revitalization isn't just about bringing in more shops, but also includes beautification efforts.

"Downtown already has a good mix of mom-and-pops and retail," Walsh said. "Going forward, I'd like to see more greening, perhaps on Parker Harding Plaza."

Republican candidate Al Gratrix was unable to attend the debate. To hear more about what the candidates had to say, catch the debate on Channel 79 (AT&T Channel 99) at 8 p.m. from Oct. 21-23. It will also be streamed on the town's website until Election Day .

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