Santo shuts down Rowayton ‘village district’ zoning revision attempt

Norwalk Zoning Commissioner Joe Santo.
Norwalk Zoning Commissioner Joe Santo.

NORWALK, Conn. – Efforts to reform Rowayton parking regulations to encourage small businesses there are on hold until a new Zoning Commissioner learns to behave like an adult, Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo said in a voicemail message.

Santo left the message on Nora King’s voicemail on Friday. Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene confirmed in a Monday email to King that zoning staff have been pulled off working on the proposed regulation changes, part of a revised village district designation. King said Santo’s refusal to move the effort ahead stems from the vote on the Nathan Hale Middle School athletic field lights.

Santo was the only zoning commissioner to vote against the lighting design. King said he had tried to line up support for that point of view before the vote. “His comment to me was, ‘Just remember you’re going to need my support and my vote for Rowayton parking project,’” King said.

Santo declined to comment on King’s allegation.

King began pushing the commission to revise Rowayton’s village district designation last spring, shortly after she was appointed to the commission. The effort has the support of all three Sixth Taxing District commissioners.

Commissioner John Igneri said there are empty storefronts and one empty building. “If we had easier zoning regulations we might have those buildings occupied, bring more retail to the village. That’s not a bad thing, that helps everybody. It helps the restaurants, it helps the people who have marinas and so on, it just brings more traffic. That helps. We feel the area can handle more traffic,” he said.

“The commissioners would like to see more businesses come to town in these vacant storefronts along Rowayton Avenue and keep the businesses that are here. For example, the kayaking business, Below Deck, left because she couldn’t afford to pay for the parking,” Commissioner Tammy Langalis said.

Igneri said the Sixth Taxing District hired a consultant to study the situation two years ago. One of the findings made by Rich Redniss of Redniss and Meade Inc. was that Rowayton has a village district that could be expanded. That would change the zoning regulations.

Another suggestion was to talk to corporations in Rowayton and see if they would allow the public to use their lots in the evenings, Igneri said.

The village district revision was appealing, Igneri said. The commissioners would like the Zoning Commission to revise the rules that require a different number of parking spaces for different types of businesses.  They would like a blanket regulation based strictly on square footage, no differentiation between a restaurant or an office space, for instance.

The kayak business owner had to pay the landlord for parking spaces. She was required to pay for too many, Langalis said.

The discussion between the Zoning Commission and the Sixth Taxing District commissioners was “going along fine” until “suddenly they wanted a traffic count,” Igneri said. Langalis counted traffic in May, but Zoning Committee Chairwoman Emily Wilson wanted more information. The taxing district commissioners have hired a company to count the number of occupied parking spaces.

On Wednesday, King informed zoning staff that the counts would be done during the first and second weeks of August, which she said is the busiest time of the year in Rowayton, and copied zoning and taxing district commissioners . The email exchange devolved; Wilson asked for counts for all of the parking in the commercial district, on nights and weekends and on the day of the farmer’s market, and King wrote back that if Wilson had studied the spreadsheet with the email her question would have been answered.

“I think we agreed to the second and last weekend in August for those counts,” Wilson wrote back. “The new parking counts should be added to the counts you provided to us already, and then we’ll have a better picture of the current parking situation in Rowayton.”

King copied the press on her next email, sent Thursday night. She wrote, in part:

“I have copied the commissions on this since they have to hire and PAY for the person. All of these requests do become a burden on taxpayers.

“They hired someone for the first two weeks of August because no one had placed a time restriction on them until just now.  We reached out to the board two months ago and this is the first we are hearing from someone about timing issues.

“I am now going to start asking the press to cover this because I think you, Dori and Joe are not in favor of this moving forward. Dori has already made some bad decisions here like the exit out of the ambler parking lot. Since you and Joe don’t live in Rowayton … I am not really sure why this is an issue for you.

“I think this is something you should campaign on! Perhaps it can be one more thing the zoning commission doesn’t want progress on. … Let’s be very clear on what is happening here because you are running for office and I want my district to be very clear on how you stand with small business and parking restrictions.”

 On Friday, Santo called King and left a message.

“I have instructed the staff to stop working on the regulation that you want until you calm down and get more reasonable, with making all the accusations. You can do more of your count, that’s entirely up to you, but it stops here until you realize that you need to be an adult.”

King called Nancy On Norwalk. Santo, Wilson and Greene are against changing the village district, she said. Asking for the count to be done later in August was a stall tactic, she said; it would mean it wasn’t on the agenda of the next committee meeting, she said.

Wilson said, “I made a suggestion as to where and when the counts might be done taking into account comments from other commissioners and looking for the broadest picture of the current parking situation we could get. I certainly have no intention of delaying the proposed amendment, but, the Zoning Commission should not rush this amendment through without some fundamental information. We simply don’t have enough information to base a decision on yet. The Sixth Taxing commissioners are working to get the Zoning Committee the data we have asked for. Moreover, the information we requested is no more than we have requested from our own staff when the Zoning Commission has previously considered amendments to parking regulations.”

