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Norwalk zoners talk illegal parking, neighborhood notifications

Norwalk Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene.
Norwalk Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene.

NORWALK, Conn. — Cars parked in front yards and notifications to neighbors about pending developments are among the things being discussed by Norwalk zoning commissioners.

“It’s one of those emotional issues in the city, and has been for years, that you are protected from because it’s usually dealt with on a staff level,” Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene said to commissioners at their Nov. 12 committee meeting. “We do not allow, in the residence zones, people to park in their front setback other than in their driveway as they pull into the garage – that’s allowed. We get a lot of complaints on that. What we find is the people who complain about it think the staff doesn’t act quickly enough on it and remove that parking in the front setback. The people who are complained about think the staff is overzealous and we shouldn’t be bothered about trivial matters, and, ‘You see it all over the city.’ So we spend a lot of time on this.”

Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank said last week, in response to criticism that Norwalk needs zoning reform and it doesn’t seem to be a priority, that the Zoning Committee has been regularly discussing zoning regulations. Although minutes for recent meetings didn’t indicate a beehive of activity, a recording of the last meeting turned up a lively discussion.

Greene promised, at the end, to get a drafted regulation on workforce housing ready for next month, which would make it a priority for new developments to keep workforce housing on site. There was also talk of monitoring workforce housing.

Greene said next month’s committee meeting would feature a discussion on setbacks from the mean high water line, and 5-foot minimum clearance on sidewalks, which Blank has said means five feet without obstructions.

The first thing discussed was the notification of neighbors issue, which Blank said was a suggestion from the Zoning Task Force. While the Zoning Commission now requires Coastal Area Management applicants to notify neighbors of an application that might be eligible for a public hearing, typically the Commission decides if special permit requests are “minor changes,” and the public never gets a chance to weigh in, he said.

Neighbors of the proposed Highpointe development, at High Street, North Avenue and Main Street, haven’t gotten notification, he said. They may find out when there’s a public hearing advertised but, “Usually at that point of time a lot of the movement and the ability to change things in the project has already occurred and the neighbors get into the game when it’s kind of too late,” Blank said.

Mailed notifications would carry a “fairly nominal cost” for developers but there are two potential downsides, he said. For one, it might be thought of as encouraging more people to come to meetings so there might be more input that has to be dealt with. For another, a resident might claim he or she had never gotten notification and then challenge a decision in court.

Commissioner Linda Kruk said high-profile developments like Highpointe are publicized in the newspaper and “there is plenty of public information” available, including on the city’s website.

“The task force is just saying think about it,” Blank said. Kruk came back with the idea that a radius for neighbors to notify could creep outward and become burdensome, which she said had been a “bone of contention” when the idea of requiring notifications for CAM applications came forward.

“That was a concern of Joe Santo,” Blank said, but Kruk said it wasn’t just Santo.

“And maybe others,” Blank said. “It is absolutely not a concern of the developers. It is not a concern of the people doing that.

Not to throw in a monkey wrench, Kruk said. Not to throw Santo under the bus, Blank said.

But, “My office represents some of the people who do these applications. … This is very minor,” he said.

“It’s a good idea,” Vice Chairman Nate Sumpter said, explaining he had just been to a neighborhood meeting where people were complaining about not knowing about a development in their midst.

“Let’s let it sit for now,” Blank said.

Greene promised to put together a list showing what other towns do in regard to neighborhood notification and the radii that are used.

On to that setback issue. Greene said he had asked Blank to think about it.

“I said, look, we are enforcing a regulation. We haven’t checked with the Commission in a while: how do you feel about it?” he said.

There’s a 30-foot setback in the B zone, which is “essentially your front yard,” Assistant Planning and Zoning Director Mike Wrinn said.

If there is a driveway that heads to a garage, it’s not a problem to park in it, Wrinn said. But if the garage has been converted to an apartment or an office it’s not legal to park in the driveway, Blank said.

“They have gotten rid of their parking space. That is a problem you see quite often,” Wrinn said.

Blank said people buy a house thinking it’s legal, but the garage has been converted. So they have to rebuild it to be legal or snake the driveway behind the house.

Neighbors can get very agitated, Wrinn said.

“On the one hand, someone who has three or four cars and they need a place to park them,” Blank said. “It’s very inconvenient to not be able to park in the setback. On the other hand, do you want the front yards, if it’s a small lot, do you want it to be all asphalt? Is there a middle ground somewhere?”

“Maybe you can have a percentage of your front that is paved,” Wrinn said, crediting that idea to former Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak; “or with another material so you take care of the drainage and you don’t get the asphalt, it’s mixed. All depends on the neighborhood that it’s in.”

“From a drainage point of view, if you get the whole front yard paved, it’s an environmental impact,” Green said.

Europeans put blocks in their front yards that allow the grass to grow through them, Kruk said. That would take care of some of the aesthetic issues, she said.

“That would take care of drainage, but how many cars to you want?” Greene said.

“I look out at my neighbors,” Blank said. “I can see eight driveways and at least five of them violate this. … It’s very common, so do you accept this as this is how it is and make it conforming now? Or do you crack down? I don’t think it’s a simple solution. It seems like it’s an easy issue but I would drive around a little.”

It’s an issue on Belle Island, where the lots are “tiny” and there is no parking, Wrinn said.

“I was working on Harbor View,” Greene said. “The proposal I was making to them was perhaps you should be able to park one car in the front setback if you use a paving material other than asphalt.”

