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‘Big box’-banning Norwalk zone change dies in committee

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The pulled application to put a BJ’s Wholesale Club on this Main Avenue Superfund site is still generating much conversation.

NORWALK, Conn. – The people behind the withdrawn application to put a BJ’s Wholesale Club on Norwalk’s Main Avenue are interested in trying again, according to Mayor Harry Rilling. If they do, there will be no new zoning regulation to stop them.

Or, as one zoning commissioner put it, no new regulation to inspire a lawsuit.

The quest of Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak to develop a regulation restricting the maximum size of a retail store on Main Avenue – which he has said is in response to recommendations in the 2008 Master Plan – came to a halt Jan. 9 when the Zoning Committee voted to drop the proposal.

The committee, appointed by Republican Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo, is composed of Republican Emily Wilson, Republican Linda Kruk and Democrat Nate Sumpter.

Kruk and Wilson voted to not allow the regulation proposal to go forward. This resulted in Mushak, a Democrat, saying, “This is what happens when Republicans control the Zoning Commission.”

Republican Jim White responded, “Oh, stop it. Keep politics off this committee.”

“You’re going to tell me this is not politicized?” Mushak replied. “No. I have the facts on my side.”

“You have a bias,” Wilson said

Mushak began pushing for a zoning regulation change on Sept. 19, one day after the application to put a 109,000-square-foot BJ’s Wholesale Club on the nearly 5-acre Superfund site at 272-280 Main Ave. was withdrawn due to public opposition. He had asked many times why the recommendations in the 2006 Westport-Main Ave. Corridor Study, which cost taxpayers $500,000, had not become zoning law, as recommended in the 2008 Master Plan.

Senior Planner Dori Wilson researched the options for Main Avenue, and the proposal was discussed at almost every Zoning Committee meeting since then. In December, Mushak said the recommendation should be to limit the maximum size of a retail store between New Canaan Avenue and Linden Street to 35,000 square feet. This was a compromise offer, made in response to Dori Wilson’s research, which would not automatically make the existing Rainbow Plaza a non-conforming use.

Planner Wilson had new figures for the January meeting. She had taken earlier research and extrapolated results: If a convenience store generates 320 vehicle trips per 1,000 square feet per hour, then eight such stores on the BJ’s site would generate 26,000 trips, she said. If you had eight 10,000-square-foot small shopping locations on the site, she said, that would be 14,000 trips. Either scenario produced significantly more traffic than would be generated by the BJ’s, or another similarly sized retail store, she said.

“The recommendation to reduce the size of retail to 10,000 could have actually have the reverse effect of what the plan was recommending,” she said. “… You actually increase traffic.”

Not likely you would have eight convenience stores in one place, Mushak said. Not only that, but traffic to a convenience store would be local, he said. You’re not likely to get someone from Wilton driving through Silvermine to get milk, he said.

Plus, the study did not recommend encouraging only retail stores in the stretch, he said. Residential, office or a mixed-use development could be encouraged there, he said.

Santo countered.

“My opinion is the site is best the way it is, a single developer,” he said. “By reducing the size you’re not solving the traffic problem, you’re just creating more traffic. We don’t know what is in the future from an applicant for the site.”

He tossed the ball into Rilling’s court.

“Let’s see what the new marketing director comes up with for this thing,” he said. “I think the site is fine the way it is. Let’s leave it for the developer.”

Planner Wilson said staff had had “discussions with a bunch of other town planners. They told us they do not have regulations that ‘require.’ They ‘encourage,’ as we do.”

You “encourage” when you approve by putting conditions on the approval, Mushak said.

“You don’t make a regulation,” Wilson said.

The next step in the process would be to solidify the proposed regulation and go to a public hearing. Santo said it was time for the committee to make a decision about whether or not to proceed.

Mushak said the 2006 study recommended widening intersections in that stretch. The BJ’s plan did not include the expense of that in its proposal, he said.

“I don’t think the taxpayers of Norwalk should be on the hook because we’re worried about property rights,” he said. “There  are 140 businesses (on Main Avenue) that will be affected.”

