Proposed Norwalk zoning regulation changes inspire citizen debate

Screenshot from the City’s YouTube channel, showing the May 2 District C discussion of proposed Zoning regulation changes, held in the City Hall community room.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk citizens have begun weighing on the proposed zoning regulation update, the first comprehensive overhaul in more than 30 years.

“Some of the reaction from people is just a little bit being overwhelmed, because it’s so different,” Planning and Zoning Department Director Steven Kleppin said Monday to the Bike Walk Commission.

The changes are required by the POCD (Plan of Conservation and Development), or City-wide master plan, approved by the Common Council in 2019, Kleppin has explained repeatedly, meeting different audiences recently at three Council District meetings but also to smaller groups, giving slightly different renditions of the overall spiel.

Connecticut municipalities must develop a new POCD every 10 years, including a future land use map, and “a good goal when you do those kinds of things is to align your zoning with the plan itself,” Kleppin said to a sparsely attended District C meeting.

“Right now, the existing zoning code is what’s called Euclidean zoning. And that’s based on an old court case from many, many, many, many years ago. And that Euclidean zoning is what a lot of municipalities in the state in the country use,” he explained Monday. It’s meant to prevent a slaughterhouse or a gas station from going up next to your home and separate uses.

“But, there are some better practices in place now, especially I think, for urban areas, and that’s called form-based code. And what form-based code does, form-based code looks at the development as a whole in terms of what you experience on the street,” he said.

The proposed version is a hybrid of the two, he’s said. The present zoning remains for single-family areas, where homes are on septic systems and other infrastructure can’t support increased development. “But for the multifamily and commercial areas, we’re looking at the form base model,” inspiring a sense over being overwhelmed but “I think over time, it’s going to play itself out to be simpler and easier to follow.”

He said, “Anybody who’s ever looked at Norwalk zoning regulations before will know that it’s a very convoluted, disjointed and not well put together document. It’s not straightforward, that you could go to one section, and then really understand all the ramifications and issues related to your property or issues… there’s over 31 zones in the city right now…a lot of different and unnecessary overlap.”

Screenshot from the City’s YouTube channel, showing a recent discussion of proposed Zoning regulation changes.

P&Z isn’t setting out to increase density but to provide housing opportunities, Kleppin said.

A series of Community Districts are defined in the proposal, from CD-1 to CD-5.

“You might see on the zoning map, some areas labeled a TBD, those relate specifically to the waterfront areas, where we have been working with Common Council on a few specific spots on how they’d like to see the zoning evolve over time,” Kleppin said Monday.

Height won’t be regulated by a maximum measurement but by stories, with a defined ceiling to ceiling maximum, he said. The phrase “FAR” – floor to area ratio – is getting tossed and new lighting standards are proposed. “We have a whole section on sustainability.”

Route One would improve under the regs, according to Kleppin. “Over time, the new regulations won’t allow a sea of asphalt at the front, they’ll have all the parking will be to the side of the rear, there’ll be more landscape standards, more unifying building design, and more unified signage.”

It’s a lot to take in and residents can go to an interactive map, input their property address and hopefully see what the changes mean to them. (It’s pulling from national data, Kleppin said.)

There’s also a standard static map.

Screenshot from the City’s YouTube channel, showing a recent discussion of proposed Zoning regulation changes.

“One thing we’re doing, which is getting a lot of conversation right now, a lot of questions and some concerns as well, is we’ve proposed to consolidate a portion of the B zone, which is basically a single-family zone on a very small lot, with a C zone into what’s called the CD-3. And that would allow for one or two family – you don’t have to do a two, but it would allow for one or two,” Kleppin said Monday.

Shorefront Park residents object, Kleppin said preemptively at the District B meeting, where neighbors Lisa Brinton and Donna Smirniotopoulos voiced concerns.

“In a neighborhood like Shorefront Park, which is 95% owner occupied single family, has been for 100 years, that’s a significant change. Because Sandy changed a lot of the waterfront. a lot of those houses got destroyed,” Brinton said. “But we’ve also got a lot of older single-family homes owned by older people that completely could change the makeup of a single-family home… You’re dramatically changing single-family neighborhoods and turning them into rental properties.”

Kleppin said, “We’re talking about… very incremental change. So even if we changed all the B zone to two-family tomorrow, not everybody’s gonna go knock their house down and build a two-family house.”

“I listen to some of your points about how you believe this would be gradual,” Smirniotopoulos said. “But when I look in my neighborhood, and I see the homes that are older, where the occupants are older, where the homes may be in need of some kind of renovation, I also consider the fact that we are in the middle of a reval and that our taxes are certainly going to go up.”

