A recent panel discussion about the future of Waveny Park pulled back the bureaucratic red tape surrounding the permit process should Waveny Care Center submit a proposal for the much-debated continuing care retirement center in the park.

The event, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and held at the New Canaan Library, was moderated by LWV member Kathleen Corbet, who also sits on the Board of Finance.

The LWV dodged contentious debate between proponents of a CCRC in Waveny Park and open space conservationists by screening audience comments and posing hypothetical questions to a panel comprised of Park and Recreation Commission Chairman Scott Gress, Town Councilman and Park and Recreation Subcommittee Chairman Steve Karl, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Laszlo Papp, Conservation Commission member Susan Sweitzer and Town Attorney Chris Jarboe.

The forum shed light on what Papp indicated as the two most important deciding factors in the approval process: compliance with state regulations and public approval.

A public hearing, Papp said, is the most effective forum for community members to voice their opinions on projects like the pending proposal for a CCRC at Waveny Park.

"The Planning and Zoning Commission will go to any length to hear the public at a public hearing," he said.

Gress added that concerned residents can also effectively voice their opinions with letters to the editor in local newspapers like the New Canaan News, phone calls to decision makers and attendance at Park and Rec, P&Z or other relevant commission meetings.

When a project that concerns New Canaan parks or recreational facilities is proposed at town hall, it is first brought to a Park and Rec meeting for debate.

This year, economic recession will drive Park and Rec's priorities toward maintenance, rather than acquisition, of town-owned properties, Gress said.

"We hope to get input for all the stakeholders, the neighbors, the people involved in any of the decisions," Gress explained. He added, "Then the 11 people [on the commission], to the best of their abilities, try to render an opinion that is in the best interest of the town."

In the case of a large-scale proposal like the CCRC, Park and Rec makes a recommendation ­-- not a binding decisions -- to the town.

The next step in the approval process is review by P&Z. If a building proposal satisfies state-mandated zoning, wetland, health, fire and building regulations, P&Z awards proposal heads with a permit.

If the proposal does not satisfy all zoning requirements but still has merit, P&Z can evaluate the project for a special zoning permit.

Three kinds of zoning distinctions exist in New Canaan: residential, business and special. Waveny Park is a designated special zone, Papp said, which permits educational, recreational, health-related, non-profit and temporary community activities on this parcel.

"The Planning and Zoning Commission has considerable authority to approve or disapprove this [special zoning] application based on public hearings with broad input from the interested parties, the neighbors or anybody from the community," Papp said.

An appeal to a P&Z decision must be made with the state court.

Town Council must also approve any construction on town land. A referendum can be held against any Town Council decision.

Other political bodies with occasional influence over the approval of a public building permit include the Conservation Commission and the Wetlands Commission. Like Park and Rec, these commissions make recommendations -- but not binding decisions -- to the town.

"Opportunities to acquire open space are very rare and very expensive in Southwestern Connecticut, but also our availability of open space directly impacts a lot of other issues," Sweitzer said, citing economic values and the quality of health, recreation and culture available to the community.

According to the 2007 South Western Region Open Space Inventory published by the South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA), 10.1 percent of New Canaan land area is designated open space, compared to the 12.1 percent average of open space land in the South Western Region, which also includes Darien, Greenwich, Norwalk, Stamford, Weston, Westport and Wilton.

Yet, according to Gress, "Waveny remains for the most part undeveloped."

"I think that, with the exception of needs that the town really proves are overwhelmingly desired by everyone, the [Park and Rec] Commission works its best to balance all the needs against preserving that open space," Gress said.