NORWALK, Conn. – It might be a good idea to recombine the Norwalk Planning Commission with the Norwalk Zoning Commission, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said, while expressing reservations.
“I think there’s a lot of merit to discussing it,” Kleppin said at a recent Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) meeting, where complaints about Zoning emerged during a conversation about a new Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).
“The whole process … is so easy to manipulate. That’s the big problem,” said Leigh Grant of the Norwalk Association of Silvermine Homeowners (NASH), explaining that NASH spent a lot of money on traffic engineers only to have the Zoning Commission approve a big box store for 272-280 Main Ave.
“You get to the end of the process and your whole zoning board gets manipulated and then somebody has to go to court and do something about it. That’s our money,” Grant said.
The conversation among about 19 people came against the backdrop of vocal frustration with Zoning. Before Kleppin walked in, CNNA leader Diane Cece reviewed “five years” of “controversial things that happened in all pockets of the city” due to “disturbing zoning,” including the Al Madany Islamic Center’s attempt to build a mosque at 127 Fillow St., a situation that ended with a legal settlement.
“We think the tables are slanted in a way that no longer protect residents and our neighborhoods, and most importantly our quality of life,” Cece said, noting that Zoning has very limited hours, and developers have the last rebuttal at a Zoning Commission public hearing.
“Anything we submit after that the commissioners cannot consider,” Cece said.
“There is no way to correct an outright lie,” NASH President Heather Dunn said.
Planning and Zoning has recently hired third party consultants to review studies provided by applicants but “sometimes all they are looking at is procedure. They are not looking at planning or the worth of something,” Grant said.
Kleppin entered the room.
“Can you hear the lions roaring?” East Norwalker Deb Goldstein joked. “Into the coliseum you are heading.”
Grant went on to note that Stamford developer BLT is getting “credits for mass transit on a railroad line that has one train going one way and one train going the other way in an hour,” for its Glover Avenue development.
“Clearly, that type of credit isn’t a real credit,” Grant said. “We are seeing things like that all the time.”
“Zoning could lead people in the right direction and they don’t, they just don’t,” Grant said. “The whole mindset is ‘Gotta fill up space with something that is going to pay taxes,’ and 90 percent of the time the thing that is going to pay taxes are the lowest taxes you can possibly get for the cheapest construction, for the part time jobs, for everything else.”
“I’ve had staff say isn’t it terrible what that developer is doing? And then do nothing about it. I have a lot of frustration about this so I hope you’re going to solve some of these problems,” Grant said.
“I think that’s the idea,” Kleppin said.
“I think you are putting way too much ownership on Zoning,” Isabelle Hargrove said after continued complaints. “Zoning is supposed to enforce Zoning laws, I think a lot of what you are talking about is a lack of leadership, a lack of political will and a lack of vision for the city. I think we just keep on barking at on the wrong tree. We need to be barking at the tree that is supposed to be changing zoning laws. This man enforces laws. We need new laws.”
“You can’t go outside what the state of Connecticut says,” Grant replied.
Hargrove, who fought the Fillow Street mosque application, said Norwalk special permit application criteria are “as vague as can be.”
“I can show you special permit criteria around this area that are 10 times more rigid as ours were. … We are naked in the middle of the street and we have nothing to protect us. And yet, four years later, we sit with the same laws,” Hargrove said.
Goldstein asked about the interface between building and zoning.
The Quintard Avenue federal prisoner halfway house was mentioned, as Firetree LTD received building permits and approvals for work done on the former Pivot House but was then denied a Certificate of Occupancy.
“We have had internal discussions about the permit process in general. I think it could be improved 100 percent,” Kleppin said, offering no comments on Quintard Avenue.
He hasn’t talked to the building department about his ideas but the city is in the process of implementing new permit software, he said.
“The process will catch up to the software so that it will be a lot more user friendly, public friendly,” he said, explaining that he’d like to put videos of Zoning meetings online but he’s been told that the city’s service can’t handle the memory load.
However, documents for larger applications will be scanned and uploaded to the city’s website for the public to review, he said.
Jim Clark asked Kleppin if every the Zoning and Building Departments would have the same software.
Kleppin said that’s the plan.
“Great. Because a number of years ago we did a study,” Clark said, explaining that the Golden Hill Association interviewed department heads.
“The conclusion was we need a common city-wide database because of the ‘siloing’ that exists,” Clark said.
Kleppin came to Norwalk from New Canaan. Lisa Brinton Thomson, who reportedly is considering a run for mayor, observed that planning and zoning is combined in New Canaan.
“I think the biggest complaint we have around here is there is no ultimate accountability to the voter in any of these problems that we have,” she said. “… Most (Connecticut) cities are either combined Planning and Zoning, and I am not suggesting this, or an elected Planning and Zoning board, where there is this ultimate accountability to voter. I think that is where the frustration is here. We have been crying on all these various things for 10 years with no resolution. Can you comment? … This is silo management and this is one of the biggest areas.”
“Every counterpart of mine that I ever talked to about an elected zoning board said it’s a complete disaster,” Kleppin said. “They vote party or partisan before they vote common interest.”
There’s merit to discussing combining Planning and Zoning, but “I am leery,” because of the increased workload on volunteer Commissioners, Kleppin said.
Zoning meets twice a month and the Planning Commission meets once a month; combining them would mean volunteers need to attend three or four meetings a month and that’s “a lot to ask a volunteer,” Kleppin said.
“Nobody is in charge ultimately in this city because we have so many committees and we are so distributed in so many silos. It may have worked in Norwalk 40 years ago but this city is a half a billion-dollar city and there is ultimately nobody in charge,” Brinton Thomson said.
It’s easier to manipulate the Boards when Planning and Zoning is split, Grant said, exhorting Kleppin to work out the issues.
“It’s tough to get committee members in general because sometimes it’s hard to find people who will volunteer,” Kleppin said.
“That’s only in a partisan city,” Brinton Thomson said. “Most of the town is unaffiliated and most of the people don’t get chosen because we are politicizing the entire way we run the city right now and it’s tearing us apart. It’s tearing the state apart. So, I disagree with that… people who want to get involved aren’t allowed to get involved because they will not tow the party line and we are destroying Norwalk.”
“I disagree with Ms. Thompson’s view,” Democratic Town Committee Chairman Ed Camacho said in a Sunday email. “Registered unaffiliated voters currently serve on boards and commissions, and in many instances are required to by city charter.”
Republican Town Committee Chairman Andy Conroy did not reply to an email sent Saturday.
CNNA is drafting a statement about Zoning, Cece said at the meeting, before Kleppin got there.
“We are at the point now where we kind of need to make a bold statement in terms of what we see as not working what we see the impact is on the neighborhoods and then what are some possible reforms that we feel the city should be considering,” Cece said. “…A lot of these applications really shouldn’t be coming forward to begin with. So it’s left then for the neighborhood associations to come forward to battle.”