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Opinion: Zoning board exists to create, enforce regulations

NORWALK, Conn. – It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

The job? Telling people what they can – or, more to the point, cannot – do with their property.

It’s called zoning, and it is a crucial element in mapping a successful future for any community. Planning and zoning – they can. Or should, go hand in hand – creates the city’s blueprint, and amends as necessary. Where do we want the commercial center? Where do we want industrial use? What about entertainment?

Then drill down a bit: Where do we want to create a walkable, shoppable area with small shops and restaurants and services? Where do we put the fast food chains? The big box stores? Convenience stores? Gas stations? What about signage? Height, width, illumination, proximity to the road and to the business?

Everyone has a horror story about an area where unchecked growth has destroyed the ambience or created traffic nightmares. One of my favorite examples is North Myrtle Beach, S.C., along U.S. 17 a short ways south of the North Carolina line. What was once a pleasant drive on a two-lane road with some tourist-oriented local family restaurants (OK, there was a Stuckey’s) and family attractions is now an unending visual cacophony of restaurants, bars, more bars, gas stations, T-shirt superstores, more bars, including topless joint.

Over on the beach, hotels and condos encroached on the high-water line. Buildings obscured the city’s main selling point — the beach. Of course, at that time (1987), all but one member of the Zoning Board was in real estate.

Another example: On Manasota Key in Englewood, Fla., there is a major change when you cross the county line from Charlotte County into Sarasota County. In Charlotte, you’ll find a long beach with a boardwalk, surrounded on three sides by thickly settled condos, beach bars, restaurants and beach shops. The condos continue to the Sarasota line, when the road becomes a two-lane country road with beautiful foliage partially obscuring beachfront mansions. There’s an unspoiled beach with an adjacent, nationally known artists retreat, unfettered beach views, and more homes before reaching the northern terminus, where there is another, slightly more developed beach.

Zoning. It’s the difference between desirable and tolerable, and has a big impact on property values.

So it was that my jaw dropped when I heard that certain members of Norwalk’s Zoning Commission are under the impression that they have no business telling people what they can or cannot do with their property. Commissioner Linda Kruk, ex-Mayor Richard Moccia’s appointment to the board to replace Adam Blank, an attorney who specializes in, among other things, land use issues, said this at a recent Zoning Committee meeting:

“I do believe in every individual’s property rights. Somebody decides in one of the bigger parcels down the road — if somebody sold it and wanted to put in a box store, what you are saying is they can’t do it because of this change that we are making. I am not inclined to agree with it.”

Kruk was speaking in regard to Commissioner Mike Mushak’s attempt to include recommendations from a half-million-dollar study in the city’s Master Plan, language that would limit store sizes on Main Avenue. While the study calls for 10,000 square feet, Mushak offered a compromise of 35,000 square feet. Kruk objected to setting a limit.

She joined with Emily Wilson and Joe Santo, who has spent the better part of two decades on the panel, in leading the charge against Mushak’s bid.

When it comes to zoning, it is always better to be more restrictive than less. One can always go back and loosen restrictions, or grant a variance, but once a building is built, the genie is out of the bottle.

It takes action, not inaction, for a city to experience controlled growth.

Comments

12 responses to “Opinion: Zoning board exists to create, enforce regulations”

  1. anonymous

    @Chapman, Norwalk is under-developed and has broad stretches of blighted or vacant properties in some of its major corridors, that have been that way for years, all leading to one of the main reasons why Norwalk homeowners have some of the highest tax rates in Connecticut. Let’s quit talking and start moving forward.

    Not in support of poor planning, but also let’s not forget that lots of two lane country roads with unfettered views with few signs of life in Florida and North Carolina are probably also hiding abject poverty. Someone, something has to pay for things.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Anon

      Agreed. Development is good when accompanied by good planning.

  2. Oldtimer

    Anonymous
    We have travelled extensively by motorhome and the undeveloped places with the great scenery are not hiding poverty, but are the face of more prosperous communities. Where we have seen poverty invariably are communities where there is clearly no regulation and homes that are barely inhabitable are surrounded by generations accumulations of trash.

  3. EveT

    The idea that Zoning has no authority to enforce zoning rules is absurd. A statement like that seems to be an underhanded way of saying we’re in favor of all development, no matter how outsize or out of character for the community.

    Glad you mentioned the Myrtle Beach zoning board being made up of realtors. It ought to be a conflict of interest for realtors to be on a zoning board.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @EveT

      Actually is was North Myrtle Beach, created in 1968 when four small beach towns came together to form a city. It was several miles north of Myrtle Beach and the name created much confusion. I went to a three-time-a-week paper there as managing editor in 1987 — my first non-sports job. The first day I was there and went to cover a Planning and Zoning Board meeting and was surprised to find the members were all in real estate (NMB was in the midst of a real estate boom). There was one man who was the self-anointed citizen watchdog, an older gentleman who stood about 6-foot-7 and must have been 400 pounds at least. His bass voice resonated from the bottom of his feet. And when the chairman tried to rush through a regulation allowing beachfront hotels to be built more closely together (narrowing side setbacks), he kept interupting. The chairman finally slammed his gavel and said, “Mr. Shaw, in a moment I’m going to call you out of order.” And Mr. Shaw rose out of his chair, leaned over the table and said, “Mr. Chairman, in a moment I’m going to call you outside!” Made for a great story the next day.

  4. Jlightfield

    Every state treats land use policy somewhat differently, so comparing states is a bit like the the old apples and oranges analogy, sure they are both fruit but …
    .
    In Connecticut, local planning and zoning boards are enabled by state statute which in turns limits and regulates what a board can enact and enforce. In Norwalk the zoning commission is both a legislative and judicial body. It adjucates applications coming in for approval against its own regulations. Those regulations are guided by what is in the Master Plan if conservation and Development.
    .
    At some point the last Master Plan became more of a wish list than policy recommendations recommended and supported by studies. Many of the neighborhoods in the master plan reflect conflicting policy recommendations, lack economic development guidance, and lack implementation plans. At best it has always been an unfinished product subject to late implementation. Fortunately the 10 year state mandate kicks in and Norwalk is due for another master plan update. Maybe this time we will learn from our challenges in implementing this one.
    .
    Contrary to NON’s assessment, granting variances in the State of Connecticut can only happen if the appellant demonstrates hardship. That is and should be a high bar to meet. The proper place for flexibility in zoning is with the code itself. Norwalk is long overdue for a rewrite of its code after decades of text amendments that obscure what the code should say and countless special zones created by past developers more interested in securing approvals than suggesting code that would apply universally.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @JLightfield

      Thank you for that clarification. Did not mean to imply a variance could be granted for convenience.

  5. Bahsheeba Frankenstein

    Too many bars and “nightclubs” in Norwalk.

  6. nwkprobate

    Who the H is Kruk anyway? She is a carpetbagger … she is a die hard Republican. When the party did not want her to run for the BOE (she just arrived, has no kids in the schools), they tossed her a bone and put her on the Zoning Commission. What are her qualifications? Has she ever read the Master Plan?

  7. Piberman

    Term limits on P&Z would be helpful just as they currently are by Charter in the BET. Plus a requirement that members have familiarity with the City’s P&Z statutes, master plans and requirements. Ignorance isn’t bliss on P&Z.
    A well functioning and respected P&Z enhances our City.

  8. Mike Mushak

    Great article. Thanks. Good comments too!

  9. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    Here, here…!

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