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 – There is something coming out of the withdrawn application to build a BJ’s Wholesale Club on Main Avenue – the possibility of charging developers fees to cover the cost of expert opinions.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