King said Santo is killing the Rowayton project as payback for the Nathan Hale light vote.

“Jill (Jacobson) and Emily were going to vote his way; he was trying to get Jim White and Mike O’Reilly. I could tell Mike and Jim didn’t really want to and I was like, ‘Come on you guys.’ … They agreed with me and then Linda (Kruk) came over. It sort of forced Emily and Jill to come along as well. Which of course makes him dislike me even more,” King said.

Santo would not respond to King’s accusation, but said in a voicemail to NancyOnNorwalk that zoning commissioners should work with the commission and the staff, “not be crying and going to the press.” He referred to King making threats and said, “In the future we’ll work it out.”

Wilson said, “I voted in favor of the Nathan Hale proposal because I felt that the regulations were met, and that the proposal would improve the fields. Due to the high volume of information that came into the Planning and Zoning staff the day of the public hearing on Nathan Hale, and at the recommendation of staff, I voted to send the application back to committee for the purpose of reviewing the new testimony, and to prepare a resolution that took into account the neighbors’ concerns.

“Instead, the Commission as a whole wanted to vote on Nathan Hale on the same evening, and we worked out a resolution which was acceptable to most of the Commissioners including myself. I am at a total loss to see a connection between the Nathan Hale approval and the proposed amendment to the Rowayton Village District.”

King sent a blistering email to Greene. An excerpt:

“You have seven commissioners.  Just because Joe Santo doesn’t like the fact that someone questions him doesn’t mean that you should be pulling the staff off of this project. This is not the Joe Santo show, this is the zoning commission of the City of Norwalk. Joe Santo has not [sic] right to yell at me, threaten me and or to act outside the realm of his authority. This is not how a Chairman should act.”

Greene declined on Monday night to comment on the situation.

Igneri agreed Monday night that the village district revision is stalled.

“I just got an email suggesting that I meet with Mike Greene and Joe Santo to discuss just talking to the local corporations about opening up their parking in the evening, so that seems to be going away from the early discussions of village district zoning,” Igneri said.


24 responses to “Santo shuts down Rowayton ‘village district’ zoning revision attempt”

  1. John Hamlin

    Norwalk government at work!! We clearly need a significant charter revision to allow the City to get things done.

  2. cc-rider

    What a disgrace…Sounds very familiar to what Mike Mushak has been saying about the zoning commission for a long time.

  3. EveT

    To write “it stops here until you realize that you need to be an adult” is really demeaning. Still, if Mr. Santo didn’t already have a record of being petty and vindictive one might wonder who is really at fault in this dispute. Given his record, Ms. King had better watch out if there are any zoning violations to be found at her house.

  4. Suzanne

    Who made Mr. Santo and his side kicks, Mr. Greene and Ms. Wilson (trying so hard to be uncharacteristically diplomatic now that she is running for office), the triumvirate of the Zoning Commission? Mr. Santos proclaims it. Mr. Greene and Ms. Wilson follow along. Makes normal “business” operations unnecessarily chaotic, arduous and difficult. Why can’t a count be done, logically, at the busiest time for parking in Rowayton AND the corporations be requested to open parking spaces in the evening? Two things too much for Mr. Santos to handle? Sour grapes? His demise is long overdue. He has not been and still remains no longer of service to Norwalk.

  5. Oldtimer

    Santo is a firm believer in the tradition that women do not, under any circumstance, question a man’s authority. Nora is a woman and Santo sees her as questioning his authority as chairman of the Zoning commission. He has far exceeded that authority by telling Greene to pull zoning staff of the project, until she (Nora) behaves like an adult. His old fashioned idea of an adult does not do City business where the public or the press can see. Her behavior should not be a factor in zoning business. It is time the commission over-ruled Santo’s personal opinion and told Greene to have his staff get back to work on the Rowayton Village district proposal. It is probably time Santo was removed from Zoning as he can’t separate his feelings (hurt) from zoning decisions. He is getting even for being out-voted by the commission on the Nathan Hale field lights. The Mayor can remove him anytime, can’t he ? He inherited Santo from the Moccia administration. it is past time for a change.

  6. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Santo and his sidekick Emily Wilson need to go. Santo has been on zoning for over twenty years and is responsible for rezoning route 1 to allow all the big box stores instead of allowing it to develop like Merritt 7, bringing businesses and high-paying jobs to Norwalk. He tried to ram through the BJ’s on Main Ave and totally mishandled the Mosque public hearing. Instead of showing leadership and rising above personalities to do what is best for Norwalk, he plays petty politics and pursues vendettas against his “enemies”. All the while, the zoning staff run circles around him and make fun of him behind his back. Now that Mushak’s term has expired, he has made Nora King his new “enemy”, and Wilson, Kruk, and Jacobson gleefully play along. Unfortunately, his term doesn’t end until July 2015 and the mayor has no power to remove a sitting commissioner. However, he could be removed if ethics violations were proven, which doesn’t seem like it would be a stretch.

  7. Oldtimer

    Ethics violation ? Isn’t letting his personal feelings about a member of the commission influence his official actions an ethics violation ?
    Doesn’t the photo used here look like Santo is sending a naughty child for a time out ?