Screenshot from the City’s YouTube channel, showing the May 1 District B discussion of proposed Zoning regulation changes, held in the South Norwalk public library.

Urban Mulvehill, a former Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman who lives in Shorefront Park, said, “I’ll bet the B zones are probably 50% of the population of the city of Norwalk. …It’s a big, big change, and I don’t think it should occur.”

Others protested the height changes.

“For the most part, South Norwalk didn’t see a lot of change,” but, “one proposal is to bump up the stories allowed from six to eight. And I know, that’s kind of in line with what’s happening up in West Ave.,” Kleppin said.

District B members have expressed concerns for years, Sonja Oliver said, asking, “Why change that and go higher when we’ve been saying we don’t want them as high as they are now?”

The goal was consistency, Kleppin said, indicating that it could be reversed.

Parking is an issue overall and in District C, Kleppin was repeatedly questioned about the 1.3 space per unit requirement for multifamily development.

“I can tell you the 1.3 number actually pencils out really well,” Kleppin said. “That was done by my office many years ago, they actually did occupancy counts at different times of the day and night in the larger developments. The 1.3 was very solid.”

Also, lenders require the 1.3 spaces, he added.

“I think I’ve seen other communities do their parking requirements based on bedrooms, and this is where a lot of us get hung up because if you’re talking about number of units, but you have 10 units in a building that are three and four bedrooms, there’s probably a safe assumption that you’re going to have more people occupying those units,” Diane Cece said.

Norwalk used to do that but changed in 2018, Kleppin said, repeating that the number “doesn’t come out of thin air.”

The zoning regulation update is “kind of picking winners and losers and could potentially diminish property values,” Mimi Chang said.

“I don’t think it’s going to impact anybody’s property values whatsoever. The assessor doesn’t assess individuals on what the zoning could let you do, it assesses you on what your property has,” Kleppin said.

Schedule of meetings regarding Norwalk zoning regulation changes
Screenshot from the City website.

Others focused on community input.

“I understand that in typical individual cases that come before the Zoning Board, there’s a lot of restrictions about contacting Zoning Commissioners and the ability to interact with them until public hearings happen,” Richard Bonenfant said.

“I have not fully vetted with our Corporation Counsel … because you know, if you think about all the Commissioners or residency, they want to go to dinner, they want to store. So if this was like, a land use application, they wouldn’t be allowed to talk to you once the application submitted. In this case? I don’t quite know. I mean, it is a great question,” Kleppin said.

At District B, Mulvehill said he didn’t think the proposed zoning changes are well publicized. Kleppin, in reply, said the actual adoption of the regulations should be in September. Many outreaches are planned.

“We’re reaching out to neighborhood organizations, whomever wants to chat, we’ll chat,” Kleppin said. Residents can fill out forms on the City website and it will all be organized for P&Z Commissioners to review.

“Staff is going to add a column where we provide a response to that, from the technical standpoint, and then that will all get we’re going to put that all up in the website,” Kleppin said. “It’s not going to happen probably for a few weeks.”

Public hearings will happen in June, he said.

“We understand that not everybody’s clued in to what’s going on with City, almost no one,” Kleppin said. “So what we’re going to do is work… hopefully, through the Tax Collector’s Office, when they send their notice out, we’re going to hopefully piggyback that with a piece of information.”

On Monday, he said, “We can’t do anything in July, August when people are away. So I think the Commission over July and August will review the comments and the changes that people are suggesting. And then towards the end of September, we’ll have an additional hearing, looking towards adoption with the effective date for the regulations of probably I’m going to guess, January 1 of 2024.”


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One response to “Proposed Norwalk zoning regulation changes inspire citizen debate”

  1. David Muccigrosso

    Kleppin actually had the right of it.

    The plain truth is, the only way to get incremental growth is to allow the next increment, by right, EVERYWHERE.

    If you do that, the town will grow and densify, but it will be slow and controllable. It will keep neighborhood character mostly intact through the growth. And the neighborhoods that grow, will be healthy and strong.

    If you don’t, you get what we’ve got now: Huge spurts of disruptive construction, with little regard for impacts elsewhere, and merely replacing the old unsustainable development patterns with new ones.

    It’s not rocket science, people. It just doesn’t fit the neat little Jane Jacobs narrative that we’ve all been brainwashed with for the last 50 years. The NIMBYism and the onerous regulations don’t PROTECT you from big evil developers, they CREATE big evil developers, because they’re the only ones in town with enough money and lawyers to get anything built.

    A wise Jedi Master once said: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” Fear of change may be reasonable, but it’s not healthy, and it’s hurting Norwalk more than it helps.

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