Norwalk Zoners vote 5-2 to alert neighbors of proposed construction

NORWALK, Conn. – A small crowd of Norwalk’s coastal residents won a victory Wednesday night as the Zoning Commission voted 5-2 to require property owners behind certain applications for construction on the waterfront to send out certified letters to notify neighbors.

“This is bulls—t,” Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo said on his way out the door after the meeting, after calling the amendment a “chip on the block” of property rights.

“I think it showed courage on Emily’s and Linda’s part to vote against party lines,” Rowayton resident Lisa Thomson said after the meeting, referring to Republican Zoning Commissioners Emily Wilson and Linda Kruk, who voted for the amendment that Santo opposed. “Because they voted for coastline, they voted for government transparency, and they voted for property rights – for everyone, not just the person who is developing the property, but for the neighbor, who is also a property owner.”

Also voting for it were Democratic Zoning Commissioners Adam Blank, Nora King and Nate Sumpter. Voting against it, in addition to Santo, was Republican Michael O’Reilly.

Blank said the amendment pertained to applications that were for improvements or new construction on a waterway of 1,000 square feet or larger. Construction on such projects is about $250 a foot, he said, making it a $250,000 improvement. The “green card” costs are $5 to $6 for each neighbor of the proposed development, depending on how you send them, he said.

“It’s going to be $25 or $30 on a $250,000 or more construction project; the thought that that might derail anyone from wanting to do a little improvement, I can’t fathom that. So I am strongly in favor of the notice,” Blank said.

Charles Schoendorf, a Rowayton resident, said during the public hearing that more than 60 emails had been sent to Planning and Zoning in support of the amendment in response to “very little effort” to spread the word. Rowaytonite Julie Burton, who rose to speak, asked those in the audience who were in favor of the amendment but who didn’t want to speak to raise their hands. At least 20 people did.

No one spoke against the amendment; eight people spoke for it.

“I just wanted to come here to voice my support for this amendment. I think it reflects neighborly decency. I think that’s kind of like where we started and we’re going back to that. I think that we can’t lose,” said Jenny Butler, a Harborview resident.

“What I can’t understand is why would anybody oppose this? This is something that just lets people know what is going on,” Rowaytonite Seeley Hubbard said. “… The fact that anybody would want to tamp down information going to people who are affected by these things is just ridiculous to me. It makes no sense, and the fact that anybody would oppose this, it seems to me, would just cast a pall over what you do because it seems to me that you just don’t want these people to get information as to what is going to happen to their property.”

Bill Miller of Wilson Point said none of his neighbors had been notified that a new house would be built there. “We are very concerned about height regulations and some other issues but none of us received any official notice because we overlook the water, we are not right on the water.”

Miller asked the Commission to tighten the regulation a little more.

“I wish the notification would go further but I consider this a good first start,” Thomson began, going on to talk about a “severe threat” from overbuilt houses.

“For the past decade it seems that the majority of our Planning and Zoning board have preferred to focus on the advocacy of individual property rights at the expense of neighbors,” Thomson said. “But my question to you is aren’t the neighbors property owners, too? I find it a little concerning, the only time we seem to be concerned about individual property rights is during the development phase, if there is a new proposed development. We don’t seem to care about property rights in the ongoing life cycle of a particular parcel of land. I believe it is long overdue to have an amendment like this to at least notify the neighbors if there is going to be a development that will affect the coast.”

Wilson asked her what a better step would be.

“I would like to see us more actively preserving our waterfront,” Thomson replied.

She explained that she has lived in Rowayton for 18 years. “It was a little fishing village,” she said. “We are increasingly not being able to see Farm Creek. Unless you are at Bayley Beach, that is when you can see Long Island Sound. I appreciate the value of our property, I know there is a clause also in our master plan about maximizing the grand list. I sometimes think that Rowayton has borne its share of growing the grand list for funding our city. I wonder if at what point do we ruin quaint coastal fishing village when you can’t see the water anymore and it becomes a walled city. … You need to put the brakes on. The pendulum swings one way, maybe we need to kind of swing it back a little bit.”

It was revealed during the meeting that the Planning Commission had unanimously voted against the amendment. Consequently, the Zoning Commission needed a two-thirds majority to pass it.

“It was a unanimous vote to not ever let the neighbors know what someone is doing,” Thomson said, expressing concern. “Mr. (Mike) Mushak, someone was all over his butt when it came to a flower pot. I know that I was the subject of when I had a banner – you know, when I talked about reforming Planning and Zoning – hanging on my stone wall on my private property and the city was out on me like a flash. I guess what I struggle with, we seem to be really keen on property rights when it’s about development and revenue for the city but we seem to throw away property rights when it comes to these various rules and regulations we may have. You can’t have a banner on your wall or you can’t have a flower pot. I am just a simple resident; I am trying to reconcile that.”

Mushak, a former zoning commissioner, spoke later, calling the discussion “fascinating.”

Norwalk residents applaud
Norwalk residents applaud former Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak at Wednesday’s Zoning Commission meeting.

“There is a sense of arrogance towards the public and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Mushak said. “… Basically as far as I can tell the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Department has given up its state responsibilities to coordinate and inform people, and let them know what is going on. This is across the board. Anyway, I don’t want to be so negative – I support this, you should vote for it. And as far as the Planning Commission voting it down, inexcusable.”

When it came time for a vote, Santo said, “I just think this notification is a chip at private property rights. That is, by requiring the homeowner has to do this, then the next thing that we are going to have to be asking about is public hearings on private residences, which I think is totally inappropriate.”

