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Kleppin promises improvements to Norwalk Planning and Zoning

Norwalk Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin.

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.”

11 comments

Adolph Neaderland July 10, 2017 at 10:54 am

All points made are more-or-less valid but do not address the basic issue – neither the P&Z nor the Planning Commission “Charter/Job Descriptions” include a requirement to protect the best interests of the local community.

As examples, was it in the best interest of the community to approved construction that “blocked/hemmed in” the main library? or was it in the city’s best interest to approve the “Head of the Harbor” development with inadequate parking? or allowing the Glover Ave developer to change specs of the “approved” structures without community participation, or the fiasco on Quintard Ave.

As an opinion, these examples were not in the best interest of the community!

The interests of the community should take precedence over the interests of the applicant and should become a requirement in their charter.

Debora Goldstein July 10, 2017 at 11:30 am

I think the “too many meetings for a volunteer” argument needs closer examination. Council members can attend meetings 3 or 4 times a week, and all the homework that goes with. Some of our BOE candidates, with committee work are attending that many meetings already.
I haven’t come to a conclusion yet about whether combining them will help us achieve the outcomes we are seeking, but it bears consideration. Clearly, without having the POCD binding on zoning matters, it is possible for Zoning Commissioners to footdrag on updating the Zoning Code, and then be required to make their decisions based upon the existing code. It should not be possible for the two boards to be acting adversely to one another.

Rick July 10, 2017 at 12:51 pm

@ Bruce

As long as the city continues to hire outside companies with strings to Norwalk we will never see daylight coming out of the tunnel.

I won’t sart a history lesson on New Cannan or send out links that show what they have found by doing very little to stop their Firetree set of problems but the link I provide shows what Norwalk has done I think is a genuine disservice to the taxpayers.

Bear in mind Nancy doesn’t have enough bandwidth for me to elaborate on Stantec and its court cases.

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2017/07/norwalk-neighbors-consider-new-master-plan/

To date on record the city still hasn’t embraced the Quintard ave neighborhood assoc sat down with us and listened to us ,this hands off approach has created a very stressful situation for the residents.Mr Kleppin has never talked to us.He has his chance.

Bruce Kimmel on the other hand took a very professional approach when he was notified there was a problem on Quintrad ave,we thank him for stepping up to the plate.But the problem there was he heard it from us first.

Until communication is improved in the city and the good ol boys network of hiring outside vendors in Norwalk is put under the microscope no matter what the city puts in place won’t work until communication and searching for vendors is done in a professional manner .

Rick July 10, 2017 at 1:08 pm

Grand father clauses seem to rule Norwalks decisions and also seems to be a problem ,can they be altered in ways that protect the residents .Right now they seem to protect the builder,i could be wrong on this one.

I have gone and sat in on few meetings and I have heard this used countless times , and to the dismay of residents it works for the builder .

Nora K King July 10, 2017 at 1:17 pm

Planning and Zoning would be much more effective if they were merged. I think volunteers could handle the meetings. With the recent Library debacle and past few years of one issue after another we have a lot of work to do in P and Z. We are going to continue to see many issues with the Industrial Zone if we don’t start revising guidelines.

Andrew July 10, 2017 at 2:27 pm

An article this afternoon in The Hour reflects this issue – at least I think it does – about giving a developer a city owned parking lot to build more apartments, just down the street from the library where we are now on the hook to buy a parking lot that we let get away. So we are giving away one and overpaying for another – all in the same district. While now additionally proposing reducing taxes in the whole area to increase development (which is basically a TIF and will cost every other landowner in the city more money).

Now, I’m not saying all this these are bad ideas; but, from the cheap seats it appears as if there is no coordination between any entity in the City and developers are the primary winners (and candidates campaign accounts) while we pay and suffer for all the efforts.

Rick July 10, 2017 at 3:26 pm

Protecting the residential zones seem to be the current problem ,hiring professionals would be a good start.I think for now having two boards is helping where one misses something the other catches in theory.

Taking the Redevelopment authority apart and spreading it out to the two boards would be something,this entity along with the parking authority is costing the city a great deal as a playground of sorts.

Communication seems to be the real problem right now within the city ,you have councilors on committee that truly don’t know the workings of its departments.Its what they say in the meetings proof they need a staff.

Recently a problem came up on the quintrad ave deal,city hall was asked for help and they ignored us now its part of the federal court paperwork that could of been averted only if someone in city hall did the right thing and responded in kind.

If Im not mistaken someone out here was to look in on a problem it was ignored now its part of the suit against the city was it communication? We think so.

