NORWALK, Conn. —Norwalk’s Planning and Zoning Commissions would be merged in January, with nine regular members instead of the 15 members the Boards have now, in the continuing effort advancing through the Common Council Ordinance Committee.
While some residents see this as creating an “overwhelming workload” for the volunteer Commissioners, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin backs the move, predicting smooth sailing under the new rules being considered by the Committee.
Arguments against a merger
When four citizens spoke against the merger at a recent Zoom public hearing scheduled by Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Lisa Shanahan (D-District E) to occur before “summer holiday season,” in her words, Kleppin characterized some of their comments as being incorrect.
Isabelle Hargrove’s email to the Committee, read aloud by Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian Candela, said that besides imposing an “unreasonable workload,” merging the Commissions would “decrease scrutiny on large developments that are also in need of more, not less.”
Former Council member Richard Bonenfant, endorsed by Republicans for at-large candidacy this fall, said fewer Commissioners “would likely” result in “not be enough time to thoroughly study all the applications or fully examine the required budget requests and decisions.”
The Planning Commission spends hours each winter scrutinizing capital budget requests, formulating its own capital budget recommendation.
Bonenfant’s email continued, “Many people in Norwalk are fed up with rapidly increasing density that has brought us traffic congestion, parking issues, pressures on the school systems and Enterprise Zone schemes where the homeowners are paying their own taxes and the developers obligations too…If this is an attempt to streamline application processes, it will just end up speeding approvals before the public has a chance to understand the ramifications to their neighborhoods.”
City officials have said that Enterprise Zone tax breaks do not reduce the amount of taxes paid on a property, only delay the increase in the event of development, as an incentive to investors.
Bonenfant also criticized the virtual nature of the hearing. “You should not even consider something of this magnitude while you have little contact with your constituents,” he wrote.
Andy Conroy, a former Zoning Commissioner who liaised with the Planning Commission, also addressed the Committee via an email read by Candela. Conroy wrote he’d “developed an appreciation of the vast workload of both commissions” and said the current Commissions “at times can barely keep up.”
Like Bonenfant, Conroy has been endorsed by Republicans to run for the Council as their lone District E candidate, challenging Council members Shanahan and Tom Livingston (D-District E), who brought forward the idea to merge the Commissions.
Conroy said that the legislature revised the State Statutes governing Zoning Commissions this year with changes that will be effective in October, “a revision so sweeping that it will take months to fully comply with/absorb the changes.” A merger shouldn’t be considered before then, he argued.
Finally, activist Democrat Diane Lauricella labelled the proposed merger “unwise and premature,” recommending postponement of the change until new, modernized, zoning regulations are adopted-the future end result of a “lengthy” process that is just beginning. “I am one that doesn’t feel that we have always had too much development, but there has been an uptick in large housing without looking enough at affordability,” she said, calling that a planning consideration. She zeroed in on details, saying that while nine members would be fine, the new ordinance should say at least one member per Norwalk voting district, not a maximum of three members from a district. “I feel this concentrates too much power and workload on one entity,” she said, citing history from the previous Mayoral administration of Zoning Commissioners who favored big box stores. “We need to have the checks and balances.”
Livingston said the proposed ordinance makes the capital budget “more manageable” and will “sort of better frame the discussion,” in revisions that Zoning Commission Chairman Lou Schulman, Planning Commission Chairwoman Frances DiMeglio and Kleppin had input to.
He explained that the newly combined Commission will consider each budget request in the context of the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), also referred to as the city-wide master plan, and if the requests are rejected in that context, then the Common Council can override that decision via a two-thirds majority vote.
The proposed ordinance removes the phrasing allowing the Planning Commission to recommend capital budget items for funding.
In nitty-gritty details, the ordinance spells out staggered terms for the new Commission. Livingston suggested they begin Jan 11, after the first Council meeting of 2020.
Responding to the citizen feedback, Kleppin said the workload will be greatly reduced by the shifting language on the capital budget. Currently, “the Planning Commission’s function in the capital budget process is not always adhered to” and the resulting document “really doesn’t have a lot of teeth to it, it’s just the way that the system is set up.”
The Commissions’ revisions to the capital budget, the results of hours of dialogue, are often reversed. The new version would actually give the Commission “more teeth but then take a little bit of the work away,” Kleppin said. Ensuring that budget requests are in line with the POCD is “an important task that that has to happen” and the Council override provision “gives the Planning Commissioners’ decision a little more weight.”
“The majority of the workload, a big chunk of it right now, comes from the Zoning Commission itself,” Kleppin said. “So since we have split Commissions anytime there is an amendment to the zoning regulations, or an amendment to the zoning map, those have to get referred to the Planning Commission…. it would be a lot more seamless if the combined Commission was looking at that as one body.”
