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Norwalk Council looking at Zoning enforcement

Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B)
Norwalk Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene explains Zoning citations to the Ordinance Committee last week, including Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B), left, and Councilman David Watts (D-District A), right.

NORWALK, Conn. – An expedited process for Zoning enforcement is being considered by Norwalk Common Council members. This would stop citizens from playing the waiting game with the court system and continuing to violate Zoning regulations for two years without a penalty, Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene said.

The Ordinance Committee plans to hold a public hearing in January on the proposal. They got their first look last week at the ordinance crafted by Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann, which would be a new chapter in Norwalk Zoning regulations.

“The quick lesson that is learned by anybody who is halfway bright is, ‘If I fight the city what’s the worst that can happen? Two years from now they take me into court and the judge tells me to clean it up, gives me 30 days and (it’s) two years later (and) I clean it up,’” Greene said. “There’s no penalty there, certainly no financial penalty. The whole idea is to nudge some of those people who don’t want to do the right thing and maybe need that extra push. It’s not to collect the fines. I mean by the time you figure out all the time you put in it’s not a money making proposition.”

There would be an initial fine of perhaps $150, and then five day after the date of the citation, fines of $150 a day would accrue if the violation is not corrected. The person cited would be able to contest it in writing within 10 days and no fines would be imposed until a hearing was held. The mayor would appoint the hearing officer, exempting city employees, Zoning Board of Appeal members, Common Council members and people who issue zoning citations.

McCann said he modeled the ordinance by taking passages he liked out of ordinances in other cities. He said it was possible to craft a zoning citation ordinance now because the state in 2012 rescinded the law providing triple the damages in a civil action if the court felt that a zoning citation was unwarranted.

“This is nice in that it kind of skips a step, you don’t have to go in front of a judge necessarily to find relief… There will be an appeal right if somebody feels they were be wrongfully cited but the first step is not necessarily in front of a superior court judge. You could actually have a hearing officer conduct hearings in City Hall,” McCann said.

Greene said there are two types of people who get zoning citations. There are people who knew they were doing something wrong and people who had no clue they were in violation. Of the second group, some will care a lot and fix it, but some will learn that there’s no cost to letting it go to court. The ordinance is targeted to the latter group.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Councilman Glenn Iannaccone (R-At Large) said. “…Anything that can move the process along faster I think it’s a good thing for the city, make everybody safe.”

Councilman David Watts (D-District A) said that he had a constituent who had a zoning citation in his first term, and the saga played itself out over two years. “It was a nightmare,” Watts said. “It was a little excessive in the way the complaint was filed.”

Greene said it’s important to allow anonymous complaints because you don’t want neighbors made at each other, and that written complaints are mandatory so Planning and Zoning has evidence to back up any requests for administrative search warrants.

“We want to make sure that citizens don’t feel big brother is pounding on them,” Watts said. “There’s got to be a simpler, easier way of dealing with disputes without tying them up in court.”

While Watts said a reasonable solution could have been found in the dispute, Greene said that in the end, it was found to be a zoning violation.

Watts said the people who enforce Zoning don’t live in Norwalk. “It can’t be where the Zoning Department is using the hammer on citizens and in this particular case the guy felt like he was going bankrupt in legal fees,” Watts said.

Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) told Watts that was the intention of the proposed ordinance.

“This is going to have a very quick appeal process,” Greene said. “It’s going to be a citizen of Norwalk, it’s going to be an independent person, they’re not going to be an employee of the zoning department, they’re not going to be on the Zoning Board of Appeals.”

Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said the proposal spells out a less costly and more expedited way of handling citations, and citizens can still go to court if they want to. He said, “It does bring back the possibility of a quicker resolution one way or the other.”

Comments

7 responses to “Norwalk Council looking at Zoning enforcement”

  1. John Hamlin

    Welcome to the 19th Century, Norwalk! About time!

    Property ownership comes with responsibility to neighbors, neighborhoods, and the community. The vast majority of people who are opposed to zoning enforcement are homeowners or landlords who don’t want to comply with the law or those who think government and laws have no place in a community. That’s why slumlords want to invest in Norwalk — they can do whatever they want with no consequences. Norwalk zoning and land use is based on the principal that property owners should be able to do exactly what they want regardless of the impact on other property owners or neighborhoods and with no consequences. This proposal is an excellent step in the right direction — but it will probably be watered down, like the blight ordinance that was enacted a couple of years ago, so that it has no impact. Don’t let those on the Council opposed to any constructive change ruin this one — I am sure the sky has not fallen in the other jurisdictions that have this sort of ordinance.