Lets not forget most problems are researched by the public and given a look others that ask does city hall know this?

Quintrad ave has been given more consideration by the CNNA and Nancy and even Robert then city hall has lent.

Whats wrong with that picture?

We are still waiting for new laws or rules or guidelines from the city over the Quintrad ave deal and so far not a word what are they waiting for another law suit.

City hall suggested Quintard ave could them out we are still waiting for that call wonder what the hold up is?

No way have we not researched this half way house and the company for the city enough what are they waiting for?

No confidence in a city by its taxpayers is growing when they don’t reach out and work with us.

cc-rider July 11, 2017 at 10:33 am

The problem is as clear as day if you read between the lines here- no one is responsible for anything. The buck does not stop anywhere so the sub par zoning regs will continue on in perpetuity and continue to cost the city more money. It is simply madness to rely on multiple volunteer boards to run a city of this size.

Michael McGuire July 11, 2017 at 3:59 pm

The key is to have well qualified staff professionals advising the council and commission volunteers. However, staff needs to be smart enough to know when to pull in experts to provide the requisite level of skills on a timely basis to deal with the issue(s) at hand. This of course relies on asking the right questions.

Consider the following list of issues that really could have had much better outcomes if the right questions were ask up front. Then ask yourself why that didn’t happen, and what that costs Norwalk.

• Allowing an un-qualified person to negotiate a complex commercial real estate deal for the Library parking lot on behalf of Norwalk.

• The City’s inability to financially model, in real time, the 95/7 deal therefore not being able to make informed decisions in a timely manner. Result – not providing the leadership to move this process along.

• Not understanding the negative effect of Norwalk Parking Authority’s policies and actions has on Norwalk’s urban core business and properties. Result – this directly reduces the value of urban core properties and businesses, hence a lower Grand List.

• POKO – the inability to model the POKO deal, and not understanding the valuation impact of all the “string attached” to the POKO deal and the time and cost to “untie” them.

• Failure to understand the implications, and lost tax revenues of not changing our RI zoned land to I zone. Result – lost jobs and tax revenues in Norwalk.

• Allowing Duleep to fester for 6 years;

• Missing the boat on the Main Library parking two years ago. And why did no one ask the simple questions – Who was responsible for this?

• Burdensome regulations that hamper the little guy from taking a chance on investing in Norwalk via business relocation that require purchasing and re-visioning property.

• For decades not understanding the retail, office, industrial and multi-family market cycles. Result – being reactive to these cycles and subjecting Norwalk to years of tax- payer losses.

• Not aggressively pursuing reactivating the Wall Street train station.

Our volunteer representatives are not the problem, they are doing the best they can with what they have. The problem is our system which does not provide the necessary level of information from which our volunteer leaders can make truly informed decisions.

Case in point – when they have good info they make good decisions. There are lots of those examples as well. However, it’s when we get to these complex property issues that the trouble happens.

Solution – staff should ask the right questions. If they are not sure what the right questions are, that’s a great starting point!!!! Because that will be the key indicator for staff to seek help in formulating the right questions.

Next step – reaching out to those Norwalk community members most impacted and/or best qualified to formulate the right questions.

All you have to do is ask.

John Hamlin July 12, 2017 at 8:12 am

A few years back I realized I needed to sell my house, which was near the Sound, after Irene and Sandy — no way I wanted to go through that again. And when it came time to look around for a house to buy, I initially wanted to buy in Norwalk, just farther away from the shore. But the more I thought about it, I could not justify reinvesting in a city that had inadequate zoning protection. I had been subjected to clear zoning violations — neighbors who put up illegal fences, paved their front lawns, allowed houses that had been maintained to become blighted, and carved up their homes into illegal rental units during the 15 years I had lived on the street. Norwalk zoning regulation was inadequate and the city would not enforce what regulations it had — and passed an ineffective blight ordinance with no teeth. I could not justify buying another house in a city that won’t protect property rights from the abuses of neighbors — that won’t protect the community. So I voted with my feet. I miss Norwalk, I come back often to visit, but I don’t miss the mess that is Norwalk zoning.

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NancyOnNorwwalk.com was conceived as the place to go for Norwalk residents to get the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city. NancyOnNorwalk does not intend to be a print newspaper online; rather, it exists to pull the curtain back and shine a spotlight on how Norwalk is run and what is happening regarding issues that have an impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks and safety. As an independent site, NancyOnNorwalk’s first and only allegiance is to the reader.

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Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.