Connecticut Avenue is being gradually widened because it has reached a traffic saturation point with all the big box stores, he said. The Main Avenue/Merritt Parkway interchange will not be improved anytime soon because of its $110 million pricetag, he said, so there will be no relief from traffic there.

“If we don’t enact a zoning change I can tell you there are going to be a lot of unhappy people in Norwalk,” he said.

“(BJ’s) did a poor job, they really did,” Santo said. “Lowe’s does a much better job in their presentation.”

“I am disinclined to downsize that dramatically,” Kruk said. “I just don’t see the merit of it. I do believe in every individual’s property rights. Somebody decides in one of the bigger parcels down the road — if somebody sold it and wanted to put in a box store, what you are saying is they can’t do it because of this change that we are making. I am not inclined to agree with it.”

She called the square footage proposal arbitrary.

“Why arbitrarily 35? Why not 70? That is again bringing down the number but it’s not as big as 108 but I mean where do you draw the line on this arbitrarily number you’re coming up with? Why is 35 the number? Why is 70 the number? Why isn’t 80 the number? It just seems this is being tailor-made to keep BJ’s away.”

Santo said they had no idea if BJ’s is going to come in.

Rilling said recently that the BJ’s developers had been in his office, discussing their desire to resubmit.

“I envision several stores,” Santo said.

“A 35,000 max wouldn’t prevent that,” Mushak said. He called that a rational number.

Emily Wilson said the committee needed to make a decision whether to move the process forward.

“I agree that it should be looked at and that we should make some change,” she said. “I’m not loving the 35,000 limitation and I’m not loving that our only approach to this is to reduce the size.”

Mushak mentioned a study; Wilson said the staff traffic study had proved that to be “counter-intuitive to what we want to do.”

Kruk said there were many arguments that could be made against the study. “You you have to consider all of it, not just the parts that make sense to you,” she said.

“Why do we have to decide ahead of time to put that kind of limit on on it?” Democrat Jill Jacobsen said. “Why can’t we see who will applies, what kind of operation it is if it’s going to fit into that particular area?”

“Because they’re trying to head off another 100,000-plus development,” Republican Jim White said. “… The owner of this property, if we restrict what he is able to do at this point, is going to see this as a retaliation and he’s going to sue the city.”

“There is no case. There is absolutely no case,” Mushak said. “We have every right to change zoning when there is no application before us. … I have never said this is specifically to keep the BJ’s out.”

“That’s all you talk about,” Santo said.

“There’ll be a public backlash unprecedented if you guys vote against this zoning change tonight. You will have the entire city. Because it’s all rationalized here,” Mushak said.

“The property owner has up until the time it’s passed to submit their application, to resubmit it,” Emily Wilson said. “Whatever we do, if they do want to move forward with the BJ’s application they’ll be able to do it whether we take this action or not.”

Mushak said the commissioners were heading for  “another Battle Royale.”

“This is something that the former mayor did want,” Mushak said. “… I am trying to prevent another public relations fiasco.”

Sumpter, who had indicated he was in favor of proceeding, did not bother to vote after Kruk and Wilson voted to stop the effort, and Santo declared, “That’s it.”

As Mushak complained of politics and Kruk said he wasn’t looking at all the information, Sumpter summed things up.

“We are right back where we started.”

15 comments

EveT January 21, 2014 at 7:40 am

Mushak is right to ask “why the recommendations in the 2006 Westport-Main Ave. Corridor Study, which cost taxpayers $500,000, had not become zoning law, as recommended in the 2008 Master Plan.”

Why do we taxpayers pay for these studies and plans, only to have our elected and appointed officials ignore them? They are supposed to represent us.

