How much longer will we fight our ‘own’ P&Z Rules & Regulations?

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To the Editor:

When are Norwalk homeowners going to realize that we need to FIX our planning and zoning regulations – meaning we need to hire city staff who know how to: 1) Perform city planning; 2) Preserve the integrity and character of the different residential neighborhoods; and 3) Update zoning regulations that support the plan and aren’t so ambiguous or outdated so as to be argued out of both sides of the same lawyer’s mouth?

Last Thursday night, the Zoning Commission voted 4-3 in favor of the mosque, against a backdrop of West Norwalk residents, speaking out against its size, expressing the desire to find a more suitable location in Norwalk.

Are Norwalkers so naïve as to have forgotten about BJ’s, Lowes, and the McMansions built over the years – not to mention the stalled developments of 95/7 and Wall Street? No doubt, there are countless other developments that pass unnoticed, except for those directly impacted. Poor planning and zoning regulations cut across ALL neighborhoods. Whether it’s big box stores that bring traffic and little tax revenue, Mc Mansions or places of worship, homeowners are repeatedly forced to fight the same zoning battles over and over again. All too often, individual neighborhoods battle controversial developments that are believed to be: too large, out of character with the neighborhood, damage the coastline, impact public views, bring excessive traffic or simply ‘intrude’ on the person next door.

Countless numbers of homeowners will attest to being DENIED a variance for their home. At the same time, a glance down the road will have them shaking their head saying, “How did THAT new development happen?” Perhaps it’s time Norwalk cleaned up its outdated and inconsistent zoning regulations.

Just as we have been ‘reforming’ the public school system, we need to reform our city planning and zoning department. We need qualified city employees and residents appointed to boards or commissions who understand the complexities and trends in today’s zoning. We’ve managed to start on a path of reforming our BOE by hiring a nationally recognized superintendent who is revamping practices in the school district and who is supported by a bipartisan board. Why can’t we do the same thing with how we plan and zone our city? Residential property taxes are the backbone of our local government, constituting nearly 89% of the revenue stream. It’s time for all of Norwalk’s neighborhoods to speak up and demand change.

The 4-3 vote in favor of the mosque was prompted by four factors: 1) federal laws regarding religious land use; 2) good faith modifications made by Al Madany as requested by the city; 3) the cost of litigation; and finally, 4) our OWN zoning regulations. Some politicians spoke out in favor of pressing on with litigation (one was a lawyer) whatever the cost. But at the end of the day, wouldn’t that energy and money be better spent revising and updating our OWN regulations, so we don’t find ourselves in this situation AGAIN?

Since most of our $300 million budget is funded by residential property taxes, isn’t it time City Hall looked at what our ‘master plan’ for Norwalk is and whether or not our planning and zoning regulations support it? Former zoning commissioner Mike Mushak often points to millions of dollars of professional studies and even our own 2008 Master Plan that are ignored by staff and the commissions. He has repeatedly expressed frustration over how difficult it is to perform simple updates to our zoning code, let alone the serious overhaul it needs. Several politicians have gone on record, saying we need to update the rules. So why is it that other officials prefer to spend millions litigating instead of just sitting down and updating our own regulations?

Does anybody in planning and zoning have a macro view of property trends across Norwalk, as well as what is happening in cities like ours across the U.S.? If they can’t – that’s the root of our problem – not the mosque, or big box stores or the next McMansion built on a trolley line in a wetlands.

Albert Einstein said, insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. How many more times will residents fill the Concert Hall to fight against another development that, in essence, is a product of our OWN planning and zoning regulations? Pretty crazy, huh? When will homeowners demand REFORM from our mayor, common council and planning and zoning department? For this homeowner, it can’t come soon enough.

Lisa Thomson



5 responses to “How much longer will we fight our ‘own’ P&Z Rules & Regulations?”

  1. anon

    (Nancy on Norwalk)Question: There’s a feeling among some Norwalk residents that the state of Norwalk’s zoning regulations is to blame for this. Do you have any perspective on that?

    (Marci)Hamilton: “I don’t see how under any Code or land use principle, the application would have been permitted on this small of a lot in a residential neighborhood.”

  2. EveT

    @anon, Ms. Hamilton is an expert on RLUIPA, not on Norwalk’s zoning. Because Norwalk has allowed other property owners to build all sorts of things that don’t fit the size of the lot or the character of the neighborhood, it’s easy for an applicant whose application is denied to argue that they are being discriminated against.

  3. Michael McGuire

    I agree with Lisa Thomson. Norwalk’s zoning is too focused on following specific rules with little regard to the impact on surrounding properties.

    Effective zoning needs to incorporate common sense and take into consideration the effect one property can have on the whole, whether the “whole” is a street, a neighborhood, or the City.

    That’s called City Planning.

    My experience with Norwalk Zoning suggests that their mandate is to follow strict adherence to the zoning code irrespective of the possible impact to surrounding properties (positive or negative).

    While this is not bad in and of itself, clearly history has shown that it has, at times, stymied development, allowed in-appropriate uses, and come into general conflict with common sense.

    I applaud Adam Blank’s publicly stated goal to revamping zoning and Lisa Thomson’s call for action. Let’s hope that our elected leaders make this a priority issue. Zoning should be guided by City Planning not the other way around.

  4. It’s just laws.

    Under decades of conservative Republican rule, and with the help of current city staff, Norwalk gutted its zoning regulations because of the philosophy of property rights, where regulation is bad and property owners’ rights to build whatever they want at any size takes precedence. This included eliminating FAR (floor area ratio) limits in residence zones , which is the traditional method municipalities use (and which Norwalk once had) to limit size and bulk of buildings. Norwalk is unique in not having any FAR limits in residential zones, which is how Rowayton got transformed from a New England fishing village into an overbuilt collection of obscene trophy megamansions crowding out the light, air, and water views of entire historic neighborhoods.
    How ironic that Dave McCarthy lives in one of these overbuilt multi-million dollar behemoths in Rowayton that dwarfs it’s neighbors, allowed under a relaxed zoning code that is the very reason the mosque he is foaming at the mouth over was allowed at the size and bulk it was. The “property rights” conservatives in this city are now being hoisted on their own petard, and trying to blame Mayor Rilling who had nothing to do with decades of decisions that led to this. Could it be they are just trying to distract everyone from this glaring fact that it is their own fault this happened, since the mosque followed all of our zoning codes exactly, which is why they will win in court?

  5. John Hamlin

    “Zoning should be guided by City Planning and not the other way around.” Unfortunately the planning and zoning department is one and the same. And it’s hard to see how the department that has led us to this place will be able to get us to where we need to go.

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