Neighborhood group brainstorms approaches to reforming Norwalk P&Z

Julie Burton expresses her opinions Monday at the
Julie Burton expresses her opinions Monday at the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) meeting in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – Additional voices are joining the call to reform the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Department.

On Monday, Members of the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) discussed their unhappiness with Planning and Zoning, deciding to approach Common Council members, try to influence Mayor Harry Rilling’s new zoning regulation reform task  force and to press for a new position in city management, someone to oversee development without becoming too cozy with developers.

“Isn’t it, I think, somewhat obvious to practically anybody in Norwalk, no matter what you thought about the mosque, that that whole issue indicates we have a big problem?” Nancy Rosett asked.

Rowayton resident Julie Burton said she had been to the latest two zoning meetings. “There is nothing that I am aware of that’s in the works to change the special permit code. Nothing,” she said.

Burton had taken the lead before the meeting, drafting suggested changes that perhaps CNNA could support:

“lncrease notification (on zoning applications) – especially early on. We have asked for signs to be placed upon filing for zoning applications so neighbors can see that there is something in the works and inquire. This would be true for residential and commercial. Meetings before the application are sometimes useful, but often not if there is not anyone knowledgeable there to ask the right questions and take notes – so… see the next point:

“Add an inter-departmental resource to the city who can help advise the Common Council, zoning and planning commissioners and neighborhoods about land use, CAM/DEEP (Coastal Area Management/Department of Environmental and Energy Protection) issues, specific projects, redevelopment, historical issues, zoning and building codes. This person could be staff to the Planning Committee of the Common Council and also be available to advise others about options used in other cities. These would be big shoes to fill – but what great asset this could be. I do not think this person should report to a current department head. They should not become part of approval process by consulting with developers – they need to be objective. Perhaps they report to the Council?

“Before or as a project is being started require that plans include an outline of the current structure and neighboring buildings so that neighbors can get a feel for how the new structure would fit in with the surrounding buildings. Right now it is very hard to tell when looking at plans. If no current structure, chooose trees or something else to be used as reference points.

“Get more info on the web. Not everything needs to be there, but there could be a few key documents that could be shared so we can decide if we need a trip down to city hall or not. These would probably come from zoning.”

 “I put this all together because the problematical part of having a developer… come to the neighborhood is, pardon my skepticism, they can lie to you, and I’ve been lied to,” Burton said. “The plans do not show you what is currently on the spot, so it’s very, very hard to figure out how big the development is going to be, or the new house.”

It’s impossible to look at plans and see them in perspective, she said. “I had a problem with a guy in a meeting who said, ‘Oh, this is no taller than what is there now.’ I am still angry about that. Because there was nobody there to look at the plans and back me up,” Burton said.

Diane Lauricella expressed her own skepticism toward the new task force, led by Zoning Commissioner Adam Blank. She wanted to know who is on it.

“People who are already doing things in government,” Burton replied. “The other problem is nobody has really defined what these are really supposed to do.”

If it’s just to revise the zoning code it’s a mistake, she said. “There are some of us who feel it’s not just the code that needs to be reviewed, but the entire land use process,” Burton said. “You’ve talked about the lack of a planner. We’ve heard over the years about how difficult it is with these interdepartmental squabbles and frustration that we all have, and you’ve heard it over and over again, with not going where to go to.”

Heather Dunn said city staff will send people to other departments – a runaround.

If the city had followed the Plan of Conservation and Development there wouldn’t be any problem with development, she said.

Burton said the POCD is a mish-mosh. “For every sentence it says ‘neighborhood preservation,’ there’s a sentence that says ‘development,’” she said.

Diane Cece said the city should hold the “people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars” – department heads – accountable. “We’ve been trying to do that for the last 10 years,” Burton said.

Lauricella said the Council’s Personnel Committee does not meet very often and has ignored her requests to scrutinize P&Z for years.

Dunn said P&Z staff becomes contaminated because they spend all their time with developers.  An attempt to create a new position might have an effect of its own – perhaps there would be a public outcry that the current staff isn’t doing its job, that money should be spent to add someone, she said.

Lauricella said the CNNA members should ask to be put on the agendas at the end of Planning Commission and Zoning Commission meetings under discussion items.

“Adam is interested in hearing from the public,” Lauricella said. “I remember asking if we could talk to him about who is on his group. He said he is trying to work out what the purpose is. So I think there is a potential there for good.”

Correction, 2:50 p.m.: Rosett, not Rossett


13 responses to “Neighborhood group brainstorms approaches to reforming Norwalk P&Z”

  1. John Hamlin

    Potential for good. But the zoning process in Norwalk is so dysfunctional — and no one really wants basic changes. For example, CNNA members actively supported the ineffective and dysfunctional so-called blight ordinance (which doesn’t address blight) enacted by the Common Council and opposed a real blight ordinance like the ones in Stamford and other towns — CNNA members support the unfettered rights of individual property owners over those of neighboring property owners and whole neighborhoods. (At least until the Muslims come to town.). So don’t expect support for real change from CNNA.