He had collected pictures from other towns to come up with ideas, he said.

“In Harbor View you would get cars off the street and it would be safer,” Greene said.

Sumpter said he knows of home where “Everything that used to happen in the back yard now is happening in the front yard.”

The tough part is deciding where a regulation would apply, Greene said.

“Start thinking about it,” he said. “Discuss it later after you have a chance to drive around a little.”

If commissioners have other issues of concern they should raise them and they will be put on the agenda for discussion, said Blank, who became Commission chairman last month.

“I would like us to try to work on one or two things at the end of each meeting. Some will go somewhere and some won’t,” Blank said.

Greene offered the list for upcoming discussions.

“We don’t want to kill our staff,” Blank said.

“No, that is what we are here for, to find out the issues you see or for us to tell you what issues we see for your discussion,” Greene said.

Comments

12 responses to “Norwalk zoners talk illegal parking, neighborhood notifications”

  1. Christopher Potts

    In this article, Norwalk’s Director of Zoning is paraphrased as saying:

    Mailed notifications would carry a “fairly nominal cost” for developers but there are two potential downsides, he said. For one, it might be thought of as encouraging more people to come to meetings so there might be more input that has to be dealt with.

    So, more people coming to meetings and giving input is a downside? That attitude is endemic and symptomatic of the dysfunction at the root of Norwalk’s governance.

  2. M. Murray

    OMG….. Someone is parking a car on their own front lawn???? They should be jailed.

  3. LWitherspoon

    Agree with Christopher Potts. It’s a bad thing if more people come to meetings? Gosh, Mr. Greene, tell us how you really feel about public input on zoning matters.

  4. Adam Blank

    As a point of clarification, I think I stated – or meant – that having more people speak at meetings can be both a positive and a negative. I don’t think Mike G. said anything about it either way. Obviously getting notice of potential development to anyone with an interest in it as early as possible so that the Zoning Commission can receive their input is a goal of the Commission and a good thing. At the same time, the more notice provided increases the likelihood of lengthy, repetitive, public comments that make meetings much more difficult to manage and do not typically add to the discussion.

    These are just a couple factors that need to be balanced when deciding how much, and what type of, notice is appropriate.

    The Board of Ed and Common Council attempt to address this by limiting the amount of time each speaker has to make comments. Currently Zoning does not place a time limit on public comments.

  5. Gordon Tully

    On the notification issue, we are all familiar with, and generally comply with, the 3 minute limit. I don’t see why the Zoning Commission should be an exception. It is essential that people learn about developments early in the game.

    Regarding parking in the front yard, it is preposterous to believe you could enforce the existing regulation. I would guess that a least half the homes on smaller lots regularly park in their front setbacks (I and most of my neighbors do). The regulation has disastrous results (snout houses with asphalt over half the lot). It is a regulation that should only apply to homes with wide lots.

    As for homes where the entire front yard is paved, Mike Mushak’s suggestion solves that problem very nicely.

    Regarding pervious paving, it is a problem. The grids sort of work if you don’t mind weeds. Gravel is tough because sooner or later it grows weeds unless it have an impervious layer underneath, which defeats the purpose. Also gravel scatters into the street (we have a gravel driveway). Pervious asphalt works, I think, although it is not commonly used.

    Accept parking in the front setback, but limit the percentage of the lot width that can be paved. Couple that with a limit on the percentage of the front facade that can be garage doors (40% or so) to get rid of snout houses. Let’s get some urbanism in this city!

  6. Lisa Thomson

    @ Thank you Mr.Potts!

  7. Non partisan

    Many argue for zoning reform, better, more cohesive planning, and more inclusive process. I am all for it as well. But…

    Last I checked we are a nation of laws. Let’s start with enforcement of existing laws. start with illegal apartments, than paved front yards, etc.

    These law breaking residents are not good neighbors and cost tax PAYERS more money.

  8. Frustrated

    What about people that create parking spots within a side setback? Is that within the rules?

    Recently I called the police to ask about people that use the street as their parking lot because they have so many cars. Police said its allowed as long as cars are registered. I’ve left messages with zoning but can’t get a response from them about how they would enforce this. The following seems to say that parking in the street is not allowed.

    http://norwalkct.org/DocumentCenter/Home/View/367

  9. Adam Blank

    @Frustrated – parking on the street is not illegal. However, if a particular neighborhood believes it is an issue in their area they can work with the City to make that neighborhood permit parking only and then limit the number of permits allowed to be provided to each street address/legal residential unit.

  10. Non partisan

    Or you can do what many towns do to discourage illegal apartments and overcrowding- Make all streets no parking from 2 am to 6 am 12/1 to 4/1 to allow for winter snow removal.

  11. EveT

    Mailed notifications are going to bring more people out to meetings, and that should be viewed as a good thing. The better people understand what is being built next to their property, the better adjustment to changes in the neighborhood. Neighbors have a right to be notified and it’s outrageous that this has not been the practice all along.

  12. Andrea Light

    Zoning Commissioners have tools they use in considering zone changes, site plan review and special permit applications. An important tool for Zoning Reform is the Master Plan. Personally I felt our last Master Plan was a little weak on focus and specifics but the Planning Commission should be revving up about now for the latest Plan of Conservation and Development. I think its almost more important to focus our attention on the planning process for overarching principles rather than looking to the Zoners to plug holes in the dike.

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