NORWALK, Conn. – While former Mayor Bill Collins talks “big box stores” in relation to the separation of Norwalk Planning from Norwalk Zoning in the ’80s, former Common Council President Ed Lyons tells a different story – and it’s not pretty.
Lyons said Norwalk got called out for dumping of raw sewage into Long Island Sound and had a big dilemma on its hands. That led to the split, he said.
Lyons, who lives in Florida, spoke to NancyOnNorwalk in November in response to comments made by former Zoning Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield and Collins regarding the split, which Lightfield and others say has led to haphazard development in Norwalk.
“The thing in the last split was that it was done in reaction to Bill Collins’ zoning changes. They wanted to separate the powers and that was fine, because everything was running through the Council, but when they changed it they never changed it back,” Lightfield said. “So we are left with situations where we have a (Council) Planning Committee that never consults the master plan or the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission is told that it only does budgets. The Zoning Department says, ‘Well you have to meet the master plan,’ but for 30 years nobody in City Hall has ever wanted to have a master plan that you comply with, because we don’t believe in plans. That goes back to that generation of Ed Musante, head of the Redevelopment Agency, Mike Lyons, president of Common Council. These guys… They knew what they wanted to do and they just made the changes to make it easy for them to do what they wanted to do and they moved on and left the government, probably it must have occurred to them, ‘Oh, if they don’t like it they can change it back,’ but the successive line of Council people have never questioned the way things were.’”
Both Ed and Mike Lyons served terms as Council president.
Collins said that Planning and Zoning had been split, but maybe while Frank Zullo was mayor there was a great reform and they were put back together.
“When I was in office, Planning and Zoning was often a bone of contention – most of the time it was a bone of contention,” Collins said. “The developers were eager to be able to put in the big box stores, but the commissioners that I appointed put in the two-story minimum limit on all the commercial areas so it was more difficult for the big box guys because they don’t want to put second stories up.”
Nowadays, mixed use developments are the rage, but back then,“the property owners didn’t like that because they had bigger pieces of property and they wanted to rent them to Home Depot and Sports Authority,” he said.
Because his commissioners would not agree with what Council wanted, when he left office the Republicans changed the ordinance involved and split Planning and Zoning – thereby allowing them to replace all the commissioners, he said. Mayor Frank Esposito vetoed it, he said. But the Common Council overrode the veto, he said.
“They quickly abolished the two-story rule and thus we have the big box stores that we have today,” Collins said.
Still another version of why Planning and Zoning were split comes from Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large).
The purpose was to get a group of people focused on planning because, “At that time, we had Merritt 7 and stuff and nobody was planning anything,” Hempstead said.
Mike Lyons was not president of the Common Council when Planning and Zoning split; that was 1987, and Lyons’ term ended in 1985. He said Lightfield’s comment the “nobody ever wanted to follow a master plan” “reflects Jackie’s ignorance.”
“She’s operating on hearsay,” Lyons said. “I don’t know if Jackie even lived in Norwalk back then, but she certainly wasn’t active, and her statements are simply wrong. I had served (as a Council member) on the Joint Committee that in 1984 recommended a full update of the Master Plan, and its proposed plans were supported by 75 percent of the voters in the 1986 referendum. My brother Ed was president of the Council in 1988 when it split the P&Z.”
Plus, “It is true that Bill Collins’ commissioners had adopted a regulation requiring housing on the second floor of all buildings on the big thoroughfares, but they didn’t do it to prevent big boxes – they did it because they were hell-bent to increase housing densities throughout the City,” Lyons said.
Ed Lyons said he was chairman of the Ordinance Committee that wrote the ordinance that split P&Z. Collins “nailed it” when he said the Council wanted an entire new slate of characters, but was way off on the motivation, he said.
“C’mon dude, nobody is even mentioning the lawsuit?” Ed Lyons said.
First, some context: There was a real estate crash in 1987 in Connecticut, he said. Housing prices were cut in half as result of the combination of some of President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts with an inability to write off investments in buildings, he said.
“Pressure to build what? Nobody was building anything,” he said.
Plus, big box stores weren’t even a glint in a developer’s eye, he said. A Google search confirmed his assertion that Sports Authority opened its first store in 1987 in Florida. Norwalk was a long way off. Home Depot opened here in 1999, Lyons said.
