Norwalk zoners peacefully consider BJ’s-related rule change

Correction, 2:30 p.m., 2012 Transportation Management Plan cost $500,000, not the 2006 Westport-Main Avenue Corridor study

NORWALK, Conn. – Casting a more skeptical eye to claims made by developers is being pondered by the Norwalk Zoning Commission, but an idea to do an outright moratorium on large buildings has been discarded.

Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak said upfront that he didn’t support the moratorium idea, even if he had asked for it to be on the agenda. He found a more open-minded reception for the idea of independent reviews of traffic studies done on the behalf of applicants, though his advocacy for other elements of a 2006 study and an expensive 2012 plan didn’t get far.

The reception from the commissioners was in direct contrast to comments made by Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo two weeks ago. Santo called on Mushak to resign, saying “Nobody wants to listen to him anymore and listen to his diatribes.”

Zoning Commissioner Linda Kruk.

After more than half an hour of discussion, Mushak thanked Santo for putting the items on the agenda. Zoning Commissioner Linda Kruk advocated for continuing the discussion next month, which Santo said they would do.

The elephant in the room was BJ’s Wholesale Club. The recently withdrawn application was mentioned by inference only, as when Santo said, “If I thought the moratorium was being done for more than one reason – it’s only being done for one reason – because you want to prevent one applicant.”

“There’s no evidence of that and you should not say that,” Mushak said.

Mushak said the moratorium idea came from members of the public who had a “very strong response … to a feeling that they were cut out of the planning process,” when Kruk and Zoning Commissioner Emily Wilson voted to stop looking into a zoning change for Main Avenue.

“When the discussion ended it was a bit of a shock to a lot of members of the public,” he said.I am not convinced a moratorium was a way to go, it was an idea that came out of the public. … I know already that the consensus is not to go to a moratorium.”

He asked for the idea to be reopened, at least to allow public comment, as he said had been done with affordable housing.

“I don’t see this public cry for a moratorium,” Santo said. “I don’t know where you get this ‘people are crying for a moratorium’; I don’t see where you’re getting it from.”

Mushak said it came from neighborhood groups. Santo said, “Twenty or 30 people?”

The push for a peer review drew more positive reception from Santo, and debate from Kruk.

Zoning Commissioner Nora King told Santo that, as an appraiser, she is used to having her work double checked.

Santo said the Department of Public Works checks traffic studies, but Mushak and King said DPW staff had admitted they didn’t have time to do more than a quick overview.

Mushak was, as he has in the past, pushing to have recommendations that were made in the 2006 Westport-Main Avenue Corridor Study be considered as potential zoning law, as recommended in the 2012 Transportation Master Plan, which cost taxpayers $500,000.

Mushak said the nationally respected professionals behind the study called Norwalk’s regulations “generic and of limited usefulness.”

Kruk said there was nothing wrong with using the study as a guideline, but “This is one authority. It’s not the only authority,” she said. “I think we also need to use common sense with what we know about Norwalk and … how much more regulation do we need?”

King said she was on the Common Council when the $500,000 for the study was authorized.

“I do think we should not minimize (the study),” she said. “I was actually on the Common Council when we approved that half million and there were a lot of people. Doug Hempstead was leading the charge on this, about the relevance of these studies and how all these different groups should, when it comes back, look at it, apply it, and I do think we have a responsibility to look at it and see if we need to reform or keep up with them.”

Kruk said peer review makes sense, but questioned whether Mushak would have dropped his opposition to BJ’s if a peer review had been done and came back with favorable results.

“Our job is to help business to be successful, not to squash them, quell them, stop them from being successful by over-regulating them,” she said.

“Then why do we have parking requirements?” Mushak asked.

He asked again to reopen the zoning change. Santo said no. “It’s not up to you Joe,” Mushak said. “You’re not king of the commission.”

“I don’t think there’s a problem with having this on the agenda (for next month),” Kruk said.