Suzanne January 21, 2014 at 8:19 am

It’s completely disingenuous for Ms. Wilson to personally attack Mr. Mushak by claiming he “has a bias” when she, in fact, has a similar one, just a whole lot bigger. The math here as to how much traffic is generated with multiple convenience stores is fuzzy at best – there is just no conceivable way multiple convenience stores would locate next to each other. What I am afraid of, as was so typical under the previous administration, is that the public hearing will not make a bit of difference. The process grants permits that make approved development by the commission a fait accompli before the public has any say in the matter. In this case, what the public says, as with the last go around, better be recognized and adhered to or we, the taxpayers, will know, once again, just where alliances lie with this administration: developer, developer, developer and to heck with neighbors and other concerned constituents. Rilling’s neutral response and lack of decisiveness is disturbing.

Oldtimer January 21, 2014 at 11:11 am

Rilling was not elected to rule and impose his will on the public. He believes he was elected to serve the best interests of the City of Norwalk. There are arguments on both sides of a big box store at that site and the authority lies with Zoning. Santo, and several others, were appointed by a previous administration and Rilling’s influence is limited.

Mike Mushak January 21, 2014 at 12:26 pm

The information provided by staff to the commission to justify killing this much-needed and professionally-recommended zone change was highly flawed, and I believe was prepared for the sole purpose of rationalizing the committee vote to kill it. The traffic analysis was intentionally skewed, as it used a retail-only scenario beginning with eight convenience stores implausibly lined up next to each other for starters, and then progressed to other intense retail-only scenarios that totally ignored ITE discounts for local vs regional traffic that I had previously brought up, and ignoring mixed-use projects that our master plan encourages and that the $90,000 2006 study recommends, with an emphasis on residential that generates a fraction of the traffic that large retail does.
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I was also highly disappointed that the property rights of existing businesses and local residents were ignored by the committee. The major intersection widenings at Perry, Broad, Ward, and New Canaan Avenues, as shown in the 2006 study as necessary with large retail expansion here, may cost taxpayers up to $30 million and involve major eminent domain property takings that may actually remove much existing parking and seriously impact dozens of existing businesses, not to mention the years of disruption that major construction brings to road projects like this. This huge cost to taxpayers amounts to a public subsidy to any developer who wants to generate a large traffic-generating use on this stretch of dangerous road, listed in a 2011 SWRPA study as one of the most dangerous in southwest CT with the highest accident rate including pedestrian hits.
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The evidence from the retail-only explosion on CT Ave that was fostered by another GOP-led planning fiasco in the 80’s and 90’s is a classic case study on the serious negative effects of overbuilding retail in areas that can’t handle the traffic. This is why Norwalk is often held up around the state by professional planners as an example of how NOT to plan a city, because of our unplanned retail and suburban sprawl while ignoring the need for denser downtowns. (Just look at Wall Street as “exhibit one” of what decades of failed planning have resulted in.)
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Once quiet neighborhoods including West Norwalk and Flax Hill have become busy shortcuts as many folks avoid the congested CT Ave., and folks from points north like New Canaan take short cuts on narrow country roads like West Norwalk, Fillow, Scribner, and Richards to get to the huge retail destinations, speeding down once-quiet roads that seriously affect safety and the quality of life (including property values) of the folks who live on those roads.
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Even more disturbing is that the amount of retail built over the last 20 years on CT Ave., often without proper sidewalks or other pedestrian safety measures which were sadly overlooked, has required a new need for up to $80 million in taxpayer-funded road widening along CT Ave and at Exit 14, to expand the capacity of the road that has become saturated with traffic volume (what traffic engineers call the volume/capacity ratio.) Once that ratio nears or exceeds “one”, saturation is reached and gridlock results, as we often see on CT Ave especially near Scribner.
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The state now has plans to incrementally widen CT Ave. at great expense including takings of existing valuable business property, as we can now see near Taylor, and in front of the new Fire headquarters. Right-of-ways for expansion are now negotiated on all new projects, including most recently on the new CVS property, which the state said they would need for a new lane in the near future. Imagine what that will do to the current Angela Mia property with all those businesses with parking in the front with little clearance as it is. What happened to their property rights? I never get an answer from GOP commissioners Linda Kruk or Emily Wilson when I mention the impact of their property rights theory to let anyone build anything at any size on existing business’s property rights, as if all of a sudden they just disappear.
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Their solution seems to be let everyone else pay the costs, including taxpayers and residents in nearby neighborhoods, just as we have seen on CT Ave and surrounding areas. In the case of Main Avenue, those areas will be Silvermine and Cranbury. Just wait to see what West Rocks, Silvermine Avenue, Broad, Perry, New Canaan Ave, and roads as distant as Chestnut Hill and Partrick become when regional traffic from New Canaan, Westport, and Wilton discover shortcuts to the new big box mecca GOP commissioners imagine on Main Avenue. This is exactly what GOP commissioners want, as Linda Kruk described in the article above, with her quote ““I just don’t see the merit of it. I do believe in every individual’s property rights. Somebody decides in one of the bigger parcels down the road — if somebody sold it and wanted to put in a box store, what you are saying is they can’t do it because of this change that we are making. I am not inclined to agree with it.”
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Once one big box goes in, others generally follow, as they thrive on each other’s traffic draw as any commercial real estate expert will tell you. Without the zone change, nothing will stop a multiple of big box stores along Main Avenue, which was always Mayor Moccia’s and Mike Greene’s dystopian vision for Norwalk. Well, the next step in that logic is, why have any zoning or Master Plans at all?
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What about all the additional deaths and injuries that may occur on this dangerous stretch of road? The right to a safe road is trumped by property rights I suppose, however, at the same time I also suspect their theory about property rights would change suddenly if their own neighborhood or safety of their own families were affected.
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The meager improvements paid for by developers, such as an extra turn lane to Stop and Shop on CT Ave, are dwarfed by the taxpayer liability, basically a huge public subsidy to the developers,to have to expand the road a few years later as we have to do now on CT Ave. and what we will have to do on Main Avenue very soon if large traffic generating retail uses are built.
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This is one more example of failed leadership on the Zoning Commission and in the P and Z office to follow expert studies and our own 2008 Master Plan. What a shame I have to fight so hard for something that should just happen naturally, as it is in the best interest of ALL Norwalk residents, businesses, and taxpayers. Instead of being a textbook example of good planning that we all deserve, we have become a joke around the state of how not to plan a city. When will this nightmare change?

