Dems claim victory on Norwalk workforce housing ruling

Norwalk Zoning Commission
Norwalk Zoning Commissioner Nathan Sumpter, left, argues with Norwalk Zoning Commissioner Joe Santo, right, at last week’s Zoning Commission meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. – A politically partisan argument boiled over last week from a committee meeting to a commission meeting as two Norwalk zoning commissioners battled about a workforce housing issue.

At issue was the tandem, valet and stacked parking proposed for 99 Washington St., a proposed five-story building with 66 apartments that would include seven workforce housing units on site. The mixed-use development would preserve the building’s historic facade and would include 10 parking spaces for the public.

The tandem, valet and stacked parking proposal had been denied by the Planning Commission. That meant that it needed five Zoning Commission votes to pass during the committee meeting.

The argument began at the June 13 Zoning Committee meeting, when Commissioner Joe Santo, a Republican, offered an amendment to the proposed parking agreement.

The developer, TR Sono Partners LLC, had proposed offering one stacked parking space free to each workforce housing unit. Santo wanted to change that so the workforce residents would be charged a percentage of what other residents would pay. That percentage would align to the percentage of their lower rent.

Santo said he thought the developer had been “coerced” at the April 13 public hearing on the proposed development.

Zoning Commissioner Nathan Sumpter, a Democrat, asked who had made Santo “lord.”

“For you to counteract what a developer wants to do,” he said. “I’m wondering why you’re thinking like this.”

Santo said other residents would be paying more for parking if the workforce housing residents were given a free space.

“All it does is pass on costs to the other people,” he said.

Sumpter said it wouldn’t be passed on. Santo was not mollified.

“He thinks that’s what I want to hear,” he said. “Now he’s reading my mind.”

Sumpter countered, “You can say whatever you want Joe, but for you to be on this commission and to sit right here and to not allow a developer to do what he thinks is good for his project is wrong.”

Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak also referred to mind reading.

“I did not see any coercion,” he said. “I was not aware of any coercion. I don’t know why we’re even making assumptions about what’s in the developer’s head.”

Sumpter said Santo was accusing him of taking a bribe.

“You think it was coercion,” he said. “You’ve got attorneys around here and now you’re going to be an attorney. What I don’t like Joe, and I’ll tell you this straight out, and I’ll go on the record, don’t you ever think that I’m being bribed because I don’t appreciate that.”

That comment is, indeed, included in the minutes of the meeting.

At that point, Zoning Commissioner Emily Wilson, a Republican, intervened to cool things down.

“I think we’re off track,” she said. “If I’m reading this correctly, you made a suggestion that the workforce should be free and the developer agreed to that. I think Joe was not particularly happy with that because of the cost that will be passed on to the other residents.”

Tempers seemed cooler at the June 19 Zoning Commission meeting, attended by commissioners Santo, Sumpter, Wilson, Harry Rilling, a Democrat, and Michael O’Reilly, a Republican.

Santo explained the bribery comment.

“The way it was presented to us at a committee meeting by the developer — I don’t know if he meant it or not — but what he said was, and I might not be quoting it exactly, ‘I’ll give you free parking if you vote for it,’” he said. “We didn’t ask him for that. We didn’t ask him for free parking for the workforce units.”

Sumpter said workforce families typically need two parking spaces because both adults work. He had asked a question, he said, and the developer offered to make one parking space free.

“We’re assuming, and it’s a tremendous assumption, that we are inside the developer’s head,” he said. “The question that was asked had nothing to do with this resolution. It had to do with workforce housing and how you determine the rent for workforce housing. … We shouldn’t look at it any differently than any other developer who wants something to happen.”

All three Republicans voted for the amendment to charge for the workforce spaces, while the two Democrats voted against it. Assistant Planning and Zoning Director Mike Wrinn informed the commission that the amendment needed four votes to pass.

The original resolution passed unanimously, with the five votes Wrinn said it needed.

Bobby Burgess, Democratic District B chairman, attended the Zoning Commission meeting on Wednesday, June 19. On Monday, he said the failed amendment was an attack on workforce housing and credited the “fierce”  Sumpter with spearheading the resistance.

“I’m glad the amendment went down in flames,” he said. “The developer is not losing any money. … I don’t see what the Republicans were fighting against other than they don’t want affordable housing.”

Stephanie Pelletier of TR Sono Partners did not return a Tuesday email asking for comment.

(Editor’s note: The reporter was not at the June 13 meeting. The reporting is done from a recording of the meeting providing by the Zoning Commission.)


2 responses to “Dems claim victory on Norwalk workforce housing ruling”

  1. Jlightfield

    The Zoning Commission should pay attention to the overall parking issue at hand. In SONO, there is no need to require onsite parking. We have declining demand and an oversupply of parking met by City owned assets. To increase the affordability of housing, particularly rental housing, more units need to be made available, period.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean more units that comply to the the State’s 8-30g regulation, but more units overall. Norwalk has many housing units that are not counted as workforce housing units, yet are renting and selling at less than the price of new units being offered as workforce housing units. That situation requires the Commission to perhaps spend less time spent on parking plans submitted by developers and more time spent addressing the inequality of the 8-30g regulation that permits glaring loopholes while doing nothing to address the high cost of living in Fairfield County.

    Lastly, the Zoning Commission should remove the requirement for any onsite parking on new developments in the urban core that are within 1000 feet of a municipal lot or garage.

  2. Welfare Queen

    We should get free cars too. I mean after all, it is only fair.

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