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 – The people behind the withdrawn application to put a BJ’s Wholesale Club on Norwalk’s Main Avenue are interested in trying again, according to Mayor Harry Rilling.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 was withdrawn due to public opposition.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.
“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.”