The conversation was witnessed by only one member of the public. Heather Dunn, who is on the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) executive board, said the abrupt end to the quest for a Main Avenue zoning change had been discussed at CNNA meetings.

Those draw 10 to 15 people at most, but Dunn said that group, and the neighborhood associations individually, had collected 800 names on a petition in opposition to the BJ’s application. There were many people offended by the way Mushak’s quest to talk about the zoning regulations was halted, she said.

Dunn said she was at last month’s committee meeting when commissioners walked out the door as Mushak attempted to get Santo to put something on the agenda. That is not how people who are working on the public’s behalf should behave, she said.

This month was much better, she said.

“I’m very pleased with the civility and the open mindedness, how respectful they were with one another, which was in contrast to a recent meeting,” said Dunn.


8 responses to “Norwalk zoners peacefully consider BJ’s-related rule change”

  1. SMH

    The real upset here will be if BJ’s does not resubmit the application and get approval for the project. It’s going to happen.

  2. piberman

    Refreshing to learn of a P&Z meeting conducted with apparent civility amongst its members. “Hope springs eternal” for future professional conduct among this critically important City Board. Hopefully public “diatribes” and “endless criticism” of the P&Z by disaffected member(s) will be behind us. P&Z members could well follow the example of the esteemed BOE by doing the “public’s business” at their assigned meetings rather than commenting endlessly in the press. It’s critical for the P&Z to have the public’s full confidence through professional conduct.

  3. Peter Parker

    I am a BJ’s supporter, but Mushak is correct, let the people voice their opinions on all zoning change. The Zoning Commission should not be making decisions without the taxpayers input.

  4. Suzanne

    It appears that Mr. Santos has no grasp of the information re: traffic studies and peer review. He says, at one point, “I’ll have to read that” and asks questions that seem to have been answered for the rest of the group who did read the information. Why isn’t he prepared (after all these years?)

    Moratorium: why not have a public meeting as with every other commission/council/committee? It does not seem necessary to reinvent the wheel of process.

    Worrying about stifling development for future generations and waiting for developers to do it for the Town precludes the Town having any input into just what this environment will be as Mike Mushak stated. It is a reactionary approach rather than a definitive approach to potential development. I venture to guess that Fairfield and Westport, both towns I was able to peruse yesterday while in the 10-mile traffic backup on 95, had an incredible amount of input into the urban planning of those spaces. Shopping areas are uniformly pleasant with great architecture, pocket parks and a combination of private and chain/franchise type businesses.

    How many studies does it take to control traffic? I would hope one at $500,000 a pop.

    Etiquette: Mr. Santos is right to want to complete his sentence. Talking over one another accomplishes nothing. He should not have to fight for his say but be respectfully acknowledged just as other members did while Mr. Mushak was talking. Linda Kruk seems to be in another meeting – she has conversations under the testimony of other members. A meeting within a meeting is not helpful.

    It’s rather insulting as a constituent to be told by Mr. Santos that public input is a big “No” on projects that materially affect the taxpayers. Declaring that should be a big “No.” How does he think he got on the Commission in the first place except for an elected public official?

  5. Haley

    Traffic is choking Norwalk as it is, even without another mall or God forbid, a BJs, and as for parking — look at Costco. Somebody approved the parking lot there, and if it isn’t an invitation to a fender-bender, or worse, I don’t know what is.

  6. fyi

    It’s SANTO. Not “Santos”

  7. Suzanne

    Apologies to MR. SANTO.

  8. EveT

    Whoever approved the CVS parking lot entrance/exit by the railroad tracks on Perry Avenue should have to answer for it. If they’d allowed just one less parking space on the south facing row, the entrance could have been safe and adequate for two cars (read: SUVs) to pass each other entering and exiting simultaneously. But no, they had to squeeze in one more space, leaving a ridiculously narrow driveway and a silly, stub-your-toe little traffic island in an attempt to demarcate entrance and exit. Whose idea was it to approve that?

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