  2. EveT

    In a nutshell, here’s what is proposed.
    (1) Increase notification so it happens earlier and more neighbors are notified.
    (2) Create a staff position independent of developers to advise neighbors, Common Council, zoning commissioners and planning commissioners.
    (3) Require plans to show the proposed structure(s) in context of surrounding buildings.
    (4) Post more documents on website.
    Absolute common sense. With the exception of (2), these improvements would be easy and cheap to implement.

  3. Bruce Kimmel

    I agree with the proposals mentioned in the article, especially the need for a certified planner to coordinate the various departments. I also believe we need to evaluate our regulations in order to guarantee that we will be able to protect our historic neighborhoods, the longest coastline in the state, our urban core, etc. We’ve been dragging our feet far too long.

  4. Oldtimer

    With modern digital technology. a partially transparent image of proposed development can be easily superimposed over an image of the existing property so anybody can easily see what is really being proposed.

    Property that has been cleared for development should be taxed at a high enough rate to discourage holding empty parcels, like 95/7, until another buyer comes along, as happened with 95/7.

    FEMA rules for building in flood zones should not only be followed, but exceeded a bit (5%) in any new construction. Waivers of these rules may save a builder, but will cost the owner for years to come in insurance costs. Why do we suppose so many existing buildings in flood zones are being raised at considerable expense ? Savings in insurance costs pay for raising a building over a very short period.

  5. Debora

    For example, CNNA members actively supported the ineffective and dysfunctional so-called blight ordinance (which doesn’t address blight) enacted by the Common Council and opposed a real blight ordinance like the ones in Stamford and other towns — CNNA members support the unfettered rights of individual property owners over those of neighboring property owners and whole neighborhoods.

    This is false. CNNA made recommendations to put in a robust blight ordinance, much more like Stamford’s. CNNA did not take a position on the Islamic Center project.

  6. Diane C2

    @John Hamlin: John, you are obviously confused on the matter of CNNA relative to blight and to property owner rights.

    For the record, CNNA members spent months analyzing the blight issue, including researching the widely-accepted definitions of blight; considering whether an ordinance was needed at all in Norwalk, especially in light of our current regulations that are often not enforced; we considered the blight ordinances of other municipalities, including the best of the lot: Stamford’s.

    Other things we discussed included the cost of enacting and enforcing any ordinance; the desire to have citizens represented on any subsequent Blight Review Commission; our concerns that commercial businesses, and indeed even state and city owned land would be exempt.

    In the end we accepted the committee’s decision that something was better than nothing and that their proposal was all that they could get passed. We did voice concerns about very few ordinances being revisited to examine their effectiveness, cost, benefits, etc. and hoped that after a trial period the ordinance would be reviewed and revised if needed.

    Once it seemed inevitable that the Ordinance Committee was going to pass “something”, CNNA lobbied to enact an ordinance as comprehensive, as enforceable, and as seemingly fair-minded as the Stamford ordinance.

    You may recall that other CNNA members lobbied alongside Golden Hill Association to require the city to at least examine the need for a blight ordinance with teeth; one that was financially punitive and legally enforceable; and one that took into account the potential physical and financial challenges of some of our neighbors who would otherwise willingly comply.

    As to your characterization that CNNA supports “the unfettered rights of individual property owners over those of neighboring property owners and whole neighborhoods. (At least until the Muslims come to town.”, can you please provide an example of this? If you are referring to our discussions regarding blight, no one on CNNA ever suggested that the rights of neighbors and entire neighborhoods be ignored. In fact, perhaps no other Norwalk association has done more in the past 10 years to foster dialogues to ensure neighbors and neighborhoods are kept informed and engaged and that our concerns are heard and acted upon.

  7. Ms Ruby McPherson

    Anyone on this group from South Norwalk?

  8. John Hamlin

    CNNA member’s approach in supporting the ineffective blight ordinance that was passed (because of extreme worry that individual property owners would be overly burdened) has had the result of supporting the unfettered right of individual property owners to do whatever they want — even if such a position was never articulated. CNNA never, that I can recall, publicly advocated for the strongest blight ordinance possible — and certainly there’s no written document of which I am aware that would confirm that. If CNNA has decided to support such a strong blight ordinance now, that would be a welcome change. Perhaps Norwalk can give this issue another try if it ever decides to strengthen its zoning approach.

  9. Suzanne

    While excellent points, observations and potential tasks are being defined in this article, especially with Mr. Kimmel responding as a member of the Council, why are all of these good people with their concerns still talking to themselves? When is Adam Blank going to determine a “purpose” or a “focus” on his task force and get busy
    DOING something? These problems are past their expiration date – the community is paying too much of a price in poor land use, derelict buildings, neighborhoods in decline, environmental problems including untreated sewage “accidents” and technically “dead” rivers, as well as large scale developments that seem to have nothing to do with the people of Norwalk and everything to do with the “cozy” relationship with developers. Darn! Now I’M talking – enough! Time for some action.

