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Plan to revise Zoning, Planning Commission bylaws looked at skeptically

Zoning Commissioner Nora King, left, and Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo debate an issue last week.
Zoning Commissioner Nora King, left, and Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo debate an issue last week.

Update, 2:11 p.m., AMEC appeal still ongoing.

NORWALK, Conn. – Bylaws for the Zoning Commission and the Planning Commission are suddenly up for review and change.

While Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene and Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo cited concerns of both former Corporation Counsel Bob Maslan and Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola, Coppola said in an email that he was unaware of any such action.

The issue was discussed – and challenged by Zoning Commissioner Nora King – at last week’s Zoning Committee meeting. Green and Santo called attention to the committee structure of the commission: both the three-member Plan Review and the three-member Zoning Committee meetings meet together, and are routinely attended by every zoning commissioner.

“Corporation counsel both past and present have always had a problem with the committee system and people challenging us on that these days,” Greene said. “That while it is a very smooth system and helps move applications, helps you get a good, honest discussion with the applicant, gets everything out on the table, it also is in affect a de facto commission meeting because a quorum of the commission is sitting here, a quorum is participating or, even if they’re just listening, they’re at the meeting and business is being transacted. So Bob and Mario are concerned that that’s an easy win if someone wants to take it past the Superior Court. So they are suggesting we amend the bylaws to get rid of the committee system, do the same thing but make it into a working commission meeting, which it is. We call this a commission meeting but it wasn’t one for hearings or decisions you could limit yourself.”

“I don’t remember ever commenting on the issues that you reference,” Coppola said in a Friday email. He did not respond to follow up questions.

Santo said a Zoning Commission Administration Committee would meet with a Planning Commission Administration Committee to review the bylaws and make recommendations to the full commission. There would be a public hearing, Santo said. Although Greene and Santo highlighted the committee system, they also said that all the bylaws are open to revision.

“There is no conspiracy here,” Santo said in response to King’s questioning. He named the administration committee members as himself, Emily Wilson and Jill Jacobsen.

Former Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak attended the meeting, his first since his term expired last month.

“I want to have full transparency on the (administration committee) meetings,” Mushak said. “There may be very good reason to change the bylaws, but I just find it curious that I have been asking for the commission to follow bylaws over the last six years and then suddenly when I am not on the commission any longer there is an announcement that the bylaws are going to be changed.”

Former Zoning Commission Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield said in an email, “During my time we discussed this, and up to that point, hadn’t been subject to a request for minutes of the meeting during any litigation. There have been requests since 2010 for those committee recordings because there were no minutes. If you recall, there was the application, I think AMEC, where Bob Maslan famously had the Zoning Commission recreate a meeting because there was no recording of the meeting.”

On April 5, 2013, the Zoning Commission attempted to recreate meetings held on Sept. 8, 2011, and Dec. 8, 2011, as part of the legal proceedings surrounding an appeal filed by AMEC Carting LLC in January 2012. AMEC challenged the commission’s decision to deny most of the company’s application to expand its business at its construction-and-demolition transfer station at 1 Crescent St.

AMEC was on the agenda of last week’s Plan Review Committee meeting with a request to increase the tonnage at its Crescent Street transfer station. The item was “postponed,” commissioners said.

“The 2011 AMEC appeal is still pending,” Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann said in an email. “AMEC has come up with a new application (lesser amounts, new traffic reports, better drainage…) and they will be submitting that soon, if they have not already.”

Santo referred to it at last week’s meeting. “In lawsuits in which we have gotten involved, AMEC was one of them, part of their appeal was, even though what the committee was acting upon was referred to the full commission, everybody was participating, everybody was voting,” Santo said. “It was very difficult to get only the Plan Review to vote on one item and refer it to the commission and the Zoning Committee to do it.”

Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom agrees that the committee system is “cumbersome,” Santo said.

Greene said there are other issues with the bylaws, “for example the accounting of this commission.”
“You don’t have any accounts,” he said. “The Planning Commission doesn’t have any accounts, the Zoning Board of Appeals doesn’t have any accounts. There is a Planning and Zoning department account. Conservation doesn’t have any accounts, however the Harbor Commission does have an account.”

“I am kind of confused,” King said. “So Mario came to you and asked you to change the bylaws and get rid of –”

“No, Mario in various discussions has questioned it,” Greene said. “… I said ‘Bob had the same concern.’”

“He didn’t come to me and say, ‘Joe, you have to do this,’” Santo said.

“This has been coming out of the law department for a while,” Wilson said.

King asked, “Why is this at the table at this time? Who brought it up and said they wanted you to – ?”

“Me,” Greene said.

“My idea,” Santo said. “I have been thinking about it for a long time and I think it is time to do it.”

Later, Mushak said, “I am curious, since all of the bylaws are on the table, what other bylaws are going to be changed? I am a little concerned that the Planning Commission and Zoning Commission are going to have joint meetings to discuss changing their bylaws. They have different responsibilities and Mike Greene said that the Planning Commission bylaws are basically the same as the Zoning Commission bylaws but I don’t see how that can be because the commissions have different responsibilities. I have never seen the Planning Commission bylaws but I really want to have all the commission bylaws put up on the city website. Because right now they are not available to the public.”

Lightfield’s opinion?

“I don’t think amending the by-laws really gets to the heart of the matter as much as the need for zoning meetings to be videotaped, and minutes to be verbatim,” she said in an email. “There is just too much detail on so many applications that should be captured, especially since it is relatively cheap to do so. Maslan always resisted this, btw.

“Other cities, Stamford and Bridgeport for example, don’t have a committee system and just meet as a commission to review applications. So it is common practice.

“I think the change is fine as long as then a record is permanently kept of the meeting, preferably video and verbatim transcript, but at the very least meeting minutes and audio recordings.”

Comments

3 responses to “Plan to revise Zoning, Planning Commission bylaws looked at skeptically”

  1. Lisa Thomson

    In light of ALL of the controversies surrounding P&Z over the last several years… BJs, the mosque, Farm Creek, AMEC, 95/7… And the list goes on and on. I am shocked to understand that that there are no recorded minutes or public recordings. This lack of transparency is what gives credence to the ‘good old boy network…wink, wink nod nod to application process Just another reason, why there is so much suspicion with planning and zoning in this city. We’re cleaning up the BOE, time to clean up P&Z. Not sure by-laws for running meetings need change…just record the darn meetings. Transparency, transparency transparency.

  2. Mike Mushak

    From the Norwalk TOD Study of 2011:

    “Actual numbers from the Norwalk Public
    Schools were used to estimate new public school students in these
    proposed multi-family developments at approximately 0.012 children
    per unit in the public school system.”

    That means for every 83 units of new housing, there is just one new student added to the school system, if my math is correct here. The study explains that some of the new residents who move into these new complexes are from the surrounding area, who’s children are already counted in the district, and the majority of new residents otherwise are empty nesters and child-free milennials. So these encumbers actually make sense when you think about it.

  3. Bill

    Less “affordable” subsidized housing sounds like a great change. We need more upper middle class housing stock in Norwalk, not more welfare dependent housing.

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