the donut hole January 21, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Work with me or else I’ll attack you in public forums. By working with me, I mean implementing every one of my suggestions to the tee. Zoloft anyone?

Mike Mushak January 21, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Donut hole, it seems you didn’t even bother reading the post or the article. I am following professional studies and the Master Plan recommendations, which cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands to formulate, and which were made to protect public health and safety and quality of life. This is not about me, this is about the future of the city. I even moved beyond the 10,000 square foot minimum retail recommended in the study to a 35,000 square foot minimum, to appease GOP concerns about creating any non-conforming properties. Compromise was made by me, but they just killed it with no remorse, allowing any size retail to now come in to the dangerous stretch of Main Avenue. .
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I am justified in defending the Master Plan and professional studies, and defending the right of the good people of Norwalk to have a rational voice on the Zoning Commission, which they clearly do not have in the antics of the GOP commissioners who apparently do not even believe in zoning laws or experts opinions. What are they doing on the commission then?

Piberman January 21, 2014 at 5:28 pm

Is there no recourse if a P&Z member believes the Commission has erred ?
No appeal to the Council, Mayor or City attorney ? Is P&Z a completely independent entity within City government accountable to only itself ?

Suzanne January 21, 2014 at 5:38 pm

To serve the citizens of Norwalk does not mean a mayor must be neutral or have no opinions about a material development in the urban fabric. Sorry, Oldtimer, but I would, for once, like to see a mayor, the person to which the taxpayer looks for leadership, say SOMETHING about an improvement or a disaster. Does being a mayor, in order to be politic, mean there can be no opinion, no leadership by opinion at all? Even if “his influence is minimal”, I expect the mayor to stand for something. That is why I find his “wait and see” approach, if I am reading this correctly, disturbing.

