WESTPORT — Much has changed in the world of Westport planning since John Montano joined the Planning Board 21 years back.
There was no planning office back then — they shared meeting space with other boards on the second floor of Town Hall.
Records, such as they were, were scattered about in file cabinets and in members' homes. There wasn't a planner, not even a secretary.
But over time things changed. They were given an office in the Town Hall Anex when that became available. They finally got a clerk and then a real planner, the late Gail Nigrelli.
There's as much left to do as ever, says Chairman John Montano, but this week he told the Board of Selectmen that it's time for him to step aside.
"As one member of five, with others who have come and gone, and staff so dedicated, I am humbled with the changes and successes our board has experienced in that time," he said in his letter to the Selectmen.
He is leaving, he said later, to devote more time to his architecture firm, Westport-based Clearwater Architects. And he intends to stay involved in his home town.
"There are lots of areas that interest me — the Master Plan is really heating up." He will also remain on the Narrows Redevelopment Committee and Cable Advisory Board.
Being chairman of the Planning Board "is, in a sense, limiting. "I've always felt it was my responsibility to represent the Planning Board's perspective which restricts some of what you can do elsewhere."
He leaves at a critical time for Westport, he said, "but probably any time is a critical time." But he also said he feels confident that the remaining board members, along with Westport's new planner, Sarah Raposa will keep Westport on the right path.
"It's a good board, a good group of people."
Anyone interested in applying to fill the vacancy he leaves should send a letter of interest, resume and background information to the Planning Department. Candidates must be Westport residents and registered voters. Experience in land use, real estate law, engineering, surveying or architecture is helpful.
Deadline for applications is Oct. 19 after which the Board of Selectmen and Planning Board will make the appointment at the selectmen's Oct. 29 meeting.
The new member will serve until the 2013 town election, when he or she would need to run for a full three-year term.
The Planning Board's primary responsibilities include zoning bylaws, special permits and site reviews. Meetings are generally held on the first and third Tuesday of each month, although there are other work sessions and site visits.
Mr. Montano said he is proud of what the board has accomplished over the years, although some of its most important work has been done a bit below the radar screen.
He mentioned open space bylaws, the Science and Technology overlay, and a host of bylaw change proposals, every one of which has passed. And they have made real progress toward a comprehensive reworking of the town zoning code.
Zoning has been "carefully pieced together, nonetheless it has been written over decades ... We have made great strides" toward modifications that he expects will soon find their way before Town Meeting voters.
"It's dry work, I suppose, but very important. "I've always focused on avoiding the politics which isn't always easy. We've had our hands full just dealing with the technical issues — but in the end, these really matter."
Plenty of challenges remain — Westport's Central Village for one.
"We often hear, 'Why is the board trying to change the town? Why not just leave it the way it is, the way we like it, the way it was?"
But Central Village is changing with or without town guidance.
"It isn't the way it was. There has been incredible growth in Central Village and there will be even more substantial growth in the future. Change is very much there already."
And while a good deal of farmland has been protected, the fate of other land hangs in the balance, he said.
"Lots that were once overlooked are now very valuable and developers are getting very creative" at how they work with these properties.
"Weaknesses and loopholes are being utilized and we are still ripe for a lot of growth," Mr. Montano said. "It's our responsibility to dot the i's and cross the t's." He said that while own codes and plans have often been strong and clear on intentions, "it is more important than ever that they be specific."
"Everyone who runs for election talks about the importance of maintaining the rural character of Westport ... Well it's through good planning that that happens."
Mr. Montano said he's glad they have a planner again. Actually voters long ago approved a planner and an assistant planner but that has never quite happened. Spending money on planning can often be a tough sell.
"It's not a service that people can go down to Town Hall and get. Results of the work we do are off in the future."
Going forward, Mr. Montano thinks the others on the board share his belief in one of the qualifications that makes for good planners. "Our job is to listen carefully to what Westport wants for its future and make the