NORWALK, Conn. – A consultant hired to review Norwalk’s Zoning regulations has not found the types of massive problems alluded to by some Norwalk citizens.
“I have to say, overall, I think the Norwalk regulations are fairly well written. The major challenges are organizational in nature, in presentation in nature,” consultant Glenn Chalder said in presenting his recommendations last week to the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commissions, emphasizing a need to make the presentation of Zoning regulations more user-friendly in response to the times.
If the public understands “what the regulations are all about” because they are “served up easily” online, “My hope is that compliance etc., would be much enhanced,” Chalder said. Changes to the regulations themselves need to be made “cautiously and carefully” because they are the structure the city is built on.
More to the point for some, Chalder also suggests that form-based coding, which focuses on physical forms rather than uses, might be a good idea for Norwalk. But he cautions that this also needs to be studied carefully and perhaps phased in slowly.
Many Norwalk residents have complained that Zoning regulations are inadequate given 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. 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.
“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 a pre-2017 election interview.
In September, Planimetrics was awarded a $20,000 contract to collect feedback from the public and recommend Zoning regulation changes and estimate the project’s cost. The actual overhaul would be funded in next year’s budget. In October, Rilling said Norwalk is embarking on “a complete study of our Zoning laws to find out where it’s appropriate to make changes.”
On Wednesday, Rilling wrote:
“I have briefly reviewed the report and plan to bring staff to the table for a more comprehensive review shortly after the first of the year.
“The consultant did a very good job of looking at the current regulations. The most obvious and appropriate recommendation was to organize the regulations in order to make them easier to research and navigate.
“They also alluded to ‘form-based zoning’ which could be appropriate for parts of Norwalk.
“This initial phase is a good starting point for further zoning changes consistent with our new POCD.”
Needing to ‘buy a book’
Chalder, Planimetrics president, was queried last week during a joint meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commissions. His presentation focused entirely on cleaning up the Zoning regulations so that they’re more easily understood by the public because, “You feel like you have to read the entire set of regulations to find the information you want.”
The regulations are not intuitive and the hierarchy of information of their numbering system “does not support the way that people tend to use zoning regulations,” he stated in his written analysis.
It used to be that people would have to go to City Hall and buy a book if they wanted information, which made Zoning easy for cities to manage, he said on Dec. 12. But, “We live in a different world today where information is available online and if people can’t sleep, and I think the Zoning regulations are a great way to get back to sleep. They can go online at two in the morning to find the information that they want or need.”
Norwalk has two competing portals for Zoning regulation information, and the information might be out of date, he said, offering suggestions for how the regulations might be organized in a visually appealing and easy to use fashion. For instance, an online PDF is searchable, eliminating the need for an index. Graphics can explain key concepts.
‘You can’t really throw them out’
Commissioners asked questions based on this part of Chalder’s report:
- “Some regulations seem to no longer make sense to enforcers and property owners / residents (such as parking in a residential front yard).
- “Parking and other standards seem out of date with current practice.
- “The City would benefit from regulations for important issues (stormwater / MS4 requirements, access management, pedestrian / bicycle facilities, etc.).
- “The City might benefit from City‐wide design standards / guidelines (hopefully, without slowing down the approval process).
- “Whether the City might benefit from ‘form‐based coding’ in certain areas.
- “Can more provision be made with regard to affordable housing”
Hartford went entirely to form-based coding and has “growing pains,” while Bridgeport went to a hybrid approach, using form-based coding only in some areas, Chalder said.
“I would encourage you to look around as part of the process and be become familiar with what other people have done. But I think you’ve got a pretty good foundation already in your regulations. If we can clean up what you’ve got organize it in a more intuitive way, we will be well down the road,” he advised.
And, “The problem with Zoning regulations and updating and refining them is that you can’t really just throw them out,” Chalder said. “The entire land use fabric of Norwalk is based on those regulations. …Billions of dollars of real estate value are tied up in these regulations. So if we change them in a way that makes people non-conforming, that’s going to have a fairly significant impact on the community. So we have to approach it cautiously and carefully.”
Form-based coding is a “wild card” that “changes the dynamic of the regulation, the amount of work that needs to go into it” and is “really sort of almost a separate module,” he said. It’s a “new tool,” a “different way of approaching zoning” and if Norwalk is interested, it should start with one area of the city
“I think the challenge … is that Redevelopment Agency also is involved in many of the parcels in the downtown. They have design guidelines and specific plan requirements as part of the developer agreements. And so we’ve already got sort of multiple layers there,” Chalder said. “So I think it involves a little analysis as to whether or not in fact that is the best approach.”
“Zoning regulation is very complicated and touchy for some people,” Planning Commissioner John Lesko said, asking if Chalder had a list of potential changes, such as the front yard parking issue that was raised by citizens.
“Almost everybody I spoke to has a little bit of a wish list for Zoning regulations,” Chalder replied. “… I tried to be reflective of what I had heard but also be a filter for the commission and for the for the city.”
He didn’t provide recommendations, so, the challenge is left for whoever the Commission hires to do the rest of the work, he said.
Houses were built before the Zoning regulations specified a front yard setback so now there’s nowhere to park a car and the challenge is to “either unify these issues and talk them through without an application pending,” he said. “Because now you can kind of talk through the options and come to a solution you think is good public policy, through public input, get feedback, and then move ahead and people say, ‘you know what, I don’t love that rule. But I understand. They put some thought into coming up with that.’”
As for other issues, “There’s some provisions in modern zoning codes, which are missing in the Norwalk regulations,” he said. “There is, for example, requirements these days for what’s called low impact development, which is a way to deal with drainage. The city has a what’s called an MS4 permit from the state and federal governments.”
You can’t find that information easily, and you also can’t find the Zoning interpretations the staff has written, he observed.
The update work should begin on July 1, the first day of the next fiscal year, Chalder wrote, laying out a timeline for hiring a consultant to make that happen. The ensuing process could take up to two years.
It will take up to $160,000 divided between two budgets, he said. He also included a “to be determined” additional sum to allow for adjustments chosen by the Zoning Commission, including the possibility of form-based coding. Ongoing costs would include $5,000 a year for a Zoning hub.
“I think my recommendation for the city’s consideration would be to go through an RFQ process, request for qualifications, to find the most qualified people to do this work, and then ask for proposals for one, two or three things,” Chalder said. “One is the reorganization and rewrite of the regulations. Second is a form-based code. And the third is any lane or studies you might want done. So, if you end up in a budget pinch, you can cut one or two of those out and not do those today or do those in the future. But it’s quite possible you’ll find some economies of scale as well.”