  10. John Hamlin

    To clarify, some neighborhoods like Golden Hill and Harbor Shores have advocated aggressively for a strong blight ordinance. Other neighborhoods have been less enthusiastic about such protection. CNNA represents all of them.

  11. Debora

    @ Ruby,

    Yes, a representative of the Sono Alliance is a member.

    @ John Hamlin,

    CNNA never, that I can recall, publicly advocated for the strongest blight ordinance possible — and certainly there’s no written document of which I am aware that would confirm that. If CNNA has decided to support such a strong blight ordinance now, that would be a welcome change.

    Check the recording of the public speaking portion of the meeting at which the watered down ordinance was passed. If I recall, written recommendations were submitted to the committee, even if they were never publicized in the media. I don’t know why CNNA is taking the heat for what the council passed.

  12. John Hamlin

    The Council deserves the credit or the blame for enacting a weak, ineffective blight ordinance. But many involved with CNNA rejected and were flatly opposed to a strong blight ordinance modeled on those in Stamford and other cities. In ordinance committee meetings they supported weakening the language — the Council just weakened the ordinance further than even the most reluctant proponents could imagine. But not all neighborhood associations were supporters of a strong blight ordinance with teeth.

  13. Mike Mushak

    John Hamlin is right, and so are the CNNA members speaking here. There was not a strong consensus of the CNNA early on about the blight ordinance but different opinions. I reluctantly spoke in favor of it in the Common Council hearing, as a first step, but made it clear it was not what we needed. I think that was was the CNNA basic position too, which supports John Hamlin’s point.

    I hate to say it over and over, but this is needed in this context. Our Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene really is to blame here, for decades of citizens struggling to do what he should have done long ago (he’s been Director since the early 90’s and a P and Z employee since 1978.). He lied to the public so many times he isn’t even aware of it himself at this point. He told neighborhood groups for years that we didn’t need a blight ordinance as current ordinances covered all the issues, yet he denied ever taking that position last year when I brought the subject up on the record in a zoning meeting when I served on it. He said “I never said we didn’t need a blight ordinance”, when he said it for years.

    Greene also conveniently left out mentioning over the years that Norwalk lacked a zoning enforcement ordinance that all other cities have, instead dumping zoning cases onto the overburdened court system angering judges and allowing violators to often walk away with victories after the city legal staff just stopped showing up. One case in our neighborhood, where an owner illegally added an entire floor onto a house with many illegal apartments without any permits or enough parking, lasted 28 years and the owner finally won. If we had a zoning enforcement ordinance, the city would have had the ability to fine the owner immediately after the warning period was over, with daily fines of hundreds of dollars that would become a tax lien if the owner refused to pay. Greene never wanted it as it meant more work for him and his staff. he has presided over a corrupt and inept department for decades now, with no accountability or even with any professional credentials.

    The fact that we are now asking for a new planning position in City hall to make up for Greene’s incompetence is ridiculous. Greene is Director of PLANNING and ZONING and should be qualified for his job which he isn’t. In fact, he keeps his credentials a secret from the same taxpaying public who is paying him $165,000 a year and giving him 2 full months of paid vacation every year. . Demand Greene’s resignation or fire him (let him sue the city-and watch the residents and businesses and developers come out with their stories of his bad policies and corrupt retaliatory actions) and replace him with a competent qualified professional planner as all other major cities have, and ewhich Norwalk taxpayers deserve. The era of corruption and mediocrity in Norwalk is over, and Greene is a remnant of a past system of cronyism that thrived on back room deals and inept decisions, and his own self-serving efforts to reduce his own work load when it came ot zoning and blight enforcement.

    The fact that we have an unqualified and arrogant phony (Joe Santo promoted Greene into his position from zoning inspector decades ago without ever asking him for his credentials, and Santo is still zoning chair all these years later-case closed) in the city’s most important planning position speaks volumes about how Norwalk is perceived by investors and outsiders, and about why Norwalk looks the way it does including traffic-clogged roads filled with speeding cars, after decades of bad planning decisions (transportation planning is part of the American Planning Associations definition of good planning, which Norwalk has little if any of) and little blight enforcement. Greene’s famous answer to any request for better planning coordination or improvements is an automatic “It’s not my job” and to blame everyone but himself. He’s just “mailing it in” and has been for years, laughing all the way to the bank with annual raises and no performance reviews or accountability to anyone in City Hall. Unbelievable.

    Stop this stupidity now and and lets move on, and lets get a real planner to head up teh P and Z Department with a passion for his job and an ability to work with the public and solve our serious problems, and who is worth every taxpayer penny of what we are paying him.

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