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Residents raise concerns about proposed zoning changes at public hearing 

Mayor Harry Rilling, left, and Norwalk citizens wait for the Planning and Zoning Commission to begin its public hearing on proposed zoning regulation changes, Wednesday in City Hall. (Nancy Chapman)

NORWALK, Conn. — More than 40 people spoke at a Wednesday evening public hearing on the proposed zoning reform in the city, with almost all citing concerns about some of the proposals, including Mayor Harry Rilling and Council member Jenn McMurrer (D-District C). 

The city is currently undergoing its first zoning rewrite in more than 30 years. One of the main goals of the process, according to a presentation from Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin, is to “modernize and develop a user-friendly code aligned with the citywide plan.” Kleppin noted that some of the other goals included concentrating development near train stations, moving toward a “form-based code” that featured more graphic and table elements, and consolidating zoning districts. 

But one of the biggest recommended changes and what most of the attendees voiced their opposition to, is a proposal to move some areas that are currently a B residence zone, which is a single-family zone, into a zone that would allow for one- or two-family houses. 

Mayor Harry Rilling said that he had “serious concerns” about moving single family zones to two family and encouraged the Planning and Zoning Commission to take a step back.

“I’ve dealt with consultants in the past—sometimes consultants take a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. I don’t think they’ve looked at some of the unique neighborhoods in Norwalk,” Rilling said. “They’re concerned about what this is going to do to their neighborhoods. Take a step back and really sit down and think about what is appropriate for the city of Norwalk.”

McMurrer also voiced her concerns with the proposed changes. McMurrer—and others—said that they believed two family homes wouldn’t provide more homeownership opportunities, but instead as investment properties.

“You are opening up a great possibility for investors and developers to purchase them,” she said. 

McMurrer also said that the Council was working on an affordable housing study and making these changes before they had that information didn’t make sense. 

“Too Crowded”

Almost all of the speakers who were opposed to the proposed change from one-family zoning to two-family zoning said that the city was already too crowded and too dense, so adding more people would just exacerbate existing issues. 

“There’s too many cars, and there’s not enough room in this town, we’re full,” said resident Brian Gough. 

Gough raised questions about “when we pack all of these new people into the city” who would pay for the needed infrastructure improvements, such as additional water capacity. 

Fred Wilms, the chair of the Republican Town Committee, which organized a protest before the event, said that it “seemed like you were trying to take a square peg and stuff it into a round hole.’”

“We’re all these different neighborhoods…what I saw from this report is trying to consolidate a community that maybe isn’t designed to be so consolidated,” he said. “Instead of focusing so much on density or upzoning, why don’t we focus more on livability?”

Wilms said that “all single-family zones should remain single-family zones.” 

Resident Dan Russell said that he tuned into the Commission’s special meeting before the hearing when they were discussing preserving land for the Land Trust.

“Why are we trying to save four acres when we’re destroying an entire city?” he said. “It seems a little counterproductive.” 

He voiced Wilms’ concerns that the proposal was too broad.

“I like living in Norwalk—it’s quirky, it’s interesting,” he said. “You can’t take a broad brush and paint Norwalk as one thing.” 

Still some residents were frustrated by the idea that the city “was full.” 

Resident Emily Burnaman said that she grew up in Norwalk and moved back a few years ago. She’s been renting since but said that she would love the chance to own soon.

“But as we’ve discussed it’s a challenge to find affordable housing,” Burnaman, who serves as vice chair on the Bike/Walk Commission, said. 

She said that the city should be making efforts to accommodate many different people in all walks of life and provide more options to people.

“Hearing my own neighbors say Norwalk is full upsets me—that’s not a reason to exclude anyone from living here,” she said. 

Investment Properties

Other residents echoed McMurrer’s concerns that if the zone changes were made, investors would purchase current single-family homes in the area, convert them into two-family, and then rent them out, causing a shortage of ownership opportunities. 

“The difference is you change an area from single family to two-family—now they become investment properties,” said resident Lou D’Acunto. “You’re not going to create affordable housing, what you’re going to create is a business.”

