Town Seeks To Enforce Rules About Keeping Downtown Sidewalks Clear

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Elm Street, New Canaan. Credit: Terry Dinan

Seeking to ensure that downtown sidewalks are clear for pedestrians, officials said last week that a Planning & Zoning officer could be assigned to enforce local rules.

Under the Town Code, items such as benches, tables, chairs, signs or commercial displays cannot obstruct sight lines or pedestrian passage on sidewalks.

Though the town allows for “certain things that are considered good,” merchants sometimes take advantage by going too far, according to Public Works Director Tiger Mann.

“It’s nice to have bench and put a table out there, but four chairs around it as a display case in front of the building, it’s a little too much,” Mann said during a Jan. 29 meeting of a Planning & Zoning Commission subcommittee.

“For us, the main thing is to keep the thoroughfare open, as far as the pedestrian zone. We like to see plantings, we like to see beatification in that regard. Our gentleman who comes through and waters the hanging baskets actually waters those for the downtown merchants that put them out. So I am OK with all that as long as the pedestrian way is open.”

Yet there’s a problem of enforcement, since Public Works has no “teeth” in seeking to keep the sidewalks clear, Mann said.

“There is nothing written on the backside that there is a fine available,” he said. “There is nothing written on the other side that says I can fine you or do this or do that. It doesn’t even say that I can remove it and then charge you for it.”

He spoke during a meeting of the Commission’s subcommittee in charge of implementing New Canaan’s Plan of Conservation and Development, a guiding document. 

The committee’s chair, Jean Grzelecki, said New Canaan has seen “a lot of problems” with respect to enforcing and that although “town sidewalk comes under Public Works,” those who work in that municipal department “are not enforcers, to so speak.”

“Their job is to take care of things,” she said. 

However, the assistant zoning inspector from P&Z could take on that role if Mann puts something down in writing saying the he was comfortable shifting the responsibility elsewhere, she said. Town Planning Lynn Brooks Avni agreed to draft a document to that end.

Zoning enforcement inspectors already are responsible for ensuring that rules regarding downtown businesses’ use of the areas outside their storefronts comply with local regulations. For example, no sign in any retail or business zone “shall be located forward of the building or setback line,” under the Zoning Regulations (see page 134). 

Grzelecki said New Canaan should ensure its sidewalks are clear to avoid liability problems.

“I don’t think we want to wait until somebody falls down and the town gets sued before we do something about this,” she said. “So I think we should clean it up a little bit for sure.”

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