Kimmel defends exclusion of Norwalk P&Z from charter revision

Norwalk Common Council members face a sparse audience of usual suspects at Monday's Charter Revision public hearing in City Hall.
Norwalk Common Council members face a sparse audience of usual suspects at Monday’s Charter Revision public hearing in City Hall.


Correction 3:12 p.m. May 3: Next public hearing is 7 p.m. Monday, May 9.


NORWALK, Conn. – Planning and Zoning issues continue to dominate the discussion on charter revision.

Monday’s Common Council public hearing on the results of its Charter Revision Commission began with Council President Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) pushing back on a suggestion that has been made by Lisa Thomson and others to give the Council power over Planning and Zoning, and progressed to Thomson saying, “The mayor campaigned, as did many of you, on Planning and Zoning reform. I ask that we get on with that.”

It ended with Kimmel saying that “the timeline may not be satisfactory but we are doing the best that we can.”

“There are a lot of thoughtful comments about our land use policies that could be debated and debated and debated, but these are not simple,” Kimmel said to NancyOnNorwalk after the meeting. “The charter already provides the Council with a fair amount of power, vis-à-vis combining or separating P&Z.”

Thomson and Planning Commissioner David Davidson said, in the Charter Revision Commission’s second public hearing, that charter section 1-189.2 should be changed to remove the line that makes Planning and Zoning an exception to Council oversight.

Norwalk Common Council members Faye Bowman (D-District B) and Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) react Monday to comments from Charter Revision Commission member  Steven Keogh
Norwalk Common Council members Faye Bowman (D-District B) and Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) react Monday to comments from Charter Revision Commission member Steven Keogh.

“When you read it, it is anything but simple,” Kimmel said in opening Monday’s meeting. “To remove the exception gives the Council power to ‘establish and amend by ordinance such rules, regulations, policies and procedures as it may deem necessary or appropriate to define and govern the powers, duties, responsibilities and operations of such administrative departments.’”

Much of Planning and Zoning is subject to litigation and is governed by state statutes, he said.

“This is a legitimate issue but not a simple issue. It’s too complicated to get involved with. I agree, it’s something that has got to be reviewed, but it’s also something that is very, very complicated, it’s not simple,” Kimmel said.

And, “Mayor Rilling, for probably about a month and a half, has been involved in a search for a certified planner. … There have been differences of opinion about who would report to whom,” Kimmel said.

The Charter Revision Commission, following the mandate of the Council, has drafted a revision that would make the mayoral and town clerk terms four years, with no term limits. The Council had suggested that perhaps Council terms could be changed, but the Commission did not opt for that route.

This figured into Thomson’s strong commentary.

“I’ve been critical of the assigned items by the Council to the Charter Revision Commission because I’ve felt they address the wants of politicians and not necessarily the needs of residents,” Thomson said. “In an election where the national narrative, on both sides of the aisle, has been about a rigged system, I feel that at the municipal level can sometimes appear rigged, at worst rigged or at best inconsistent, particularly as it applies to Planning and Zoning.

Yes, it’s complicated but, “I ask all of you, how many of you feel empowered to address the pleas from your constituents to address the myriad Planning and Zoning issues that we come to on almost a daily basis?” Thomson asked.

She asked, “Why is there no employee from Planning and Zoning on the Common Council Planning Committee?” and suggested a “task force to investigate the alleged under-valuations of various commercial and multi-unit family properties in the city.”

“Wouldn’t residents ‘go ape’ if they thought the city wasn’t doing its due diligence when it comes to commercial properties assessment – placing an undue tax burden on homeowners?” Thomson asked.

The meeting featured some frequent fliers who haven’t made it to previous charter revision hearings.

Diane Cece said she agreed with Kimmel on the P&Z issue.

“It’s a very complicated issue and I think it’s something that really needs to be well thought out and well investigated, especially when you take a look at some of the changes that have been requested where the Common Council would have more authority,” Cece said.

“For my mind, if you have that kind of power in the Common Council, coupled with potential 4-year mayoral terms –  that’s unlimited terms – I think it could be maybe a slippery slope into an area that could – I don’t know how I want to say this, politically correct – but maybe it would have undue influence over the final results of those Boards,” Cece said.

Former Councilwoman Patsy Brescia spoke on other topics, using her experience as a 1960s leader to emphasize that the Council has a tremendous amount of responsibility in a weak mayor-strong Council government.

She suggested that at-large Council members be given 4-year terms and supported lengthening the mayoral term.

“To have a mayor who has a vision that is given to the community, and the community can follow up on the vision, when you have major construction, it takes more than two years from the conception to the planning to get the shovel in ground,” Brescia said. “Then it usually takes two or more years for completion. So a four-year term for mayor would be I think an improvement for our community.”