Resident Meredith Doyle said that she and her husband specifically picked a single-family zone when they moved to Norwalk and bought their first home. 

“We moved from Brooklyn—we specifically sought out this neighborhood and single-family [zoning],” she said, adding that she didn’t want to see the area rezoned to two-family. 

Others said that they want to see the city enforce blight and other ordinances in areas where there already is multifamily housing before adding more. 

“We have illegal apartments all over the place,” said resident Harding Dies. “No one comes and enforces the laws.” 

A Lack of Affordable Options 

At least four speakers said they were in favor of the proposed changes—and some wanted the Commission to go even further—to help add to the housing stock and make the city more walkable with denser housing near transit and more commercial properties, like stores that people could get to.

“Norwalk was established long before anyone drove a car,” said Tanner Thompson, a resident and chair of the city’s Bike/Walk Commission. “We have an opportunity to save the original walkable neighborhoods of Norwalk.

Thompson said that the city’s current zoning code and the “automobile-centric neighborhoods it’s produced” are what’s led to the current housing crisis.

“So in that sense, Norwalk is full,” he said.

Thompson also said that he was speaking on behalf of a demographic that wasn’t really represented in the public hearing—residents under the age of 40. 

Resident Paul Chenard also said that he was in favor of the proposed changes to the zoning code.

“It’s unfortunate some of the two-family zoning was scaled back,” he said.

Chenard said that Norwalk was “under supplied” when it came to housing and that’s why prices are high. 

The crowd at Wednesday’s Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing in City Hall. (John Levin)

Housing in the Region

Many residents also said that they believed Norwalk does try to provide affordable housing—particularly more so than surrounding towns. 

“We’ve already got more diverse housing than our neighboring towns,” said Lisa Brinton, who made land use in the city a central theme of her recent campaigns for Mayor. “Norwalk is doing its part and shouldn’t be expected to carry the water for neighboring towns that won’t step up.” 

They called on surrounding communities, like Darien, Westport, Wilton, and New Canaan to “step up and upzone” their communities to allow for more housing options in the region, and not just in Norwalk. 

“The affordability of housing has a lot to do with the zoning restrictions of the towns around us,” resident Paul Welte said, adding that those towns needed to loosen up their rules and “allow more housing stock to be there.” 

Next Steps

Kleppin said that there would be another public hearing next Wednesday, June 28, at 6 p.m. in the Common Council Chambers and on Zoom. The timeline then calls for the Commission to weigh and debate the proposed changes through July and August, with a potential final public hearing in September. At that time, the Commission would review all proposed changes before taking a vote in September/October on the updated zoning. If approved, it would go into effect Jan. 1. 

Kelly Prinz, formerly Kelly Kultys, is the founder of Coastal Connecticut Times.

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Comments

10 responses to “Residents raise concerns about proposed zoning changes at public hearing ”

  1. Bryan Meek

    A few points I would have made.

    The more government gets involved, the more unaffordable housing becomes. Just look at NYC.

    Free markets have done just fine everywhere they are allowed to operate within democratically established zoning rules. Is it democracy when 8% of the population (half working or related to someone working in government) picks one person who picks 7 people to make up unequal rules for some an not others?

    The drive for density is a head scratcher less than 2 years after lockdowns….only government would incentivize living on top of one another when there is so much land upstate CT and telecommuting has taken hold.

    Living in Norwalk is not a birthright. Affordable housing used to be up the line and saving until you could afford here. And these zoning changes will only guarantee you will never be able to afford to own here. Again, just look at NYC.

    1. David Muccigrosso

      “Living in Norwalk is not a birthright. Affordable housing used to be up the line and saving until you could afford here. And these zoning changes will only guarantee you will never be able to afford to own here. Again, just look at NYC.”

      70 years ago, CT was the boonies. The SFH houses that are now the focus of all this outcry, were STARTER HOMES because they were so affordable at the time.

      You can’t demand 70 years of job growth, refuse to build anything else, and then act like newcomers should just “drive ’til [they] qualify”.

