Updated, 7:29 a.m.: Copy edits, information added; 1:14 p.m.: added link to Rilling interview and quote
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk needs to hire a consultant to overhaul its Zoning regulations, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said.
The hire should take place after Norwalk has a new Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), or city-wide master plan, he said.
“Considering budgetary constraints and time requirements, plus other planning efforts I think should be done first, I see the zoning rewrite as a future operating budget request,” Kleppin said in an email. “It may not appear until the 2020/2021 year. I haven’t discussed this in-depth with the Commission’s yet, so these are just my thoughts having worked with the regulations for the past ~ 18 months.”
Kleppin at last week’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting said that “the Norwalk Zoning regulations are… not the best document in the world.”
“It’s not the best set of regulations I have come across and it needs a top to bottom overhaul. I have been here about 18 months now. We have addressed a lot of things in that time along that front,” said Kleppin, who was hired in October 2016.
On Friday, Kleppin explained to NancyOnNorwalk that some elements of an overhaul “might not seem significant or obvious but are better practice.”
“When I started in New Canaan in 2005 they were close to completing a total top to bottom rewrite of the regulations,” Kleppin wrote in an email. “Their previous regs were really weak and outdated. The new code had a lot of new ideas and was completely different in terms of structure. About a month after I started they were effective so myself and one of my coworkers had the task of implementing and applying them. I can’t recall the exact time frame, but I believe they spent at least 18 months rewriting the regulations, most of which was done before I got there. Those regulations won an award if I recall correctly. After 2 years of trial we went through a fairly large relook and overhaul again in 2007.”
Many Norwalk residents have complained that Zoning regulations are inadequate after a series of controversial issues grabbed headlines, most notably the proposal to build a mosque in West Norwalk and the approval initially granted for the renovation of the former Pivot House on Quintard Avenue into a federal prisoner halfway house. More recently, Kleppin issued a permit for a single-family residence at 7 Forest Hill Road to house up to five unrelated senior citizens who would share common areas and receive support from caregivers. Neighbors complained that the approval allowed a commercial business to operate in a residential zone; Kleppin said that the way regulations are written, he was required to issue the permit. The Zoning Board of Appeals voted unanimously July 12 to overrule Kleppin’s decision. The applicant may challenge the ZBA’s denial in court.
Mayor Harry Rilling’s original campaign for Mayor in 2013 featured a pledge to reform Zoning; a Zoning Task Force was established during his first term but eventually dissolved without producing recommendations. In a 2017 pre-election interview, Rilling cited Kleppin’s hiring as progress towards reforming zoning. Kleppin, a certified Planner, replaced Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene, who some believed was responsible for the problems. “I think we need to take another look at our Zoning regulations and determine what other kinds of things we can do to protect the uniqueness of our neighborhoods, protect our community from overdevelopment,” Rilling said in the interview.
Former Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank led the Zoning Task Force. In 2015, he said that he didn’t know what people were specifically talking about when they wish for “zoning reform,” but the Zoning Commission routinely discusses zoning regulations with “various reforms on every one of our committee agendas.”
Blank said Friday that a Zoning overhaul will take time, writing in an email:
“A top to bottom overhaul is certainly needed in terms of cleaning up technical stuff in the regulations, making them internally consistent, streamlining, eliminating perceived loopholes, and making them much more navigable and user friendly. This would definitely require a consultant and I’m fairly confident that Director Kleppin would like to do so (probably with the firm helping with the Plan of Conservation and Development) once the POCD is complete – but he can speak for himself as to his plans. Bear in mind that the recent overhaul of the Zoning Regulations around the SONO Train Station took something like 5+ years from the time Redevelopment said they should be overhauled to drafts being put together by a consultant to approval by Zoning. It is a slow process that requires lots of cooks and compromises to get a product that can be approved.
“The top to bottom overhaul; however, is not necessarily the same thing as a top to bottom substantive overhaul or a switch to more pure form based zoning. I don’t think there will – or can be – a top to bottom substantive overhaul of the regulations all at once as there are many complicated hot-button issues like workforce housing, promoting v prohibiting new apartments, waterfront uses, gentrification, economic growth v preservation, developer built parking v no parking, permissible ‘commercial’ structures in residential zones that need to be discussed and debated in some depth one at a time and a consensus reached as to what changes – if any – are warranted.”
Asked who the “cooks” would be, Blank replied, “Technically, the only cooks are the Zoning Commissioners, but as a practical matter on pretty much any of the topics I listed below you are going to have Planning and Zoning Commissioners as well as staff, Redevelopment, Fair Rent, Fair Housing, Neighborhood Associations, Developers, Common Council Members, the Chamber/Business Community, all lobbying and fighting for some role in the finished product.”
“Considering the size of Norwalk, the complexity of the existing regulations and the amount of time it will take in the drafting alone I would not try to take this on as a department. There is just too much other work to dedicate the time necessary to complete this. We have been improving sections and small areas as they arise. I expect the POCD will have supportive language regarding an overhaul. Another significant consideration along those lines are the changes recommended within the POCD. Those could result in changes to zoning boundaries, elimination of zones, creation of new zones and/or a completely different kind of zoning approach such as form based code.”
He further explained, “I do believe with the volume of work related to existing projects and permitting that a complete rewrite of the regulations cannot be done in-house and requires the assistance of a consultant. … it is definitely a post POCD task. I do believe that a complete overhaul should be done as a singular project.”
Asked about the cost, he explained:
“It is hard to provide a firm cost because I don’t know what format the document will take. I don’t think we would have a citywide form based code, especially in the outer, more residential areas, but a form based code may be more appropriate for the urban areas. That type of code writing requires a different level of expertise. It’s too early to tell until we sit down and really dig into it.
- “There are too many zones. That’s easy to see by just looking at the building zone map. There are also too many instances where there is 1 small set of properties that are 1 zone where they are completely surrounded by other zones. Plus there are a lot of zones where there are very few differences. Structurally the document needs to be simplified. All provisions related to parking should be in the parking section, not within each section related to a particular zone. Those 2 items are relatively easy to deal with but are time consuming and labor intensive.
- “Working with the redevelopment agency we were able to consolidate ~ 54 acres near the SoNo station into a singular zone from 4 different zones. In addition, we eliminated nearly all of the special permit uses which should take 4-8 weeks out of the approval process. In addition, that section is structured a little more straightforward.
- “As I indicated, I think there is more planning to be done first. It doesn’t make sense to start the rewrite process without having a better idea on what we want to do in other areas of the city first. For example, the East Avenue TOD study will start in the next couple of months and should be completed by next Spring. There will be zoning changes as a result of that. I intend for those zoning changes to be in a format that could be duplicated elsewhere in the regulations. Another way to think about it is we need to get caught up planning wise before writing regulations. It doesn’t make sense to me to address structural changes if there are underlying conceptual changes that need to be addressed first. In the interim we’ll address certain regulations as the need arises.”