“I feel strongly that this (charter revision) is such a positive step forward for the city of Norwalk that I wanted to come and give a little different opinion on why this is so important,” Brescia said.

Joe Tamburri said that he had been unable to speak at previous public hearings. The four-year mayoral term is great but term limits should have been addressed “for various reasons, without getting into any personalities, going back 20 or 30 years ago,” he said.

“I say that specifically with the climate that has been out there for the last seven or eight years or even earlier, on the state and national level,” Tamburri said. “I am sure we don’t have those concerns here in Norwalk. I think we are way above the national and the state when it comes to … situations, but I think it’s something we should be addressing, term limits.”

Others returned to speak again.

The Charter Revision Commission should stay in place for several years, Bob Hard said. One priority would be to “condense the language to make it more modern. … That would result in no substantive change at all but would result in a charter that can actually be read,” he said.

“We might be squandering a real opportunity here,” Diane Lauricella said, eventually advocating for the change supported by Thomson.

“Without this trigger being done this year, we are going to delay a possible reform of our land use planning, this city, for two or three years or more,” Lauricella said. “… It’s not a big deal allowing you just to consider reorganizing planning and zoning. … Why wait? The public can handle this extra question.”

Also, she suggested adding five more Council members – one from each district, for a total of 20 – would mean more people to do “due diligence,” she said.

There is another public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday, Kimmel said, in closing the meeting. “We understand there are a variety of issues out there. … We do believe these issues are important.”

Speaking to NancyOnNorwalk, Kimmel said, “The more we looked into it, the more complex we realized Zoning is. Providing more power to the Council, vis-à-vis, the Zoning Commission, is really much more complicated than we originally thought.”

“We can’t willy-nilly create situations where the Council is looking over the shoulders, or possibly micromanaging, Zoning, which has to conform to laws, which creates laws and has to conform to state law – and who end up in court quite often,” Kimmel said. “So to give the Council more power, vis-à-vis Zoning, requires a lengthy discussion on what we want to do, or how to do it, or if we do it. That’s the reason we are saying slow down, let’s wait on this. It’s not that there is disagreement among folks.”

Saying that taking out the exception in 189.2 is like saying, “What’s the big deal” with lengthening the mayoral term, Kimmel said.

“If the Council members are elected every two years and they are being pressured by constituents, will they go micromanaging Zoning?” Kimmel asked. “Do we really want to have a Zoning Commission that is answerable to the Council? Do we really want that? These are all legitimate issues to discuss and believe me, it would take a long time because there’s a lot of difference of opinions out there. That’s the issue here. It’s not simple and it would take time.”


13 responses to “Kimmel defends exclusion of Norwalk P&Z from charter revision”

  1. Lisa Thomson

    Bruce Kimmel – Why can’t the council start by putting someone from P&Z on the Common Council’s Planning Committee? That’s not even a charter revision, just smart government. It’s as if the council WANTS to remain in the dark about P&Z issues going on in the neighborhoods around the city?

  2. EveT

    At least they have gotten the message that Norwalk residents have had it up to here with P&Z as it now stands. We want responsible planning that takes into account all stakeholders, not just short-term profits for developers.
    Kimmel and other Council members have been saying there’s a lot they can do to improve P&Z without removing that key clause from the charter. OK, then let’s see them do those things.

  3. Bruce Kimmel

    I have always agreed that someone from P and Z should be at Planning Committee meetings. Although I attend those committee meetings, I am not an official member and have no vote. Nonetheless, now that we are not preoccupied by GGP and the Mall, as well as the federal block grant program, perhaps we can again look into this issue.

    Mr. Kimmel’s original post called attention to an error that has since been corrected regarding the time of the next hearing.

  4. Adam Blank

    The specific Charter revision discussed above would not be effective as it would be pre-empted by state statute — but I have no issue with P&Z staff attending Planning Committee meetings particularly if his or her role is defined by the Planning Committee.

  5. Bill NIghtingale Jr

    For years I have said it is like having the fox guard the hen house in having the Redevelopment Agency act as staff to the Planning Committee. Everyone seems to agree but nothing is ever done to change it.

  6. Peter F.

    I’ll risk offending other hard-working officials by omission, but hearing that Bob Hard is continuing his efforts at charter reform gives me hope. While “it’s complicated” can often sound like a political smoke screen, this time, with the questions Mr. Kimmel presents, it’s clear this . . . delay if you will, is understandable. In the meantime having Bob’s expertise in simplifying our town’s documents into something more readable (by us citizen/laymen) is simply good for all.

  7. Mike Barbis

    Adam, please share the state statute with us. Residents are very frustrated and need hard answers.

