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Norwalk Zoning Commission ruling halts all contractor yard expansions for a year

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NORWALK, Conn. – No new contractor yards or expansions of existing ones will be approved in Norwalk during the next 12 months, due to a moratorium unanimously approved by the Zoning Commission after several hours of deliberation and public
comment in the Zoners’ May 11 and May 20th meetings.

An extensive study of Norwalk’s industrial zones will be conducted throughout the year-long period that the moratorium is in effect.  No contractor yard applications will be accepted during that time.

Norwalk Planning and Zoning Director Steve Kleppin advocated for the measure. “Many contractors operate well within the bounds of what’s permitted by the City,” Kleppin said.  “Unfortunately, there are also many illegal contractor yards that are a constant source of work for the Planning and Zoning Department.  The City is looking at its industrial zones and is about to start a study of them within the next month or so.  How do we maximize industrial zones for job growth? What type of industries do we want to see in the city, and how do we attract them?  Norwalk has a very large amount of industrial zoned land.  We’re going to look at how that should be utilized going forward.”

“One of the things we want to do as part of the moratorium is to differentiate between a contractor storage yard where somebody is just storing vehicles and equipment, and a materials processing yard which is a different operation where somebody is constantly shifting material, causing dust and those kinds of issues,” he said.

Opposing the moratorium, Attorney Elizabeth Suchy said, “As your newly approved Plan of Conservation and Development states, ‘Norwalk’s prosperity is rooted in the retaining of its diversified economy.’ And these very businesses — permitted, established, longstanding contractor yard owners — allow many Norwalk residents to work where they live, provide living wage jobs for all skill levels, and create a strong non-residential tax base… The moratorium would affect not the illegal contractor yard owners who operate with seeming impunity, but the established corporate citizens…”

She continued, “It’s inappropriate and unfair to consider measures to prevent legally-operating businesses from expanding their operations particularly at a time when many of these corporate citizens are struggling to survive and have been hard hit by COVID-19…It’s not the approved longstanding contractor’s yards that are the problem, but instead the illegal unapproved operators who commence business in violation of the City’s regulations and ordinances.  That’s where the problem lies.  And that is an issue of weak and inconsistent enforcement, which the POCD identified as well.  The zoning staff does the best job that it can with the limited resources provided to identify non-compliant operators and take action.  But the failure of the City fathers and mothers to provide sufficient resources to this department is a statement of public policy by the City, and properly operated contractors’ yards should not have to atone for the sins of the violators.”

Suchy cited objections to the moratorium “from established contractor yard owners and operators including JL Seaman, Terzian Trucking, FGB Construction and others.”

Zoning Commission Chairman Louis Schulman replied, “This moratorium is not an attempt to put anyone out of business or to halt anyone’s business.  Once the study is completed, whatever the recommendations of the study, even after the recommendations may be adopted, anyone who currently operates a legal compliant yard will continue to maintain the right to operate that yard.  There is no hidden agenda here to put good citizens out of business.  This is an opportunity to take a look at our industrial land and have consultants make decisions in consultation with the community and the City on how they would like to see industrial land managed and developed.  There will be no right to take away the rights that the compliant yards currently enjoy.”

He said, “Like any other study that Planning and Zoning has done over the last several years, there will be a place at the table for the yard owners to express their opinions as well. The study is not going to be one-sided.  All opinions will be welcomed and considered.”

 

 

Illegal yards ‘lowering property values’

Public comments were heard at both the May 6 and May 20 meetings.

“Storage yards and heavy equipment are affecting the children’s quality of life,” Jacquen Jordan-Byron of San Vincenzo Place said. “The COVID-19 crisis is affecting black and brown communities far worse than other communities.  A lot of this is due to environmental factors —smog, noise, toxic environment affecting breathing.  South Norwalk has its fair share of storage yards and contractors.  I support the moratorium to provide relief and to give time for City agencies to investigate and enforce violations.  Why pile on more if you know that there are those who are already violating and getting away with it?  Why not take the time out to enforce those laws?”

“We need industrial zones to help offset the tax base from residential and at times retail uses,” Norwalk activist Diane Lauricella said.  But she also noted that a list compiled by Kleppin and Deputy Zoning Inspector  John Hayducky showed that “of the roughly 30 contractor sites in the South Norwalk area, there are 13 illegal sites in and around the neighborhoods and all around the areas between Ely Avenue and Chestnut Street.”

Luigi Dimeglio of Lubrano Place said, “I’ve been a resident of South Norwalk my entire life.  In my neighborhood, illegal contractors come in under the radar as an innocent business of just storing equipment.  Then six months down the road it expands, usually on a 3-day weekend where they start to clear more property and there’s no one at City Hall to get involved.  These individuals know how to work the system, and residents suffer the consequences of noise and pollution.”

