BJ’s-inspired concern spurring Zoning action

Norwalk 030714 005
Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene talks to the Norwalk Board of Estimate and Taxation last week.

NORWALK, Conn. – There is something coming out of the withdrawn application to build a BJ’s Wholesale Club on Main Avenue – the possibility of charging developers fees to cover the cost of expert opinions.

Last summer, Plan Review Committee meetings were marked by pleas from Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak to get a peer review of the traffic study paid for by BJ’s. Now the Zoning Commission is looking into creating an account to pay for a peer review when needed, Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene said.

This reflects “a major policy issue,” Greene said to the Board of Estimate and Taxation last week.

“Well, we could have peer review but we don’t have the function to pay for it at this point, any process in place and we certainly don’t have the funds to do it,” he said.

Greene had a request in the 2014-15 operating budget for $200,000 to fund hiring professionals to review submitted reports. That was not recommended for approval by Finance Director Thomas Hamilton.

“Say for example you have a cell tower coming in,” Greene said. “We don’t have anyone on our staff that knows anything about cell towers. We have no one to turn to for expertise. We have $2,000 that has always been in as a place holder but that’s not getting you an expert in anything.”

BET member Anne Yang-Dwyer asked him what other cities do, if that is a cost that can get passed on to the permittee. Green said he it could be and he agreed with the concept, but he also said he wasn’t sure it was a good idea to begin with.

Having additional expert analysis would slow down a process that may be the quickest in the state, he said. It might slow development and is a “bigger policy issue” than just the $200,000 request.

“So far Norwalk has, number one, not found a problem with the traffic studies we’ve gotten,” he said.

Six months after a project is built, a traffic study is done to compare the results to predictions made in the course of an application, he said.

“When we review those we haven’t found that the projected traffic is out of line with the actual traffic,” he said. “So we haven’t found the need there. Then the other issue is the perception. Are you for development or are you not for development? Some people think peer review is time consuming. Time consuming translates to this is slowing the project down. I mean, Norwalk’s process for reviewing projects is faster than any other town in this area, probably faster than any other town in the state.”

He had recently made a bet with a developer, he said. The developer picked what he thought was a fast project in another town, and Greene compared that to one in Norwalk, he said. Norwalk won, he said.

“If you get peer review that takes time,” he said. “You have to get into the issue, and other towns do this, the applicant pays for that. In Norwalk we don’t have a process where we can quickly go out to RFP (request for proposals) and RFQ (request for qualifications) to bring in a traffic consultant. We don’t have one on retainer. We would have to go through that process and that takes time. Other towns are not worried as much about time.”

Yang-Dwyer asked again if it would be possible to pass the costs on.

“We would have to change the zoning regulations to do that. In fact, conservation does that on rare occasions,” he said. “… The Zoning Commission is looking at that right now.”

It’s just the start of the conversation, he said, guessing that it might happen in six months. It would require a public hearing, he said.


5 responses to “BJ’s-inspired concern spurring Zoning action”

  1. EDR

    Peer review is nothing more than a slap in the face to the city’s staff. More consultants to waste time in tellng you what you already know. The same nonsense went on with the master plan that took 20 years to complete.

    The post construction traffic analysis that ihas been done for the past 15 years or so on new developments is an excellent check iof the work that is submitted with the original application. If any of the original traffic analysies were incorrect on commercial projects suspect that we would have heard about it already.

    I suspect this is nothing more than a veiled personal attack.

  2. Betsy Wrenn

    “Having additional expert analysis … might slow development… so far Norwalk has … not found a problem with the traffic studies we’ve gotten.”

    Our Zoning Director, Mike Greene seems to worry more about inconveniencing developers than insuring sensible planning and the best quality of life possible for Norwalk.

    I used to wonder whose bright idea was it to allow a Dunkin Donuts drive-thru at the congested intersection of Main Av & Rt 123? Hands down, one of the best examples of mindless planning ever, but hey, at least Dunkin’ wasn’t inconvenienced.

    Norwalk deserve better.

  3. Suzanne

    You bet, Betsy. It occurs to me when we were facing an unwanted development in our community, those who were objecting on the basis of traffic and the environment had to hire, money out of pocket, to “peer review” the city’s developer-first process. Even with an experienced attorney, the developer had been allowed many under the radar committee meetings and permits before the community even knew what was going on. Slowing down the process to check the efficacy of a given development strikes me as a wise plan given the haphazard way in which Norwalk is being developed now (the Dunkin Donuts fiasco is a very good example.) The fact that Norwalk develops faster? Why is that a badge of honor? There are very good reasons that other municipalities have peer review and it’s not to insult City employees. Rather, complicated projects reviewed by an expert, fresh set of eyes can, ultimately save on resources and possible oversights that often occur on development projects. It should be considered a team effort not the animosity filled process Mr. Greene describes.

  4. jlightfield

    @Betsy Wrenn and @Suzanne, the Zoning Commission did not review the Dunkin Donuts at the corner of New Canaan and Main Ave. because:
    a) the area is zoned for commercial use
    b) the Dunkin Donuts merely moved across the street
    c) the building was a former brake shop and the curb cuts were pre-existing
    d) the zoning department asked CONNDOT to review the traffic impact, which everyone knew was problematic and they made no recommendations to either remove a curb cut, or disallow the application.
    Subsequently, Zoning has attempted every effort to reduce curb cuts on busy streets, and encourage shared parking by linking strip mall parking lots with interior access.
    The former Hour building on Main Ave. is a good example of reducing curb cuts, and the CVS and TD Bank on Westport Ave, is a good example of linked lots with interior sidewalks. We were unable to convince Mr. Shower Door and Raymour Flannigan to have a single shared curb cut and traffic signal. .
    On State Roads, CONNDOT has a say on final curb cut layouts.

  5. Suzanne

    A brake shop calls for far less traffic into a confusing and dangerous intersection than a Dunkin Donuts. Being “merely moved across the street”, took a relatively safe exit/entrance location into a quagmire of directions and lights. That there were pre-existing curb cuts should not have trumped common sense.

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