NORWALK, Conn. – An effort to change the zoning regulations along Norwalk’s Main Avenue inched along last week with a directive to a city planner to define the area in question, with scenarios drawn of how businesses would be affected by different dimensional proposals.
Norwalk Senior Planner Dori Wilson said she would have the analysis done for the Zoning Commission’s Zoning Committee for the January meeting, but said a workshop might be in order after that, rather than a public hearing.
At issue in the push initiated by Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak is limiting the maximum size of retail stores on Main Avenue from Linden Street to New Canaan Avenue, as recommended in the Westport-North-Main Corridor Study and Plan. This effort was begun after the application to build a BJ’s Wholesale Club at 582 Main Ave. was withdrawn recently.
Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo said at Monday’s committee meeting the two facts are directly related, calling BJ’s the “elephant in the room.”
“We didn’t just make up a zone change in response to the BJ’s,” Mushak said. “I’m looking at the Plan of Conservation and Development and our Master Plan, which says implement the recommendations of the Westport North Main Corridor study. We never did that. So what happened was we got a BJ’s proposal because we never did (that).”
While the study referenced recommends limiting retail stores to 10,000 square feet, Mushak suggested 25,000 square feet. He then agreed with the others that a 35,000-square-foot maximum retail size would work as a compromise.
There is already a Walgreens that size, Wilson said. Although there are five stores in the Rainbow Plaza now, there is nothing to stop the owner from reconfiguring the building and making it one large store at some point, she said. Making the maximum size smaller would therefore grandfather in a non-conforming use, commissioners said.
Santo said the owner of the parcel at 582 Main Ave. might put three 35,000 square foot stores on the lot, and thereby there would be retail almost the size of the 109,000 square foot BJ’s. That would mean just as much traffic, he said.
Not necessarily, said Mushak, who had earlier said smaller stores draw local people but big box stores draw regional traffic, and mentioned several times that the South Western Regional Planning Authority (SWRPA) had called Main Avenue one of the most dangerous and overcrowded roads in the area.
In addition, Mushak said, a Zoning Commission has the power to require a shared curb cut.
“This is normal around the country,” he said. “Actually, most cities have regulations to combine commercial curb cuts. … Just because we have historically not managed it doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be done.”
“Everyone is forgetting the state has control over the road,” Commissioner Jim White said.
He also said the high traffic on the road comes not from retail but from people heading to the Merritt Parkway and Interstate 95.
The state could also decide to widen the road, Mushak said. It is not likely it will expand the interchange with the Merritt Parkway, because it doesn’t have the funds, he said.
Zoning Commissioner Linda Kruk said the commission had to be mindful of the property owners’ rights, that it shouldn’t do something unfair and unjust. It is impossible to predict the future, that 30 years from now the regulation could be damaging someone’s business, she said.
“I agree 100 percent,” Mushak said. “I believe that is a rationale to downzone. Because you have 140 existing businesses. … The elephant in the room is not BJ’s. The elephant is the 2006 study which shows required intersection expansion to handle the traffic of the retail expansion, on the scale we’re talking about with BJ’s, which BJ’s was not addressing.”
“I don’t want a BJ’s in there myself,” Santo said.
He called it a “lousy proposal.”
“Nobody in this room knows if they’re coming back. I’m just throwing it out there. I think to enact a regulation to prevent something from coming in – and in this case I think it is rather obvious that what is being proposed.”