“Contractors park trucks on church property,” he said.  “There’s been an earth processing company on Mulvoy Street, and the wind blows the dust to Columbus School where children are playing.  I had a contractor operating a firewood business almost in my backyard for seven years, making high decibel noise and odors seven days a week until finally he moved away.  This moratorium and study will shine a light on a lot of these issues”

Tysen Canevari of Esquire Road said, “I own a small landscaping business in Norwalk.  I rent space in an industrial park, and I follow the rules and regulations. Does the Zoning Commission have any further plans to put more enforcement officers out in the field?  I know John Hayducky has been wonderful helping out in that regard, but there’s so many illegal yards in Norwalk, and it’s lowering our property values and making for unfair labor practices.  You can go down almost any street now and see a contractor running a business out of his house.  Do you guys want to comment on that?”

Kleppin replied, “We prioritize enforcement in our office by types of complaints that we receive, with contractor yards and illegal apartments being the two highest priorities.  Contractor yards are a little easier to deal with because there’s usually visible signs that they’re there.  They’re everywhere in every part of the city, so that’s an issue.”

He continued, “We’ve added additional responsibilities to inspections, and we streamlined our process, which I can provide for whoever wants to see.  Unfortunately, because of the pandemic we haven’t been able to continue our citation hearings.  The agendas for those hearings are loaded with contractor yards.  We have a process in place where once an inspection is confirmed, we send out a notice.  Once the notice is received or not received then we follow up and get them in the enforcement queue.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of times is they’ll simply relocate from one place to another and we have to start again,” he said.  “It’s gotten worse over time.”

Schulman asked, “Is there more that we can do in terms of actions we can take against illegal yards?”

“The City enacted a citation process a while ago that gives the citation officer the ability to fine them $150 a day from the date that the violation is confirmed by the citation officer himself,” Kleppin replied. “Previously things were just sent to Corporation Counsel, and they would have to pursue a civil action through a cease and desist order.  That’s very time consuming and hard to prioritize with so many things going on in the Corporation Counsel’s office.  But with the citation hearing officer, we can do 20 to 30 different hearings a month, and move those through the system as quickly as possible.  We’ve fined numerous contractor yards that didn’t listen”

Commissioner Richard Roina asked, “In an enforcement situation, is it the operator or the owner of the property who is pursued?”

“It’s technically both,” Kleppin replied. “But if there’s a fine levied, it will be on the property owner.  It’s tricky when there’s a disagreement between the property owner and the tenant.  If the property owner is willing to do something but the tenant is not willing to cooperate, then he has to go through the eviction process, which has prolonged some of our citation actions.”

 

 

‘Disintegration’

“Aside from all the health issues it’s a total complete eyesore!  The neighborhood looks horrible with all of this stuff there!  If Darien won’t allow it, why are we allowing them to come here?” Sonia Oliver of Madison Street asked.

“In particular in South Norwalk where I live, it would be very helpful to do the study first,” Georganna Scott Rucker of Chestnut St said. “Proceed with caution and do the one-year first before you add anything new.”

But Larry Katz, a commercial real estate broker, spoke of “over-Zoning,” calling it “a mistake to constantly take away industrial space.”

“I deal a lot with industrial uses as well as retail and office uses,” he said. “I’ve been in Norwalk all my life, and I’ve watched the disintegration of light industrial spaces.  Plumbers and electricians are contractors, and if they have no yard in Norwalk to operate and you have a problem with electrical or a water problem and they have to drive from 20 miles away to get here, that’s significant.”

He continued, “I’ve seen one industrial space that they’ve converted to B2 zone and wreaked havoc on the landlord who has a big building and he couldn’t rent it out and he had to get rid of tenants because it was an industrial building and the City said it had to be B2.”

And, “The City was widening a bridge on Perry Avenue and they used part of the land as a contractor’s yard because they had no place to put their materials, and after they left they still wouldn’t let the owner use it for a contractor’s yard even though it was used as a contractor’s yard for the State.  I guess they had priority over Zoning.”

“I think it’s a mistake to constantly take away industrial space and in fact there’s a premium right now on people to get storage facilities in Norwalk,” he said. “Other brokers call me from all over and they say do you have any contractor’s yards and I tell them we don’t have any available.   By taking more away I don’t know where these people are going to go.”

Common Council Members Dominique Johnson (D-At Large), Darlene Young (D-District B) and Ernie Dumas (D-District B) supported the moratorium.