LWitherspoon January 21, 2014 at 6:55 pm

@Suzanne
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My what a difference a few months make. Candidate Rilling trumpeted his opposition to big-box stores on these pages, in spite of the fact that he sat on the zoning commission and might have had to vote on big-box applications. Now Mayor Rilling, who doesn’t sit on the commission, has nothing to say about the matter. Would we be surprised to see Mayor Rilling receiving contributions from BJ’s developers when he runs for re-election in two years? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…

Bill Wrenn January 21, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Lets hope Mayor Rilling and members of the Zoning Commission can work together to prevent more massive big box development in Norwalk. It’s too late for Connecticut Avenue, but it might not be too late for Main Ave.

Back in the 90s, when neighbors in West Norwalk and Brookside were fighting against big boxes like Costco on Connecticut Avenue, Joe Santo (who seems to have a permanent seat on Zoning) famously said he would like to listen to neighbors but “my hands are tied.”

A long overdue zoning change to the area would untie Joe’s hands and could usher in some rational city planning in Norwalk.

Mr Norwalk Ct January 22, 2014 at 12:26 am

Mike
Your long winded rants to say the least have become comical. I sure hope you realize that no one takes you seriously. If I were you I would get back to what you are good at as in cutting lawns as zoning is clearly not your area if expertise.

Piberman January 22, 2014 at 9:01 am

P&Z is a good example of Norwalk’s peculiar style of governance. P&Z is not independent but malleable to City officials’ desires. Who doubts BJs is coming ? Only a matter of timing. Attorney Zullo (former Democratic mayor) has never lost a case before P&Z and is not going to loose with a Democratic Mayor. Our neighboring towns have a different model. Well qualified members are appointed and the their Commissions are well respected w/o back door “direction”. Citizens who want a better functioning P&Z need only demand better appointments from the Mayor and Common Council. It’s really a matter of getting a P&Z that merits the community’s”respect”.

Mike Mushak January 22, 2014 at 10:35 am

I love how nasty folks like Mr Norwalk CT read my posts and then whine about their length. Lol! When the attacks get personal, you know I hit a raw nerve!
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The truth is, Norwalk has had decades of bad planning decisions by an entrenched staff that hides their professional credentials from the public, as if we don’t have a right to know, and they are not reviewed or supervised to proper municipal government standards. We all pay a steep price for this mis-management, in lost tax revenues and in one of the most traffic-clogged cities in CT. There are solutions but the current commission leadership is interested in maintaining this dysfunctional status quo, for reasons that have more to do with petty politics than doing what is right for the city. This will change, but will take a little time through attrition. We just need to wait it out for another 18 months.

irishgirl January 22, 2014 at 5:12 pm

@MMushak,
So you are saying this savior of a Mayor who was suppose to be the people’s mayor can’t do anything about it and you will continue to place blame elsewhere? Wow…
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If Rilling didn’t come out and say that he will continue to oppose BJ’s immediately after his meeting with the developers it just seems like all this is pomp and circumstance and “somehow” he will remain “neutral” and BJ’s will get built.
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It’s been almost 3 months in office and so he has shown no backbone on NEON, BJ’s, the Rowayton or East Avenue projects.
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So much for the democrats “hope and change”…

piberman January 23, 2014 at 11:18 pm

Citizens who have faith in community protest against P&Z pending decisions may want to remember when Home Depot made its appeal for P&Z approval. The audience was packed with hundreds of residents including many small businessmen who understood all too clearly their livelihoods would be destroyed by Home Depot. There was no shortage of capable presentations by concerned citizens.

But the end was foretold before the meeting ever began. Home Depot ushered the exodus of dozens of long established small business owners and changed Norwalk. BJ’s will be no different. Will just take a bit longer. And Mayor Rilling was remain in the background. Its the Norwalk way of doing business. Attorney Zullo always wins.

Would the outcome be any different had Mayor Moccia been re-elected ? Changing the system requires appointing commission members who as a group earn the City’s confidence and respect. But that’s not going to happen.

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