Q&A with — Emmeline Harrigan, Fairfield’s assistant planning director
FAIRFIELD — When she was hired as the town’s assistant planning director in May 2017, Emmeline Harrigan wasn’t totally unfamiliar with Fairfield.
In her previous position as program manager with Shore Up CT, Harrigan was part of a forum in 2014 for shoreline residents, following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. Shore Up CT, run by the Housing Development Fund in Bridgeport, provided low-interest loans to property owners to elevate property in coastal communities.
The shoreline has been a focus of Harrigan’s career, having worked with a group from Yale and Guilford that studied how to make Connecticut’s coastline more resilient in the wake of Sandy. As the assistant city planning director in Milford, Harrigan worked with residents looking to rebuild after Sandy.
Harrigan is a certified planner and a certified floodplain manager, and has a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology from Whittier College. She received a master’s in urban planning from UCLA. In addition to her work in Connecticut, Harrigan has also worked as a municipal planner in Southern California.
The chairman of the Connecticut Association of Flood Managers, Harrigan is also a founding board member of the Milford Education Foundation in her hometown of Milford.
Harrigan answered some questions about her role in Fairfield.
Q: What got you interested in municipal planning and zoning?
A: Growing up in Milford, I was sandwiched between two of Connecticut’s largest cities with Bridgeport and New Haven. Both were places with incredible natural amenities, strong histories, great buildings, but also had some significant struggles through the ’80s. As a young person, I was fortunate to travel throughout the U.S. and internationally. This exposure helped to develop my appreciation for the variety and complexity of urban spaces and cities and fueled the desire to become a planner to both deconstruct what makes them wonderful and to learn the potential implementation tools to improve communities and make them better places to live. It’s exciting work since people and places are inseparable, and as people and their needs change — boomers to millennials, for example — places continue to evolve too, and planners are at the heart of crafting the policies and regulations that allow and encourage that change to happen.
Q: What does your job entail?
A: As Fairfield’s assistant planning director, the job includes both long-range “planning” such as the current update to the Plan of Conservation and Development, and the “zoning” part which is applying the regulations for both project review for items that will be heard by the town’s Plan and Zoning Commission, and working with the public for questions that they have about permits and regulations. My biggest role right now updating Fairfield’s POCD and finalizing the last of the Hazard Mitigation Elevation Grants that were provided by FEMA.
Q: What do you think is the most vital part of planning and zoning?
A: Working with the public is the most vital part of planning and zoning. Whether it’s conducting outreach and workshops for the larger policy documents such as the POCD or the Hazard Mitigation Plan, or helping property owners to understand what they can or cannot do with their properties. I think those who enter the field need to be people-persons in order to be effective in both planning and zoning.
Q: What do you think is the most misunderstood part of your job?
A: People have a love/hate relationship with regulations, so planners often have to spend quite a bit of time educating the public about the benefits of land use policies and regulations. Usually that helps with initial misunderstandings about why we do what we do.
Q: Why did you decide to come work with the town of Fairfield?
A: Fairfield is a great community. I had gotten to know Fairfield’s planning director — Jim Wendt — through my post-Sandy work with a state loan program to finance home elevations that had a lot of interest with Fairfield homeowners. I wasn’t that familiar with Fairfield at the time, but got to know the town better through the work with that program. From a planning perspective, there are many similarities between my former role as assistant city planner in Milford and how that might contribute to planning and floodplain management efforts in Fairfield. The opportunity to both work with Jim and Fairfield’s very thoughtful, articulate constituency was very compelling. I am grateful and excited to be part of the P&Z staff and really look forward to helping to contribute to the planning efforts here.