“I have heard from many folks in South Norwalk,” Johnson said. “This is a moment where we can stop and take stock of what’s going on in the neighborhood and hear from the neighborhood members themselves specifically because we have a unique opportunity to make sure that we don’t set anything into motion before we have a plan in place.  I’ve heard from a lot of families who are concerned especially now about the health and well-being of their kids.   Having a disproportionate amount of light industrial space in South Norwalk already makes this of great concern to them to make sure that we have a steady balance between a healthy livable city and an economically diverse city.”

“I think I heard somebody mentioned something about disintegration of contract yards,” Young said. “But I want to put that into people’s perspective. You’re talking about disintegration of people in a community and we want to move in the other direction from that.”

“We’re looking for the change and I appreciate, Steve, that you guys are putting together this meeting tonight,” Dumas said. “Because this is something that has to be looked into right away, because we have to respect the people that live in the area, that pay high taxes in Norwalk, that their property values don’t go down.”

 

 

 

The study

Willa Jefferson of Cottontail Road, a South Norwalk property owner, said “I’m calling in support of the 1-year moratorium.  When will the study be happening? And will there be a public hearing or is this the public hearing?”

“The consultant has been hired,” Schulman replied. “It should be starting within the next 30 days or so.  An advisory committee working with the consultant will represent the City, the community, the contractors who own the yards, and other interested parties.  Beyond that, there will be a number of public meetings to discuss the study with the entire community and as the study moves forward at least three or four public hearings would have to be held before any recommendations could be adopted.  There should be ample opportunity for anyone interested to voice their opinion.”

Before the voting, Roina said, “Expansion of an existing contractor yard should be exempted as long as it’s permitted and there’s no Zoning violations.”  Commissioner Stephanie Thomas disagreed, saying “The community has already borne the pain for some time, so it seems like a good act of faith to halt everything for the one year while we undertake the study.” Commissioner Nick Kantor agreed with Roina but abstained from the vote. No other Commissioners spoke in favor of allowing expansions during the moratorium.

Commissioner Frank Mancini summed up by saying, “I am 100 percent pro-business in Norwalk.  This (the moratorium) is the most equal thing we can do to support our small business operators and our residents.”

More Zoning enforcement details can be found in “A Norwalk Zoning Complaints Primer

6 comments

Alice May 26, 2020 at 8:48 am

WOW! Finally something good is happening in Norwalk.
I’ve lived here all my life (70+ years) and witnessed the downhill spiral for this once beautiful city!

James Cahn May 26, 2020 at 10:32 am

Part of this process needs to include a plan for the aggressive enforcement against illegal contractor yards. There should be no obstacle to running a legitimate business concern in Norwalk. Indeed, it should be encouraged. Also, though, there should be a reasonable expectation on the part of people who buy homes in residential neighborhoods that they not have an ad hoc construction yard in their community which is partially aided to exist by a flaccid administration either unable to enforce its own ordinances or which does so selectively. This is without even considering that fining these illegal yards out of existence is a viable revenue source until they are eliminated.

Kathleen Marsh May 26, 2020 at 2:38 pm

I support the moratorium. It will provide time to get the big picture, to identify and remedy the problems.

JustaTaxpayer May 26, 2020 at 3:59 pm

I seem to recall a US citizen who owns a towing company complaining about the hit to his business due to illegal immigrants taking his business. Have to wonder if any of these illegal yards are illegal on multiple fronts.

Banks May 26, 2020 at 10:18 pm

There should be a 30 month moratorium on new apartment permits. there’s probably more secret deals still to come. Be that as it may, it’s also very disruptive to the community

Michael McGuire May 27, 2020 at 2:22 pm

This would be an ideal time to revisit the RI (Restricted Industrial) zone. One of the reasons we have illegal contractor yards is the limited industrial space in Norwalk which can legally accommodate contractor yards. Over the past several decades the amount of Industrial space has slowly been removed from the market in favor or higher density uses (read Apartments as in SoNo for example).

This as resulted in a lopsided hyper-demand for contractor space. Why contractors? Because relocating anywhere else (Danbury or Bridgeport) for space results in very long commutes to get your labor into the area it is most likely to work (i.e. SW Fairfield County). We did an analysis for a contractor that showed a $90,000 plus per year added operating cost of having their business in Bethel vs. Norwalk (not accounting for rental costs).

Norwalk has a very large area of sub-optimal zoning in the RI zone along Martin Luther King Blvd. Allowing contractor yards (which are illegal in the RI zone) along this corridor will do three positive things for Norwalk.

1. Reduce the pressure from illegal contractor yards in residential areas.

2. Allow for a marked increase in skilled labor jobs in Norwalk (plumbers, welder, etc.) as these trades now have a legitimate place to grow their business.

3. Increase the Grand List by making this area much more valuable. Contractor yards are some of the highest value commercial real estate.

Many have been arguing for this change for years. Lets hope some real thought will be applied this time around.

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