NORWALK, Conn. — East Norwalk residents celebrated recently when the Norwalk Zoning Commission turned down a controversial proposal for housing at the former Bank of America site on Winfield Street. Now the developer is back with a similar plan and Zoners say they have no choice but to approve it.
“We have almost no leeway here. This is a project that they can do, as-of-right. I fear, frankly, that if we were to turn it down that all we would be doing is delaying and costing the City unnecessary expense,” Zoning Commission Chairman Lou Schulman said Thursday.
The certainty around applicant G&T Norwalk’s right to build was so strong that the Commission voted 4-3 not to hold a public hearing on the proposal. G&T will likely be back before the Commission on March 17 to get the stamp of approval for 11 housing units on the triangular parcel where Winfield Street intersects with Howard Avenue and Bridge Street.
In December, Zoners turned down G&T’s proposal for 14 housing units on the .65-acre site, after a storm of objections from neighbors. Attorney Adam Blank, representing G&T, protested that the property is zoned neighborhood business and 11 housing units are allowed as-of-right. He warned that if Zoners turned down the proposal, owner Tom Bellete could also use as-of-right privileges to build a “restaurant, office, retail, taverns, salons, houses of worship, even boutique manufacturing, all of these uses,” with no pesky special permit needed.
The modified proposal features 2.5 story buildings, as was planned before. They’ll be townhouses, Blank said: “These are proposed to be for sale. Not rentals, as was in the previous application.”
“These are going to be a luxury sort of high-end units,” Blank said. “It’d be about 1,600 square feet for each so they’re the larger size, two bedroom, two-and-a-half bath with an attic space that can function as an office workout room or an additional bedroom. Each one of these units will have its own two car garage.”
Blank, a former Zoning Commissioner, asserted, “The Commission has no discretion or choice but to approve it. As really there’s no, I don’t think there’s any dispute that this application does confirm conform to the regulations, and therefore we would ask that you approve.”
Neighbors are writing in to object, Blank said, moving to address the concerns.
While it would be nice if the property were a park or open space, “the way to remedy that is through regulation changes,” Blank said. Under the current zoning, 11 apartments are allowed.
It wouldn’t be allowed under the recently approved East Norwalk Transit Oriented Development plan, Zoners and Planning Commissioners have said, but the application came in before the plan was green lighted.
The process to create that plan dragged on while a majority of Committee members in favor of its goals gave consideration to fiery opposition from East Norwalk Neighborhood Association leader Diane Cece. Although the plan’s been approved now, the zoning regulation changes it authorizes have only just begun to be worked upon, allowing the modified proposal in the door.
Blank on Thursday addressed the difference between a special permit and as-of-right development.
“There’s a good reason for there being a difference in standards that apply,” he said. “When people are buying and selling property they need to rely on the city to know what uses they can do with the property.”
They know they’re risking large sums of money and the as-of-right rules make for “a stable buying and selling,” Blank said. “It also prevents, not that you guys would, but it prevents the municipal body from essentially discriminating against certain developers and having favorite developers, because everybody is subject to the same rules for a site plan. You either comply or you don’t. In this case, we believe that we do comply.”
Architect Joe Cugno said the reductions in units provides “a lot more open air to the middle of the site, especially from the Howard side. It’s been pushed back enough where we have a lot of space now between the buildings.”
“The buildings characteristically do look very similar to our original presentation. We liked the look, we have gotten positive feedback and we’ve kept with that,” Cugno said. “…We think it’s a very upscale look and these will be a definitely a premium type of unit now, even though they were before, they’ll even be better.”
There’s also more space for plants and a large landscaped area will help mask the development from neighbors, Cugno said, explaining, “We’re trying to be sensitive to the privacy of the neighbors.”
A birch tree considered a neighborhood focal point will remain, said Matthew Popp, a landscape architect.
Blank mentioned a transformer that neighbors are concerned about; “We’re working with the power company, that transformer is going to be moved closer to the parking area,” he said.
“There was also a question about how long period of construction would last, and if we were to get that sort of timely approvals, we would expect that from when we got a building permit six or seven months to from start to finish on the construction,” Blank said. “I know my client is ready to go once he has the approvals in hand.”
“This development proposal not only offers aesthetically pleasing townhomes for Norwalk residents, but also will transform a commercial lot into a residential use more compatible with the neighborhood,” Blank said in the application to the Commission.
Schulman asked Commissioners if, given that they have no leeway on the proposal, they wanted to hold a public hearing.
It would only exacerbate the neighbors’ frustration, Galen Wells said. They’d spend time preparing testimony and it would intensify opposition “that we can do nothing to satisfy.”
Joshua Goldstein said Wells was “mostly right” but “the only reason I think there should be a public hearing is because I think people’s voices are important.”
Wells originally abstained but changed her vote to no when a 3-3 tie developed.
The vote was:
Against a public hearing:
- Commissioner Galen Wells
- Commissioner Richard Roina
- Commissioner Nick Kantor
- Commissioner Lou Schulman
In favor of a public hearing:
- Commissioner Joshua Goldstein
- Commissioner Michael Witherspoon
- Commissioner Frank Mancini