NORWALK, Conn. – An independent traffic study to invalidate or verify a study done by BJ’s Wholesale Club in its quest to open in Norwalk would be highly unusual, according to comments from two people experienced with zoning.
While Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak said last week that a “peer review” of traffic studies paid for by applicants is commonly done throughout Connecticut, Stamford Land Use Bureau Chief Norman Cole said they aren’t done in Stamford. Former Norwalk Zoning Commissioner Jackie Lightfield said there was never any money allocated for an independent traffic study while she was on the commission.
Lightfield added that traffic studies are generally misunderstood by the public. It isn’t unusual for a traffic study to show that adding more cars will not make the situation worse, she said.
The issue stems from a traffic study done by Michael Galante of Frederick P. Clark Associates that shows plans to put a BJ’s Wholesale Club at 272-280 Main Ave. would actually improve traffic in the vicinity, as they include adding a turn lane for the store, a traffic light and synchronizing the light with the five existing lights nearby.
Galante’s traffic study is just for the six closest intersections. A transportation study commissioned by the city recommends studying an intersection that would see 25 additional vehicles per hour because of a new store, but that has not become a zoning regulation.
Mushak has been pushing for an independent review of Galante’s work that the city would pay for. Other zoning commissioners say Galante’s work will be reviewed by the Department of Public Works, which has a traffic engineer and a traffic analyst on staff.
Cole said that’s how it’s done in Stamford – applications are reviewed by a city traffic engineer. He said in an email that he could not remember any instance when an independent traffic review was done.
“I think it may be fairly common for smaller towns without traffic engineering staff to request that the developer pay the town’s cost in retaining outside consultants to review major applications,” he said.
Mushak expressed skepticism about a DPW review in a recent comment on this site. DPW director Hal Alvord is appointed by Mayor Richard Moccia, who is in favor of the BJ’s application, Mushak pointed out.
Lightfield, who was on the zoning commission for six years and served as chairwoman for three years, said there was no discretionary line item for outside services in budgets she was involved with.
“In theory, yes, if a department needs to spend money outside of its budget allocation it would would have to go to the BET (Board of Estimate and Taxation) for a special allocation,” she said.
Mushak said staff isn’t answering his questions. Lightfield said she never had that problem. She still asks staff questions and gets answers, she said.
Many of the arguments against possible traffic congestion stemming from BJ’s are based on issues that have more to do with the traffic plan that created the Norwalk road network” she said.
“The Zoning Commission could do more with the BJ’s application in improving the pedestrian experience by focusing on wider sidewalks, setback off the road, not having the loading docks and garbage area visible from the street, and improving the facade of the building so that it is pedestrian friendly and not so focused on the car entry points from the garage,” she said. “There are many, many people who walk the Main Ave. corridor and would benefit from having another store accessible to them.”
Lighfield’s comments are presented in their entirety below:
NoN: Mike Mushak says he doesn’t get answers when he asks questions of staff. Was that the case when you were on the commission? What’s your comment about that?
JL: Staff has always answered any questions I have asked when I was on the commission, and still does.
NoN: When you were commission chair did the commission ever get peer review traffic studies to verify or invalidate traffic studies done by the applicant?
JL: There’s such a huge misconception about traffic studies in land use out there. No, during my entire stint on zoning we never considered a “peer review” of a traffic study. Traffic studies typically do a couple of things. One is they measure the conditions of the roads around a site application. Based on the amount of time that a car waits at a crossroad it is assigned a grade. A “D” grade would indicate a long wait that is viewed as unacceptable, for instance. So there’s a pretty standard chart indicating how many car trips a use will generate, and combined with how many cars measured on the roads, a determination is made on how long that wait will be impacted. The chart is pretty standard, recognized by traffic engineers as accurate, and perceived by much of the public as inaccurate. This stems from the perception that every locale is “unique” and can’t possibly be accurately measured. Science versus belief system without religion 🙂
The other thing a traffic study does is recommend things to either lessen the impact or improve the grade that is current. There have been plenty of times where the existing condition is a bad grade, and a new project will add cars to the condition but the result doesn’t make the grade worse, nor any recommend any improvements. You’ll see the evidence of those decisions with things like no left turn signs or driveway configurations. A recent example of this was the approval of the gym use (Crunch) in the building next to the McDonald’s on Connecticut Ave. Ironically near Costco. The traffic engineer actually proposed that anyone wanting to take a left turn, e.g. travel back to Norwalk, would have to make a right and then turn around in another driveway, Costco or James River. I found that absurd, however that’s the nature of dealing with a heavily trafficked road. In the end, on that application we worked on improving the site lines of the driveway and how the building looked and granted an approval.
The commission has hired its own experts in the area of architectural review in village districts, that fee is paid for by the applicant and is just part of doing business.
NoN: Was there money to do a “peer review”? Or were you told you would have to go to the BET?
JL: There was no discretionary line item for outside services in budgets I was involved with, and in theory yes, if a department needs to spend money outside of its budget allocation it would would have to go to the BET for a special allocation.
NoN: Do you have an opinion about the BJ’s application? Have Michael Galante’s predictions come true in the past?
JL: Many of the arguments against traffic congestion of BJ’s are based on issues that have more to do with the traffic plan that created the Norwalk road network. All these streets that residents complain have too much traffic are actually designed to carry traffic because Norwalk is not a grid network of streets. Its all cul de sacs and feeder streets. Not so easy to fix without building new roads that grid out an area, hence my fight to have Crescent Street extended into Reed Street before 95/7 gets built and adds another needless traffic bottleneck.
The Zoning Commission could do more with the BJ’s application in improving the pedestrian experience by focusing on wider sidewalks, set back off the road, not having the loading docks and garbage area visible from the street, and improving the facade of the building so that it is pedestrian friendly and not so focused on the car entry points from the garage. There are many many people who walk the Main Ave. corridor and would benefit from having another store accessible to them.
NoN: What about that Dunkin Donuts on the corner of Main Street and New Canaan Avenue? Were you on the commission then? Did DPW review that study?
JL: Dunkin Donuts was not reviewed by the Zoning Commission at all, and I wasn’t on the commission then either. The zone there is commercial and Dunkin Donuts by right could move to any building in that zone, no special permit etc. They did not alter the curb cuts that were there for the brake dealership, and so essentially the DOT (Department of Transportation) approved the site as well.
The city could have created a regulation prior to to the application that limits drive-throughs on corners within “x” feet of a rail crossing, or something like that, but although the traffic impact is obvious there, the ability to prevent that from happening again is limited. You’ll note that the CVS farther down does not have a drive through. Again, I wasn’t on the commission for that approval, but the Zoning Commission approved it for the same reasons, commercial zone etc.