King asked what support he had for that statement, given that no one had spoken against the amendment. Santo said people who live in Harbor View or on Bell Island didn’t know about it, that 90 percent of the emails were from Rowayton residents.

“This is a Rowayton amendment, not a Norwalk amendment,” Santo said.

Butler spoke up from the audience to remind Santo that she lives in Harbor View. King said an East Norwalk resident had been there.

“Joe, when you say something sensible I definitely agree with you, but I don’t put this in that realm,” Sumpter said.

Blank said he would vote for a public hearing for every waterfront request if the amendment did not go through. Wilson called that a threat of a “burden,” and said that public hearings are done in response to an outcry from the public.

“There can’t be an outcry if they don’t know,” Blank said. People are routinely out of the loop, he said. He even got a text from someone during the meeting who had been unaware that there was a Coastal Area Management application being voted on, and the home was in his neighborhood, he said.

King said she had been on the Commission for less than a year. “I have heard this from so many people. Who are you hearing from that this is not a valid concern that people have?” she asked Santo.

“It’s a chip on the block,” Santo said.

Correction, 6:40 a.m, vote was 5-2, not 6-2


8 responses to “Norwalk Zoners vote 5-2 to alert neighbors of proposed construction”

  1. John Hamlin

    This I debate was revealing — the “individual property rights are more important than the community” crowd versus the “rights of ALL property owners, including neighboring property owners” crowd. The pendulum should swing back in favor of community rights and away from the right of individuals to do whatever they want regardless of the impact on others. Look at the “look” of Norwalk compared to surrounding towns — it’s why absentee slumlords choose Norwalk for investment because they can do what they want with no consequences. It will take 200 years to undue the damage that our lack of planning and weak zoning regulations have done, but we have to start sometime. Or do we?

  2. Mike Mushak

    What happened to Norwalk’s once well-respected Planning and Zoning Department over the last 20 years?

    I know the answer to that. Just read the comment by the Zoning Chair Joe Santo in the article, and you will get a hint. Or witness the level of debate and the actions of staff that routinely occur. It’s embarrassing really.

    John Hamlin, I don’t think it will take 200 years to fix the damage from this crowd. It will take about 10 years perhaps, with an overhauled staff, commissions, and code, and a return to professionalism and integrity in our entire planning process that has been dumbed-down into the dysfunctional mess we have before us now.

    Where do we start? I have some ideas!

  3. Andrea Light

    As I see it, some people have become so nasty and uncivil (not just Norwalk!) that I think this amendment just opens the door for more bruisings and fights. In theory we should have confidence that our state and local regulations will keep improvements reasonable by some standard. You can’t always count on reason and thoughtfulness prevailing. Just my 2 cents.

  4. Oldtimer

    If the ONLY concern was to be the rights of individual property owners, we would have absolutely no need for zoning in any form and no need for a zoning commission. Joe Santo has to appreciate that ZONING’s primary responsibility is to neighborhoods, not individual property owners. He would go nuts if some individual property owner proposed a commercial building or use right next door to his house.

    He needs to get out more and travel around the country, on the ground. It is not hard to find communities that do not have zoning and an individual property owner can do anything he pleases on his property, assuming no danger to neighbors.

    General stores in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
    There are some examples in Norwalk where stores were built and still exist in residential neighborhoods. (Newtown Ave, for example)

  5. Norewalk Lifer

    I remember reading the zoning code when I bought my house on the water in South Norwalk; no coal processing plants, no ahem,,, “houses of ill repute”. (smile here).

    There have always been some form of ordinances, and normally in a neighborhood, neighbors talk to each other before taking action, I certainly did when I made a change, and so did my neighbors, wonderful people they are.

    I have since moved, but unfortunately, you need controls like this, as not everyone is civil minded as one poster has already pointed out.

    Norwalk Lifer

  6. Norewalk Lifer

    I forgot to mention the zoning code was written in 1906, it’s funny how things change, but remain the same.

    Norwalk Lifer

  7. Kathleen Montgomery

    Oldtimer, your oral history really complements these stories. Thanks for sharing a perspective that really matters to understanding what Norwalk was. Knowing this history enriches us all.

  8. Michael McGuire

    I agree with Lisa Thompson on this. You only need to go to Belle Island and look at the overly excessive, near zero lot line development that produced a Disney Land effect of overdone architecture. This has walled off the view corridors which does effect other property owners.

    This has bleed over into various sections of non-waterfront Rowayton as well.

    Again, all this goes back to the lack of effective and accountable planning. The lack of effective planning is costing Norwalk tax payers millions in lost revenues and opportunity costs.

    Until we correct this system, whether that be by changing the system or the people in the system (an investigation is needed to determine which), Norwalk will be subject to the same Grand List robbing dysfunction noted below in Norwalk’s ever widening list of Epic Planning Failures.

    These failures cost us millions and directly effect our quality of life.

    Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all should be calling our leaders for an investigation into what’s gone wrong at P&Z.

    Norwalk’s ongoing Epic Planning Blunders:

    • POKO, (overloaded with social do good and project killing parking costs)
    • Duleep’s Blight,
    • NPA’s business sapping policies,
    • An out of date LDA on 95/7 (now creating month(s) of delay),
    • A restricted industrial zone that reflects an industrial market from the 1970s and stagnates contractor business growth,
    • Thoughtless housing development in our prime waterfront neighborhoods,
    • Master plans and other expensive reports simply dismissed,
    • Enterprise zones in the wrong areas (for a mall…really),
    • The mosque debacle,
    • BJ’s,
    • Good developers who shun Norwalk,
    • And smart development policies squashed.

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