    One question that comes to mind: Why hasn’t the zoning department proposed this years ago? For years we have only heard from them that they were powerless to do anything about zoning violations because of the court system. Why now? Or did this proposal come from Assistant Corporation Counsel McCann?

  2. Oldtimer

    Zoning was not interested in violations as long as the law was in place that held the individual zoning official personally liable for treble damages if he/she pursued enforcement without probable cause. (as if that would happen) Zoning would do nothing about a zoning violation without a signed written complaint and still won’t. They have the idea that the signed written complaint protects the zoning official from penalty if they pursue enforcement where there is no violation. Of course, enforcement, at that time, involved a civil suit process where the City took the property owner to court and there was so much of a backlog, another attorney was hired strictly to pursue zoning enforcement cases.

    They shouldn’t pursue enforcement where there is no violation, but they shouldn’t ignore obvious violations where nobody has made a signed written complaint. Their enforcement policy, or the lack of, has led to a relatively small risk of enforcement against any violation for years. There is another law that limits enforcement after a violation has existed with no enforcement for three years.

    When a building owner in a two family zone goes to the expense of installing four or five electric meters, visible on the outside of the building, that should suggest he/she is converting a building to more than two family. Investigation and enforcement should start immediately, rather than wait until somebody files a written complaint. Most people in low income neighborhoods do not trust law enforcement to keep their complaints anonymous, so no written and signed complaints are made. Didn’t we read, right here, about a complaint made about Mike Mushak’s driveway and the placement of a flowerpot, where the name of the person who made the complaint became common knowledge within a couple of days ?

  3. @John Hamlin

    Brian McCann said the ordinance was suggested by Mike Greene. He said the state legislature’s elimination of treble damages made it possible.

  4. John Hamlin

    It was always possible.

  5. Hold your Horses

    That was double speak, you welcome anonymous complaints but filling out a form is mandatory. So it really isn’t anonymous, unless zoning staff fills out the mandatory form no names, regardless any complaint must be investigated.

  6. Mike Mushak

    The reason given by Mike Greene for decades as to why Norwalk had NO zoning enforcement ordinance was because of the obscure treble damages law that was never used against any zoning officer anywhere in CT, and no other city except Norwalk ever used that as an excuse not to enforce its code. In fact, Norwalk is the only city in the whole state that has no enforcement capabity, instead dumping all the violations onto the slow and overbooked court system angering judges for years.

    This ordinance is long overdue but we need to know what took us so long, and why suddenly Mike Greene has seen the light and realized his $165,000 a year job with 2 full months paid vacation and a lifelong pension includes, oops, zoning violation enforcement. Where has he been since 1978 when he was hired with no credentials or experience? And don’t let Greene fool anyone in Norwalk that this was his idea. It wasn’t. It was our new Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola who couldn’t believe we had no enforcing ordinance and who insisted move out if the dark ages and get one.

    Finally, Norwalk was the very last city in CT to get a blight ordinance, just past year, and a weak one at that that doesn’t even cover commercial properties. For years Greene told neighborhood groups and city officials including the Common Council that Norwalk didn’t need a blight ordinance as all we needed was simple enforcing of existing codes. But what he always failed to mention, convenient for him, was that Norwalk had no enforcement capabilities! Greene, who lives in another city that has enforced its codes and has had a blight ordinance for decades (no fool he) has always manipulated our city codes and the commissions to minimize his work load. Now Greene is brown-nosing Rilling to keep his job, and suddenly announces that alas, after all these decades he has run the P and Z Department into the ground, Norwalk needs to enforce against blight and widespread zoning violations including illegal apartments that endanger lives and public safety including first responders, that was his job to do and which we were paying him to do.

    Better late than never, but again, what has taken so long? It all comes back to Greene, probably the single worst city employee Norwalk had ever had, and who will get a raise this year with no performance review as he continues to thumb his nose at taxpayers and clueless officials with his insincere actions and continued lies and breaking of city and state laws with impunity. Unbelievable.

  7. Oldtimer

    If a property owner is cited for a zoning violation and the violation is not fixed within five days, fines accrue at $150/day. That sounds good for violations that can be fixed in five days. Some violations can not be fixed in five days and a property owner who is making his best efforts may not be able to make any progress that quickly. A two family house, in a two family zone, converted without permits to four family, is a violation, but, if four tenants have leases, five days will not be enough time to fix that violation. Evictions tae time.

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