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Farm Creek group, Connecticut, pressuring Norwalk Zoning Department, Zoning Commission

NORWALK, Conn. – Psst, hey Norwalk – your Zoning Regulations aren’t being enforced to the state of Connecticut’s liking.

The idea, according to Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) Senior Coastal Planner Marcy Balint, is that a municipality’s local zoning regs should be more conservative than those of the state, not less. Go figure.

Balint has been involved in an email exchange with Norwalk Planning and Zoning officials and Julie Burton of the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) and the Rowayton Advocates for Zoning (RAZ) since early August. On Wednesday, Charlotte Burton, president-elect of Farmcreek.org, emailed Zoning staff, zoning commissioners and 20 interested citizens to say that FarmCreek.org supports changing the Norwalk code to be compliant with the DEEP’s recommendations, per Balint.

This is because the Zoning Commission’s agenda for its Thursday committee meetings includes discussing Coastal Area Management (CAM) exemptions. Zoning Commissioner Nora King has been pushing for public hearings on all applications that involve building on or next to the coast; Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo has been rebuffing that request. FarmCreek.org supports public hearings, Wednesday’s email says.

An artist's rendering of the house proposed by Bruce Beinfield last year for 2 Nearwater Road, in the middle of Farm Creek in Rowayton.
An artist’s rendering of the house proposed by Bruce Beinfield last summer

Balint wrote on Aug. 6 that she wished DEEP had been more involved with architect Bruce Beinfield’s application to expand the cottage currently existing in the middle of Farm Creek, on the old trolley line.

Beinfield’s plan was withdrawn after more than 300 emails were sent to City Hall, protesting the plan. Beinfield subsequently agreed to sell the property at 2 Nearwater Road to the Norwalk Land Trust but, after being threatened with legal action, NLT announced recently that it was backing out of the contract.

Balint wrote in her Aug. 6 email that DEEP Office of Long Island Sound Programs (OLISP) will be more involved in any applications that need authorization for work below the Coastal Jurisdiction Line (CJL). She wrote that she understood that, while Norwalk considers the raising of an existing cottage to be exempt from state coastal regulations, OLISP officials believe that Norwalk’s regulations are contrary to the state regulations.

“The CCMA (Connecticut Coastal Management Act) statute notes ‘minor changes to use of building, structure or property except those changes occurring on property adjacent to or abutting coastal waters,’” Balint wrote. “Given this building could not be closer, is immediately adjacent and potentially over coastal waters and tidal wetlands, even a simple raising should not be exempt locally. Perhaps your city attorney can shed more light on this and I am happy to talk to them as need be. If this inconsistency was apparent before now, I certainly would have brought this to the city’s attention (and wish I had).”

Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene wrote back to Balint, saying that he would have a staff member pull out the file on Beinfield’s application. “I believed you concurred at that time that we complied,” he wrote.

“No House in Farm Creek” signs dot Highland Avenue.

“That may be the case and is exactly why we provided new Coastal Manual guidance to all coastal towns to improve local language via the Fact Sheet(s).  The Coastal Manual  (with all fact sheets) and regional coastal workshops were offered a few years back to all towns in hopes they would review their own zoning for compliance as they would for any other PZ laws they are subject to,” Balint wrote back.

FarmCreek.org is not the only group pressuring Norwalk’s Planning and Zoning Department. A source said that a group has been formed to try to oust Greene.

Part of Charlotte Burton’s Wednesday email might be considered a threat: “As you are aware, FarmCreek.org already has hundreds of supporters and our group is still growing. Since this is a preliminary discussion, we are not involving all of them at this time, but you can count on their support as this issue moves forward,” Burton wrote.

If Beinfield or anyone else attempts to build at 2 Nearwater Road, he or they will have to go through the state.

“This state process is separate and distinct from any local zoning approvals needed,” Balint wrote Aug. 6. “The burden is on the applicant to receive required state authorizations.  This can happen before, after, or at the same time as local approvals.”

Comments

16 responses to “Farm Creek group, Connecticut, pressuring Norwalk Zoning Department, Zoning Commission”

  1. John Hamlin

    The state is telling Norwalk that its approach to zoning is too lax even by lax state standards. Wow.