  8. Adam Blank

    Mike – See Chapter 124 of the State Statutes or See Fuller’s treatise CT Practice Series – Land Use Law & Practice. I’ve excerpted a small potion below just to give you some flavor (Fuller’s text below is heavily cited and those cites don’t paste well so they have been removed):

    The powers of a zoning commission and a combined planning and zoning commission are controlled exclusively by the statutes in Chapter 124 except as otherwise provided in a special act. Since municipalities have no inherent powers, there must be statutory authority to support zoning ordinances and regulations, and the regulations must be enacted pursuant to the zoning enabling statute. The legislative body of the municipality is required by General Statutes § 8-1 to vote to adopt Chapter 124 of the General Statutes in order to obtain the zoning powers allowed under it and establish a zoning commission. It is sufficient if there is an affirmative act in which the intent to utilize the zoning provisions of the general enabling act is expressed.

    Before a zoning commission can regulate land use, it is required to adopt zoning regulations. General Statutes § 8-2 contains a broad but not unlimited grant of authority for that purpose to regulate the use of land, the size and location of buildings and other structures, the size of building lots, the setback distances from lot boundaries, and similar matters. Once the zoning commission is established and commences its functions, it is not subject to interference by the legislative body of the municipality or any type of referendum. The zoning commission’s functions cannot be delegated.

    Where the city council acts as the zoning commission, the procedures for municipal ordinances do not apply to actions taken in its capacity as a zoning commission.7 The zoning regulations rather than the municipal charter control the procedure for enforcing the zoning regulations.8

  9. MPT

    Seriously Adam? That is your answer? Wow. Very disappointed.

  10. Ray J

    I second that

  11. Larry

    To start, I am wholly ignorant of the intricacies of CT Statute as it relates to P&Z and have not closely followed the specific P&Z discussions had by the Charter Revision Committee…That said, I’d appreciate it if a more educated reader could confirm, clarify or correct the following conclusions I’ve reached based on two readings of Nancy’s article and the comments that follow it…

    1) The proposal being advocated by Lisa and others would remove the P&Z DEPARTMENT – which is an administrative function of our City’s government – from being excluded from Council Oversight through a change to Norwalk’s charter section 1-189.2…
    2)The CT Statute that Adam cites specifically prohibits municipal legislative entities from interfering in the activities of duly-established Planning and Zoning COMMISSIONS…
    3) IF the above two are correct, then it’s not clear to me that having P&Z – the Administrative Department – made accountable in some way to the Common Coucil would expicitly be a violation of the CT Statue Adam refereneces…Granted, I could see that it might be easier for the Common Council to meddle in Commission business by exerting pressure or influence on the administrative department that serves as staff to the Commission…But is the risk of such enough to make the proposed change to City Charter, of and by itself, a violation of CT Statute?

  12. Robert Hard

    Peter F.: Thanks for the kind words. It was actually Steve Keogh of the charter revision commission who coined the term “take out the garbage commission” to describe the (future) process of making the charter readable. It would be an honor to help forge that language. Stuart Wells, the registrar, held his head in horror at the thought of having to post the old charter for purposes of having the voters vote on a revised version. “Do you have any idea how BIG that thing is? You’d need a step ladder to get to the top of it.” My point, precisely. It’s been patched more times than our local roads and needs a thorough grinding down just to see its basic structure. I’m sure were’re smart enough, collectively, to find a way.

    Regarding zoning reform, I have to agree with Bruce Kimmel that the issues were too complex to be addressed in this particular charter revision. Indeed, it may not be a charter revision question at all.

    In the days of yore, a certain mayor instigated a “reform” that split the planning function off from zoning. The reform impelled all the zoning commissioners to then resign, so that the then mayor could appoint an entirely new zoning commission more to his liking. His like was for the commercial development of Connecticut Avenue, which is why we have the big box stores we have there today.

    Now as much as I like the opportunity to patronize those venues, the net result as a zoning commissioner (years later) was that I certainly felt the lack of any sort of coherent plan of development that would have allowed us to assess proposals in a larger developmental context. It was just way too ad hoc for my taste. We were reduced to micro-analyzing traffic studies when we should have been more alert to impacts on schools, waste water treatment and the tax base.

    Maybe it’s time to put Humpty back together again, and then engage a permanent professional staff to develop a longer term plan that would have some teeth.

    What I definitely do not want to see is for the zoning commission’s professional staff to given the planning role. Broadly speaking, they can not be both the zoning commission’s servant and its master.

  13. EveT

    Could we get Robert Hard and/or Steven Keogh to rewrite the *state* statute in question into understandable lay English? Sheesh. Ya think legislators might have wanted to bamboozle the public with this one??

Leave a Reply

sponsored advertisement




Recent Comments