The coalition that split the Planning and Zoning Commission was a weird alliance – Democrats, Republicans and neighborhood groups, he said. While the neighborhood groups were against the higher housing densities being pushed by P&Z, the politicians were united by their fears of massive fines being levied because Norwalk was habitually violating the federal Clean Waters Act by dumping raw sewage into Long Island Sound. Norwalk needed to replace its sewage treatment plant but did not have the millions of dollars necessary. Building more housing would be “insane” – the sewage treatment plant could not handle the existing housing stock, he said. But, he said, P&Z would hear nothing of it.
Terry Backer, a local lobsterman, had contacted the Riverkeeper organization and sued Norwalk because raw sewage was being dumped into Long Island Sound, Lyons said, and the city settled the suit for around $360,000. But that just made the suit go away; it didn’t solve the problem of sewage being dumped, and the Council was informed by the city’s corporation counsel that every day it violated the Clean Waters Act it could be levied a $5,000 fine.
“That adds up. I remember that it was stunning,” Lyons said, while not being able to come up with the actual number the Council was given. “He said we basically have no defense.”
Council members were pondering having to spend an entire year’s capital budget on fines – and still having a sewage treatment plant that needed replacing, with no funds to pull that off, he said. Plus, the fishermen knew it, and there could have been a new lawsuit filed at any time. It could have become a yearly thing, he said.
“That’s where the Common Council was coming from, when we were hit with doubling and tripling of housing densities in Norwalk by Planning and Zoning. We were stunned,” he said.
There was a meeting, at which Department of Public Works Director Dominick Degangi informed the Planning and Zoning Commission of just how badly overwhelmed the sewage treatment plant was, and the fines that could be levied. “They said, ‘OK, thank you.’ It was one of those off-the-record meetings, Frank Esposito called it… Their response was, next day they went to The Hour, told them I was a bum,” Lyons said.
This was also in violation of a referendum that was overwhelmingly endorsed in the 1986 election, against the development densities outlined for Route 1 and Route 7 and for the Joint Committee Plan mentioned by Mike Lyons. P&Z was ignoring that sentiment, Ed Lyons said.
“On the Common Council there was general agreement by the vast majority that they were elected in large part on platform of getting these things repealed. They were not going to sit around, not do anything,” Lyons said.
Waiting wouldn’t work because the commissioners had six-year terms, he said. Planning and Zoning had been split before, then put back together. “The idea was, ‘OK, separate them again.’ There was too much power in one place,” Lyons said.
The strength of the diverse coalition is shown in the fact that Esposito’s veto was overridden, he said. “They didn’t care what Frank did, they were very angry, they felt as though Frank should be supporting us on this, not shooting us down,” Lyons said.
The real estate market had nothing to do with it – the developers were against it, he said. “They liked one-stop shopping,” he said.
In spite of his passionate assertion that it was all about the sewage, Lyons said Hempstead’s assertion about Merritt 7 being the motivation could have merit. There were 15 neighborhood groups involved in the coalition, each with its own agenda, he said. One might have been focused on Merritt 7, and big developments on Route 7.
“They were united in one thing – they didn’t want increased densities,” he said.
There was subsequently a referendum to overturn the split, but it failed.
“In 1988, my friend Jim Cunningham (former Councilman) was appointed to the Zoning Commission, and later became chairman. Over the next several years, he and his commission did something never done since – they systematically went through the updated Master Plan of Land Use, and zone change by zone change, over several years, brought the zoning regulations into conformance with the Master Plan. That hasn’t been done again (except piecemeal) in the 20 years or so since Cunningham left the commission. Far from being a ‘generation that didn’t want a master plan you complied with,’ my brother, myself and Cunningham were the last generation that DID believe in implementing a full master plan – and did so. Of course, master plans should be updated at least every 10 years, so the plan we put into effect in the late ’80s/early ’90s is now way out of date, but that’s expected – that’s why you do updates.
“What confuses me is the apparent view of some on the current Planning Commission that its not its job to do master planning – that is precisely its job. Back in 1984 we had created a Joint Committee of four Common Council members (including me) and four P&Z Commissioners to come up with a consensus master plan, which was then adopted and then, as noted above, converted into zoning regulations (good ones, I believe, for the environment of the late ’80s and early ’90s). Times change, of course.
“Perhaps the Council and Planning and Zoning commissions of today should follow our lead – appoint a new Joint Committee, gather together the current plans, all the studies that Mike Mushak talks about, etc., update the master plan in a way that brings the various groups together, and get a commitment from the Zoning Commission to implement the changes as much as possible. We did it back then, and it worked. Why not try it again now?”