  2. jlightfield

    The problem with using zoning to satisfy NIMBY tendencies, is that one person’s understanding of what makes a good regulation is usually contradictory to another person’s view of the same. Norwalk has the most shoreline of any town in Connecticut, consequently there are many neighborhoods that that are directly impacted by the usual controversies regarding zoning regulations and shorelines.
    .
    Harborview, Village Creek, Shorefront Park, and of course Rowayton to name a few are filled with houses that– in the event of extensive damage– would not be able to be rebuilt as they currently are. This issue has over a 10+ year history, with many attempts by zoning staff and commission members to proactively address. Zoning regulations have been changed in the past to address issues specific to the waterfront properties, each with careful consideration on how various neighborhoods would be impacted.
    .
    None of this work in zoning is easy, or simple to implement. And zoning staff has worked with neighborhood residents in the past to address issues so that particular concerns of individual neighborhoods are heard, and are part of the process.
    .
    The 2 Nearwater property is surrounded by new houses built in the last 20 years that replaced single story cottages with two story homes. There is an existing cottage on the property that has been there for over 60+ years. Many of those houses do not comply with current FEMA regulations because they are not elevated above the new flood zones.

  3. Greene has to go

    There will be no zoning reform until the unqualified Michael Greene resigns or is fired. He doesn’t have the credentials to run a Planning and Zoning Department, period. Let him sue. There are plenty of developers, residents, and businesses in Norwalk who have dealt with his childish retaliatory antics over the years who would come out and support the city’s case. Joe Santo promoted him to his position 25 years ago from Zoning Inspector without doing any professional search or even checking his background. Norwalk has terrible regulations and no planners running the Planning and Zoning Department. They are in over their heads and have been for decades. Just look around . The mosque followed all of our codes, and the staff even helped them design it. You could write a book on the bad planning decisions in Norwalk over the last 25 years while Greene has been in charge. Enough said.

  4. Suzanne

    I hate that term, NIMBY, especially when applied to valid concerns. I am also tired of the apologist view of what Planning and Zoning can or mostly cannot do. This is not enough to address the problems stewing all over this City. If you never sit down at the table with all of the players to discuss the issues to begin with (and I don’t mean the after the fact “public hearings” that occur in Norwalk AFTER the developer has secured all of the necessary permits to build), Norwalk gets to stay nowhere and look like it. Reform is necessary. The sooner, the better.
    *
    I hope this issue gets more than the proverbial fifteen minutes as seems to be the case with this culture’s relatively short attention span.

  5. Lisa Thomson

    @Jackie – Not NIMBYism when 300 emails hit city hall, 200 appear at a 6TD meeting and hundreds more continue to sign petitions or post signs. The current structure on the property has been unoccupied for decades. Local legend has it, that particular structure was built in the 1950s on a wink and a nod. Perhaps NON should investigate how P&Z allowed a trolley line in a wetlands to became a residential lot in the first place.

  6. jlightfield

    @Suzanne and @Lisa Thomson. NIMBY stands for “not in my backyard” and this particular issue has been driven by neighbors who have all benefited from this “horrible” zoning regulations by building two story, maximum lot coverage structures. If the shoe fits ….
    .
    I think it is important for the record of how and why we have the zoning regs we have gets aired in these discussions because zoning regulations are in fact difficult to craft fairly and uniformly and do require a consensus of not just the commission crafting them, but also in getting the commission to tackle them.
    .
    The zoning code is not perfect and does need to be modernized. But that doesn’t mean that every issue that someone doesn’t like is the reason we should update the code. We should update the code because we have a desire to build a city that reflects the diversity of neighborhoods we have, preserving the older housing stock that has the streetscapes that we like, while respecting the desire of homeowners to upgrade and improve homes to fit their lifestyle, plan for development projects that make sense for the infrastructure we have, preserve the natural beauty of our shoreline and parks and encourage a vibrant and flourishing downtown.

