NORWALK, Conn. – A windmill-tilting zoning commissioner is looking into changing the regulations for Norwalk’s Main Avenue to outlaw big box stores — the likes of BJ’s Wholesale Club — in favor of residential complexes.
The request by Mike Mushak topped a fiery 17-minute finale to a sedate public hearing Thursday night that had been expected to be quite a show. Several people showed up for what was planned to be a hearing on the BJ’s application only to read signs on City Hall’s doors proclaiming the application had been withdrawn. Four or five members of the public stayed to wait as commissioners talked about a proposed addition to Rowayton Elementary School before moving on to the topic that they had come for – a proposal to build a two-story plumbing supply store on Westport Avenue.
Insiders enjoyed watching that, as the neighbors of the store succeeded in getting a few minor alterations on the proposal, including a higher fence in the back, before it was approved. Commissioners delayed approving the school plans as some conservation paperwork had not been filed yet.
Then it was on to an argument about civility and Mushak’s ever-persistent drumbeat about studies paid for by the city of Norwalk that are ignored by the Zoning Commission.
Part A: Republican Chairwoman Emily Wilson snubbed Democratic Commissioner Nate Sumpter. Mushak and Sumpter complained; Wilson said it was her decision and she was not being uncivil.
Wilson had appointed a nominating committee to nominate commissioners to be the next chairman and committee leaders.
Sumpter, who has been serving on the commission for more than three years, indicated that he would like to be on the committee, and Wilson looked at him. She said nothing back and announced that she was putting long-term commissioners Joe Santo and Jill Jacobsen on the committee along with newcomer Linda Kruk, who was appointed in July.
To be fair, Sumpter was sitting at the far end of a long table on the stage of the cavernous Concert Hall, and commissioners were sharing microphones so it was hard to hear at times. But as Wilson was announcing her choices, Mushak said into a microphone, “Nate wants to be on it.”
She did not budge.
Mushak, a member of the Democratic Town Committee, said that, while he has nothing against Kruk, Sumpter is a dedicated volunteer who deserved consideration.
“The nominating committee should have reflected experienced people who understand the dynamics of the commission for the important chair position,” he said. “Not a brand new commissioner who doesn’t understand the dynamics of who works well and who doesn’t.”
“I think that’s one of the reasons you have people with experience and a breath of fresh air,” Wilson said. “… I think having both views is a good thing.”
“I think you heard Nate Sumpter and ignored him,” Mushak said.
“I very much apologize. I didn’t,” said Wilson, who is running to be a District E Common Councilwoman.
Sumpter called Wilson’s behavior disgraceful and said she was being uncivil.
“I have not been uncivil to you ever,” Wilson said.
Mushak shot back, “No, you just don’t put things on the agenda and then you don’t give a good answer for why you didn’t do it.”
Later, Sumpter commented, “I can make my nominations from the floor,” meaning that Wilson couldn’t stop him from making his opinion known despite his lack of a committee seat.
On to Part B: The $500,000 Norwalk Transportation Management Plan and the 2006 Westport-North Main Corridor Study.
Mushak had been pushing for an independent review of the traffic study done for BJ’s. Wilson had refused to put it to a vote.
“By not putting that on the agenda when I asked for it, and I had repeatedly asked for it many times in emails, you simply did not allow a healthy discussion on the record by this commission as to why or why not a peer review, which would have protected the health and safety of an entire section of this city,” Mushak said. “By the way, public works does not do a full peer review as an independent study would do it. They actually admitted, the engineers from public works, they do not punch the numbers of traffic studies. They don’t confirm all the numbers, make sure they work. That’s what an independent traffic study would have done.”
Ignoring his request was a lack of civility, he said. The opposition to the BJ’s application formed because it appeared the commission was not doing its due diligence, he said.
Wilson reminded Mushak that Corporation Counsel Bob Maslan had spent three hours at a plan review committee, answering about 40 minutes of questions from Mushak about why recommendations in the two expensive studies were being ignored for zoning purposes.
They aren’t binding unless they become regulations, Maslan had said. They become regulations when the Zoning Commission votes to make them regulations, Maslan had said.
Mushak said he wanted the commission to consider making a segment from the Westport-North Main Corridor Study – the recommendation to limit retail stores to 10,000 square feet on Main Avenue – into a regulation.
Santo said that was because Mushak was against the BJ’s application.
Mushak reminded Santo that he had never said he was against the BJ’s application.
“Whatever you do to change the zone on Main Street is also going to affect future applications,” Santo said. “Whatever you propose if we end up adopting – are you proposing this because in case BJs may reapply?”
“I am proposing this because (of) the $75,000 study done by Vollmer, which is now Stantec, which is one of the top transportation firms in the world. They happen to be located in Connecticut and Norwalk uses them a lot. A firm of planning professionals studied Main Avenue in 2006. They issued a study. The study said with all of the limitations on this stretch of the road they recommended a maximum 10,000-square-foot retail footprint. They highly recommended residential because residential doesn’t have the same traffic concerns,” Mushak said.
Mushak said he was willing to sit with staff and draft a proposed zoning change.
After the meeting, Mushak said the proposed zoning language is in the study. All you have to do is copy it, he said.