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.