  7. Lisa Thomson

    @ Jackie – I know what NIMBY stands for! And I respect you tremendously on so many things…but in this case you are wrong. This is not being driven by the immediate neighbors (altho obviously they have a vested interest.) Just drive ANYWHERE on this side of town and see the local protests. Building in that wetlands is just wrong. I consider myslef an active opponent of destroying the last bit of open space, with not just one but two structures on a former trolley line and I don’t live anywhere near the property but actively took part in saving the larger parcel of Farm Creek land on Sammis Street several years ago. The owner needs to build his house on the road like everybody else.

  8. Gordon Tully

    I would ask Suzanne and my good friend John Hamlin, with respect to the Al Madany affair, exactly what zoning changes they would like to see. For example, I have heard some argue that 25% lot coverage for a church is too generous because of the need for more parking. OK, suppose you change it to 12.5%. If by chance the property purchased by Al Madany had been twice as large, they could have built the same building with the same traffic problems as the one they propose. Would you like to prohibit religious institutions from building in residential zones? Good luck with that one!

    Jackie is right on pointing out that revising the zoning ordinance is not easy. Even making minor changes involves a great deal of research and fine tuning, and you never know whose ox you are goring until someone rises up with the usual accusations that you are depriving them of their property rights.

    My years on the ZBA showed me that reasonable and well-designed proposals sometimes had to be rejected because accepting them would set a precedent, and many atrocious projects had to be let through because they satisfied the ordinance.

    Any set of regulations, for example the tax code, invite everyone to game the system. But trying to make the zoning ordinance flexible enough to allow good judgment in individual cases would likely violate the extensive state laws governing zoning bodies and would inevitably be misused. For example, allowing the Zoning Commission to grant special permits provides flexibility but invites mischief.

    The parade of big box stores on CT Avenue is the result of a conscious planning decision by the City, not the result of faulty zoning regulations. I would venture that most citizens are quite happy with the results. CT Avenue was badly designed re: pedestrians and cyclists, but car-oriented development has been the norm for decades and is changing only slowing. Like all but the largest cities in the U.S., Norwalk is built around the automobile.

    I encourage those who find specific flaws in our current zoning ordinance to make concrete proposals and assemble a coalition to support them against the inevitable backlash. I have a list for anyone with the time, energy and political clout to work with P&Z to push them through.

  9. West Norwalk Neighbor

    Just because something isn’t easy, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Norwalk is not unique and many other towns around us have updated their zoning regulations. Stamford’s former P&Z director is largely credited with leading the redevelopment of Stamford through the use of intelligent, thoughtful zoning – not always without controversy, but it is hard to argue with the results Stamford has achieved in the past decade, especially when compared to Norwalk.

  10. EveT

    I hope those in leadership positions will take Gordon Tully up on his offer. We need smart, thoughtful, experienced people like Mr. Tully involved.

  11. jlightfield

    @ Lisa Thomson, while there is widespread interest by the many people you’ve mentioned, the fact remains that the “project” it is being driven by a neighbor, and the property owner has no active application. Which essentially means, lots of chatter, lots of fear and lots of misinformation.
    .
    Like, this is not open space. There is a residential cottage on the property complete with driveway, garden, deck, and all the other things you find on private property.
    .
    Are you advocating that the cottage be torn down and the “land” which I believe is landfill be removed?
    .
    I am curious about the whole issue here, since the advocates for “No House in Farm Creek” are kinda being disingenuous when it comes to a cottage already there, and that Farm Creek is ringed by really nice houses with a nice view of the Harte Peninsula, the cottage and the Bell Island Bridge.
    .
    FEMA, those delightful people who regulate the flood insurance process, have changed their regulations so that anything built that requires federally subsidized flood insurance, has to be raised above the flood height they designated. Should zoning code just ignore that?
    .
    Yes let’s have a discussion about these issues, because I think it is in everyone’s interest to understand what the implications are when we start down the path of wanting to change zoning to accommodate one point of view on one property when the zoning code, by design, covers many other neighborhoods.
    .
    @gordon Tully, if you have a list, I’m happy to work with you make it happen. As you know, we’ve been moving slowly in the direction of tackling the modernized zoning code starting with downtown Norwalk. I hear there is strong support for rewriting SONO zoning code, but I suspect that it would be more efficient for SONO to be reduced to a single comprehensive zone that normalizes adjacent conflicts. We started down this party awhile ago, but as you are well aware, when you rezone property you quickly find out that not everyone is happy with the outcome.
    .
    BTW I was pleased that Redevelopment finally acknowledged in the last planning committee meeting that the zoning requirements in SONO were in fact lower than what the 95/7 applicant requested. And while we missed the opportunity for increased density on Maritime Yards, the parking fee in lieu sunset, has at least set Norwalk on the right path of thinking about district parking instead of per project. There is still much work to be done there, however.