There’s a tension in the Planning Commission as members look at issues “that aren’t really under their purview,” leading to unnecessary work, he said.
Plus, there’s a side effect of all of this, he said. “An applicant has to go to two separate bodies to get approval for the same project. That adds time, cost and just extra work on the city-side as well, because we have to hire minute takers for those meetings, we have to notice the meetings, it’s just additional staff time. We’re paying overtime for people to attend multiple meetings, which is a little bit duplicative. So I think those are savings there.”
Two main Planning Commission functions that justify a Planning Commission aren’t really an issue in Norwalk, Kleppin said. There aren’t many subdivisions that need approval because the city is largely built out, and it’s a straightforward process, with no leeway. Likewise, there aren’t many 8-24 land use determination referrals, and those are also “a pretty straightforward process.”
As for Conroy’s comments, Kleppin said he wasn’t aware of “sweeping” state zoning legislation.
On Friday, Kleppin said he hadn’t reached out to Conroy yet. “I have not seen any new legislation that confirms what he stated, but there was a lot of new legislation.”
Conroy said Saturday that he was referring to Public Act 22-29, a “toned down” version of what had originally been submitted, House Bill 6107. It’s titled, “An Act Concerning The Zoning Enabling Act, Accessory Apartments, Training For Certain Land Use Officials, Municipal Affordable Housing Plans And A Commission On Connecticut’s Development And Future.”
In recent years, City staff has “changed to a planning first mentality” because there was “a lot of catching up to do,” Kleppin said. There’s the POCD – it’s mandated that a new one be developed every 10 years – as well as the East Norwalk Transit Oriented Development (TOD) plan and the industrial zone study, in its “end stages.”
“I understand that not everybody likes the outcome of the plans or like some of the things that may be the byproducts of those plans,” Kleppin said. “But we go through a public process when we do those. We indicate here’s what we’re recommending and why. And then ultimately, we write regulations that are consistent with those plans.”
The Planning Commission “has a very, very narrow role,” and doesn’t hold public hearings the way the Zoning Commission does, so the idea that it’s a “check and balance” doesn’t really hold in terms of developments in individual districts, Kleppin said. Staff vets proposed amendments thoroughly before bringing them to the Commission.
All of the public hearing rules will remain as they are even if a merger takes place, Shanahan observed.
Livingston said last month that he wanted the merger to happen in January to “get it away from the election season,” as new appointments will need to be made.
“We want to make sure we get the right people,” he said. “… I’m not going to deny politics are involved in this but … Let’s take away that issue. It gives us all time to work through any remaining issues.”
Term limits are also an issue. Currently, Planning Commissioners can serve indefinitely while Zoning Commissioners serve a maximum three 3-year terms. The third term is only possible with a two-thirds Council vote.
The drafted ordinance calls for a maximum five 3-year terms.
“Zoning is a very specialized area. And it seems counterproductive, if you will, to force people out after only six years, which is what we currently do,” Shanahan said last month.
‘You wonder why?’
The normally cool-and-collected Kleppin recently argued with Planning Commissioner Tamara Shockley, who had sharply criticized a memo he wrote.
“You wonder why some things should get merged?” he asked July 14. “Because we’re three hours in on a three item agenda, which should have been done in an hour and a half ago. It’s just, what a waste of time.”
Shockley had asked why Norwalk doesn’t have condominiums; Kleppin’s memo explaining market conditions was “one sided” as it “only presented the views of the developers” and not any thoughts on the interests of tenants, she said.
Kleppin called that “a very odd statement” as “tenants don’t get to choose what gets built.”
Shockley said condominiums provide a path to home ownership. Kleppin said, “the city can’t regulate a condominium versus a rental.”
Planning Commissioner Steven Ferguson agreed that condominiums open up the path to home ownership and “there’s a big gap now” so “there has to be some kind of formula that could be put together.” Planning Commissioner Mike Mushak also agreed with the concept, looking back decades to owning a condo before any other residence.
While “we can’t tell the private sector, but we might be able to help the private sector if necessary to build that,” Mushak said.
“We are the Planning Commission,” Shockley said. “That is what we do, we need to plan for the future of Norwalk, and then planning for the future, we need to encourage home ownership…. we have to look at other options to build a stabilized housing community in Norwalk.”
“I’ve asked that question,” Kleppin said. “And I read the comments in the paper all the time, too much apartments, why not condos?… The city’s not going to be able to tell someone they have to build condos, that’s never going to happen. No, you have zero ability to dictate that.”
He finally said, “Can I just finish the sentence without getting interrupted once? It’s three hours in? I’d like to have dinner tonight, too. Ridiculous…. I fully appreciate different points of view, but there’s certain things that are just not factual or correct.”