NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s Zoning regulations should have been changed to prohibit a big box store on Main Avenue, some say.
Former Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank led discussions in March and May 2016 in an effort to do that, but Zoning Commissioners Emily Wilson and Linda Kruk said they saw no justification to change the regulations, based on the information provided by staff. Although the May discussion ended with then Interim-Planning and Zoning Director Mike Wrinn promising to “get a plan out,” the item was never on an agenda again.
Wrinn was out of town last week, unavailable to explain what happened with that plan, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said. Blank did not reply to an email asking about it.
“All I know is the proposal did not seem to me to address the issue, and did not seem to improve the prospects for putting that property to use,” Wilson said last week.
A proposal to put a BJ’s Wholesale Club at 272-280 Main Ave. in 2013 generated major opposition from the Norwalk Association of Silvermine Homeowners (NASH). The application was withdrawn,
Then-Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak tried to change the Zoning regulations in January 2014, only to have it voted down in Committee by Wilson and Kruk, who were both appointed by former Mayor Richard Moccia. Blank replaced Mushak in August.
NancyOnNorwalk was not present for Blank’s attempts, but obtained recordings of the meetings.
The overall traffic on Main Avenue has plummeted since the Route 7 Connector went in, Wilson said on May 12, asking Blank what he wanted to change.
“I recall a place called BJ’s that was looking to come in on Main Avenue,” Blank replied. “There was a significant outcry from people that lived in the greater vicinity… (who) really wanted to see limitations put on the size of a single retail establishment on Main Ave.”
The Westport-North-Main Corridor Study and Plan recommended limiting the size of retail to 10,000 square feet on Main Avenue, Blank said.
Wilson called the study ambivalent.
“We put together a list of everything that the study had proposed. One by one none of them seemed to make any sense at this point with the rest of all the considerations on Main Avenue,” Wilson said.
If you look at the lot in question, you could end up with 10 10,000-square foot stores instead of one big one, which doesn’t seem like an improvement traffic-wise, she said, referring to information gathered by P&Z staff.
“The study that was brought to our attention and was done for that whole area didn’t seem to pan out that that would address the traffic issue,” Wilson said. “It’s still an issue but the question is how do you handle that one piece of property? Because that’s essentially what that is. We are spot zoning here.”
“We are taking the neighborhood’s concerns into consideration. … There’s no application pending, as far as we know,” Blank said.
“It is a commercial area. We are going to have commercial in there and it’s going to generate traffic,” Kruk said.
“I agree, and maybe the neighborhood is wrong in their concerns. But I am more than happy to go to a public hearing and go to a vote,” Blank said.
“We are not really addressing the problem,” Kruk said.
“Then you can vote against it,” Blank said.
“You are just finding a way to chop it up and make everybody feel better that it’s just a bunch of little stores… you are not solving the problem,” Kruk said.
“I would not necessarily define the problem the way you have,” Blank said. “…There’s a large number of constituents. We serve a community.”
“I live in Cranbury!” Kruk replied.
“They want no traffic. I was there for all of it,” Kruk said.
Commissioner Nate Sumpter said they didn’t want a big box store, but didn’t completely protest a strip mall.
“We know sitting here, looking at the data, a strip mall has the potential of increasing the traffic problems,” Wilson said. “It’s an increase of traffic, accidents, all of it, because of the curb cuts. How do you as a Zoning Commissioner say this is a better idea because the neighbors want it this way, when we have sat down and looked at the information and seen this isn’t really the truth of the matter?”
“I feel I am being present for a debate that happened 10 years ago,” Commissioner Doug Stern said. “…It is nothing that should be done frivolously.”
It would be easier to debate if there was a proposal, Commissioners said, and Wrinn promised to develop one.
Again, the discussions ended there.
The Zoning Commission, at the time, was considering the massive application submitted by GGP to build a mall in South Norwalk. The Commission held special meetings in March, April, May and June just on that application, in addition to a full plate of other work.
Last week, former Zoning Commission Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield explained the process for a zoning change.
“To change a zone, you need 4 votes in favor, and a public hearing. Anything currently on a property within your zone change is automatically grandfathered in as a non-conforming use. You can’t target a single property, which would be ‘spot zoning’ so you would have to tackle an area. That’s the technical realities of running a zoning commission,” she wrote in an email.
A Zone change cannot be made with a pending application; the application for The Village, a big box store behind a street friendly façade of small storefronts at 272-280 Main Ave., was submitted on Oct. 16, Kleppin said.
City officials knew one was brewing before that; NoN heard about it in September.
The Zoning Commission is a seven-member body, with three alternates. Terms end on June 30, and on July 1, Commissioners Michael Coffee, Jill Jacobsen, Wilson and Kruk were no longer on the Commission.
That left six Commissioners. Two appointments made by Mayor Harry Rilling were approved in August, and two more in September.
You might think that Blank had from July to September to get a Zone change through, but Wilson said otherwise.
“They would have had enough time to put the proposal together … if they wanted to. They could have put it together leading up to a July vote,” she said.
The Committee could have considered it, and held a public hearing in July when those who objected were no longer on the Commission, she said.
You need four for a quorum, Lightfield said.
“As long as something isn’t filed you could conceivable change a zone,” Lightfield said in an email. “But an applicant could sue if they thought they could prove that the commission changed the zone as a way to prejudge the application. Generally you want to avoid litigation that you could lose. Someone starting the process but not filing and the commission deciding to change the zone is legal but the time needed to change the zone and post notice etc makes it an interesting hypothetical exercise, but in reality zone changes follow much discussion and examination. There are always unintended consequences and a good process uncovers as much as it can. You don’t want to take a historical area and say change the zone to something that would end up devaluing the properties in the area, or in another area without understanding what you are doing.”
As an example, “I wanted to change our sign regulations because we had convoluted regulations. I couldn’t get a rewrite because not all commissioners agreed they were a problem. It’s the nature of democracy,” Lightfield said.
She went on to challenge the validity of changing the Main Avenue zoning.
“I’m tired of the antiquated idea that big box stores are bad, an argument rooted in 20th century thinking when many cities still had owner occupied small stores that sold goods and services to local markets. The single category super-sized retail concept killed the small stores, and the single-category super stores are being killed by e-commerce. That’s the market condition, and a day spent outside any remaining big-box store will show the vast empty parking lots, designed for a different era when people actually drove to stores to buy things,” Lightfield wrote.
She continued, “If there was a plan that suggested that Main Ave. should evolve into a residential focused neighborhood that would be news to me. What you are left with is a mixed-use area, that will constantly change, has constantly changed and ultimately will be better navigated with further reductions of curb cuts. That means in the long term that zoning should approve projects that aggregate smaller lots and build bigger buildings.”
Told that the parking lot at Costco is not “vastly empty,” Lightfield said, “The parking lot is not an indicator of the shoppers. I’ve had my tires done at Costco many times and waited for the job to get done for hours. I observed a few things about what the turnover in cars was. Traffic outside of Costco is negligible. Our traffic studies identified NCC as a bigger contributor to traffic congestion on Connecticut Ave.”