  12. Lisa Thomson

    @Jackie Your defense of the owner is laudable but misplaced. The neighbor you refer to does not live in Rowayton anymore – so to suggest this is not a community protest is inaccurate. Come and talk to residents down here instead of listening to one person. Rumor has it, that the cottage was a P&Z ‘favor’ for somebody 50+ years ago. The cottage has been more or less an abandoned, benign structure for several decades. For P&Z to allow unbridled development of that trolley line in the wetlands in 2014 is irresponsible. Of course, this is Norwalk.

  13. Suzanne

    Mr. Tully, While I appreciate your comments, I would suggest to you that West Norwalk already has three large houses of worship for which there is adequate accommodation. Each facility purchased the amount of land required to accommodate the building but also parking and expansion. Al-Madany did not do that. That does not follow, then, that Norwalk communities do not want religious buildings in residential areas when they already exist and are vibrant parts of the community.
    *
    P and Z must start somewhere, anywhere, and get on the stick. There will be controversy and there will be argument. Since when has that stopped any commission from doing its business? I agree there is a lack of knowledge re: urban planning in the staff offices. I don’t think it is the whole solution by any means but more expertise in contemporary urban planning would be necessary before P and Z could make any progress toward change.
    *
    I still believe the Mayor should form a group similar to the one overseeing bike lanes in Norwalk, of well-informed individuals to address the regulations with autonomy before P and Z is approached. No, not all regulations are going to satisfy all of the residents all of the time – but a good deal of common sense applied to an overall picture of what the City wants and what it will become is overdue.
    *
    And, I, too know what NIMBY means and I don’t appreciate the term at all when it comes to the mosque. I also can understand the desire by Rowayton residents (at least some of them) to live and let live with that small spit of land. Rowayton has had an invasion of houses too large for their lots with setbacks that seem to go from property line to property line. That doesn’t means the residents there have to throw up their hands and say, “What’s one more house?” There has to be a space and a place where someone says, “Stop!” P and Z sits behind regulations that favor developers over residents in residential areas. I think how the process works needs a major overhaul.

  14. Adam Blank

    As a current Zoning Commissioner I concur with Jackie in that concrete recommendations for zoning changes are much more useful than calls for “reform”. With respect to houses of worship I believe, as a starting point, our regulations need to be changed to require parking for accessory use/structures – what the precise parking requirements should be for accessory uses/structures, is a tougher issue.

  15. Suzanne

    I think the word “reform” reflects the frustration people feel with respect to the P and Z administration in Norwalk. Whether that is useful or not is beside the point. One would expect the commissioners to proceed where it is useful to make specific changes based upon the most recent land use controversies, for example.
    *
    One and half cars per square foot or….? This is the kind of toughness that gets the commission locked in the muck and mire of decision making. (Other municipalities have made this decision long ago – why does Norwalk always have to reinvent the wheel?) Any environmental considerations regarding just how many cars need to be allowed at a given facility?
    *
    It feels like the first consideration of any sized development in Norwalk is “Where do we put the parking?” Emphasis on the vehicular as opposed to an overall vision for the urban core at the very least removes the entire notion of livable space. Asphalt cover and multiplex garages seem to be a bigger consideration.

  16. John Frank sr

    If any part of the proposed building is at, or below, the high tide line, it infringes on natural shellfish beds under the control, and protection, of the Norwalk Shellfish Commission and would be strongly opposed to protect those beds, if the permit application had been properly brought to the att3ention of the shellfish commission and the DEEP. As a former member of the shellfish commission, for 23 years, I was personally involved in working to prevent intrusions on the natural shellfish beds.

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