Five questions with... Steve Kleppin
NEW CANAAN — It’s the end of an era.
Town Planner Steve Kleppin, recently hired for the top zoning spot in Norwalk, will work his last day at Town Hall on Oct. 15.
Kleppin, a New Milford native, came to New Canaan in 2005 as the assistant town planner after a brief stint working for Stamford. Within six months, his supervisor departed, creating a vacancy at the top of the Planning and Zoning Department that Kleppin would fill for more than a decade.
It is a job that Kleppin describes as “busy, interesting, fun, exciting and sometimes stressful,” and one that was not easy for him to leave.
Q: How have the town’s planning issues evolved in the last decade?
A: I think there were a lot of external forces that have spurred change. The recession had a big impact. Back in 2005, the big issues were teardowns in town. All the 1950s and 1960s capes and ranches along the side streets off South Avenue were being torn down and, unfortunately, people were building the biggest boxes they could fit on their property. In 2005, the commission went through a pretty substantial rewrite of the zoning regulations, right as I was coming on board. So, I think those regulations have led to much better architecture in town.
After the recession, things changed completely. You’re now seeing people wanting to live closer to town; there’s a demand to get as close as possible. Seniors and empty-nesters are looking to downsize. They may not want a lawn anymore, or maybe they want to be someplace walkable to downtown where they can go to shops, restaurants and hop on the train if need be. So, that’s putting a demand on housing in town that we didn’t necessarily have before, so we’re trying to address that.
There really wasn’t a lot of activity downtown, even on the commercial level, when I got here. I think you’re seeing property owners and the commission responding to the demand by pushing the regulations in that direction. The questions are, how much is too much? And how do you allow what the market wants, but ensure that development doesn’t take away from what makes the downtown great? So, that’s the balance that the commission is trying to strike. It’s going to take a lot of thought and a lot of insight going forward.
Q: In your opinion, is increased development downtown necessary for New Canaan in order for the town to continue to thrive?
A: Yeah, it’s pretty clear that brick-and-mortar retail is tough, as all the retailers will tell you. I think they need help from the town, and I think one way we can provide that, at least as far as zoning goes, is by making sure enough people are on the street.
Q: What was the most difficult part about being town planner in New Canaan?
A: Sometimes, it’s keeping the emotion out of things. Property values are very high and people are very protective of their rights. Then you have applications where one side wants something and the other doesn’t. The property owner has rights and the neighbor has rights. So, just trying to reach the right decision on things is difficult. You’re trying to find that balance, while keeping the emotions out of it and trying to keep everybody on the same playing field and treating everybody fairly. It’s tricky when emotions get involved.
And sometimes it ends up that I’m the bearer of bad news. It matters how you deliver that bad news. To some people, “no” is a four-letter word. But with others, you can explain why you made your decision and most of the time people are OK with that, as long as you treat them with respect. They may not like the decision, they may seek recourse outside of that, but it doesn’t have to turn contentious.
Q: What was the best part of the job in New Canaan?
A: The staff here is great. The Zoning Board of Appeals and the Planning and Zoning Commission have been fantastic to me since I got here. And I’ve gotten along great with all the first selectmen that were here — Judy Neville hired me, Jeb Walker after that and I get along great with Rob (Mallozzi). I like working with them and I have got nothing but support from all levels here, so that’s been great.
Q: What’s the feeling now that you’re getting ready to leave?
A: It’s bittersweet. There are things going on here that I kind of want to see develop. I want to make sure things still work well, and there are things I’ve started here that I want to continue. But at the same time, I’m excited about the opportunity in Norwalk because there’s a lot going on. It seems like, from what I can tell, the interest is so high in Norwalk that there will be a lot of challenges. Exciting challenges.