      It should be a completely uncontroversial thing to say that people should be able to afford to live within 20 minutes of their job, no matter where they are. That’s not a luxury people are demanding, it’s basic common sense.

  2. David Muccigrosso

    @Lisa: If there’s so much for other towns to gain by “stepping up”, then why shouldn’t WE do the stepping up and *eat their lunches*?!

    The sad thing here is that the same people complaining about growth would riot if the local economy stopped adding jobs, or worse, started losing them.

    They’d complain about how businesses don’t have any customers anymore. They’d complain about how Harry’s made Norwalk such a corrupt cesspit that no one wants to do business here anymore.

    But those people who take those jobs have to live SOMEWHERE. So which is it, guys? Do you want more jobs, and more growth? Or no housing construction? You can’t have your cake and eat it.

  3. Thomas Gabriele

    While I wasn’t born in Norwalk I have been a resident for over 45 years. My wife and I started out living in an apartment on Golden Hill Street. We then purchased a brand new condominium in Sono Village on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. Once our daughter was born we moved into a single family home on Eleanor Lane in the Broad River area. After our second was born we decided to “upsize” and settled into our current home in the Cranbury section which we’ve been in for over 32 years. I tell you this because I echo the sentiment of many people who spoke last night. First, Norwalk is a diverse city with many unique areas and neighborhoods that should not be “adjusted”. Second, people buy their homes where they do because of the neighborhood and surrounding amenities. And lastly we buy “our” homes (and I stress our) based upon the conditions (rules and regulations) at the time. Norwalk is a thriving city with thriving communities that do not need to be changed simply because “government” feels that we need to abide by some other standard. As you can see below Norwalk has the 4th highest land mass compared to our neighboring towns yet we have the highest population per acre (based upon 2020 data). When does this need to cram more people into a smaller area stop? With remote working let people live in other cities and let Norwalk be as is, it is not our responsibility. Enough is truly enough.

    City Square Miles of Land Square Miles of Water Total Population Population Per Land Square Mile Population Per Acre
    Danbury 42.00 2.20 86,800 2,067 3.23
    Darien 12.90 2.00 21,500 1,667 2.60
    Norwalk 22.80 13.50 91,200 4,000 6.25
    Stamford 37.60 14.40 136,300 3,625 5.66
    Westport 20.00 13.50 28,100 1,405 2.20
    Wilton 26.90 0.40 18,400 684 1.07

  4. clare woodman

    Appropriately designed two family with offstreet and garage parking for purchase is a way better option for young families than leased apartments complex units of which we already have too many. The prices at the apartment complexes are prohibitive, not allowing anybody to save to buy. And the prices are going up at an unconsionable rate. Over 14% increase in one year for one complex for a year lease, 30% for a shorter term!

    Tastefully done two family meeting all zoning guidelines brings kids back to the schools, allows families to build equity and will overall enhance the values of our properties.

    Take a trip to Fairfield and look a what has been built along Oldfield Road. Then check Zillow to see recent sale prices!

    1. David Muccigrosso

      Claire, I just want to personally thank you for being one of the few sane people in the room.

  5. David McCarthy

    While Norwalk certainly isn’t full, shoehorning in density in neighborhoods is the wrong way to address the issue. The number of living spaces created in the last decade has allowed the city’s population (the real one) to double. There are already approved plans for more low cost high density dwellings. Why would you steal (and that’s what it is) people’s home values by changes like this…unless you want to maintain control by packing in more and more transients and takers who will consistently vote for this insanity?

    1. David Muccigrosso

      “allowed”

      Living spaces don’t “allow” the population to double, they “allow” the population to actually live where they work.

      It’s the JOBS. JOBS are why the population doubled.

      1. David McCarthy

        Disagree. All of the focus has been on apartments near the train stations, etc. the transients that have swollen Norwalk’s population work in Stamford and NYC.

  6. David McCarthy

    …and btw, the biggest shock to me in this story is all the new faces in that meeting. I’ve only been gone 5 years and I only recognize Fred in the background…more new people coming out…maybe that does mean change is coming.

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