  8. peter parker

    This city is in trouble. We need a good house cleaning.

  9. Kathleen Montgomery

    Oldtimer, your comments are spot on in my view and get to the crux of the matter. Santos is a retaliatory bully and if that isn’t an ethics issue then nothing is.

  10. Spanner

    Look at those who have served and created problems in the city on this board Woodward ave come to mind as well as. Meadow st .its time to grow up some of the kids are gone now what remains needs to put Norwalk first.i don’t care for Santo others I can’t fathom why they are on such boards .if Rilling thinks task forces are a way to help the city so far they seem to be special interst groups he is keeping busy and out of the way.

  11. Carol

    time for a house cleaning-20 years is to long for anyone to serve on a commission. let those of us that want to serve get a chance.

  12. Missy Conrad

    I thank our volunteers on our boards & commissions & do hope they can be patient with each other.
    There seems to be a switch in calling Ms Wilson, the Zoning Commissioner who is Emily, “Dori.” One of the Planning & Zoning Staff is Dori Wilson. Please clear that up-
    Does the Chair of a Commission alone have the authority to instruct the staff what to do? We in the League of Women Voters of Norwalk propose an evening training on Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Law. Both our volunteers on the Boards & Commissions & our citizens & residents can learn of our rights & responsibilities.

    Editor’s note: The “Dori” referred to in the quote is indeed, Dori Wilson, the staff person, not Emily Wilson, the commissioner. The email containing that quote was from a conversation between Nora King and Emily Wilson.

    It is our understanding that ll zoning commissioners are permitted to make requests of city zoning staff. We will double check and correct that if need be.

  13. EDR

    Forgotten in all of this is the fact that a zone change is part of administrative law function that the zoning commission is empowered try its enabling legislation. Since there is more than one Village District in Norwalk any change in parking affects that area as well. This is not just a Rowayton issue.

    That said getting proper traffic counts at peak and off peak times and an overall parkimg inventory will go along way in determining what the exact parking needs are for the Rowayton Village District. It sounds as if that has not been provided to the Zoning Commission. Zone changes need to be made on facts and research not just “trust me I know I am right ” arguments. Traffic engineering is a lot more complicated science than most people think.

    Of course yelling and name calling now are now an acceptable reaction when one does not get their way on an issue so Norwalk have at it! We are getting really good at that.

  14. RU4REAL

    @ Peter Parker, I agree cleaning house would be a really good idea, not just these folks either, city wide where necessary.
    Thank you Nora, this nonsense has been going on too long. It is a benefit to all of us that you are willing to speak up for what’s right (exceptional transparency too).
    We lost a Mike and gained a Nora!

  15. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Are you serious EDR? Since when has zoning in Norwalk been based upon facts? It’s all about petty vendettas and favors for friends. Have you ever read our zoning regs? 12 different zones in South Norwalk alone – makes no sense. Whenever anyone tries to make sense of a small part – like Rowayton Village District, they are persecuted by the Zoning Commission while the staff pulls the strings…It would be a joke except that bad zoning has completely hampered development in Norwalk.

  16. Mike Mushak

    Nora is suffering from exactly what I suffered for years, which is petty and nasty nonsense by small-minded folks who don’t have a clue about real planning and zoning issues, but waste everyone’s time playing little power trips while the ridiculously obsolete and laughable zoning code including our 70’s-era draconian parking requirements continue to hold back Norwalk neighborhoods and downtowns from the kind of economic activity smart cities are getting across the country.
    Our obsolete parking requirements also keep housing expensive, as every new structured parking space costs an average of $20,000, that developers have to fold into higher rents and purchase prices. So new housing gets less affordable in a city that clearly needs more affordable housing, and not just for low-income folks, but for the vast majority of middle income folks as well. It’s crazy that this is happening, but it is, and we can now start to see why based on this revealing NON story.
    The Norwalk Redevelopment Agency hired (using taxpayer funds) a nationally-respected urban planning firm to review our parking standards in 2010/2011. They issued a Parking Master Plan in 2011 that strongly recommended Norwalk follow the trends of other cities around the country and right here in CT, and reduce our obsolete 70’s-era parking requirements that are stifling small business and keeping hundreds of storefronts and other building empty all over Norwalk.
    The Master Plan recommended that by 2014 (which is now of course), Norwalk should have REDUCED its parking requirements across the city and for ALL USES (commercial and residential) by AT LEAST 25%. All other smart cities have done it because the evidence is there that it works, as folks move into denser areas (just like Rowayton) and choose to walk to several destinations or even walk from home, which was impossible in 70’s era strip malls which are exactly what Norwalk’s standards are designed for! We have become a running joke among planners and developers around the state as they watch our staff refuse to listen to experts or help struggling neighborhoods and downtowns fill vacant spaces, yet they continue to put out the red carpet for big box sprawl all over the city.
    In May, a leading urban planner and retail expert named Robert Gibbs was invited by the city to give a talk on retail development in Norwalk including the new mall proposal. I asked a question about parking requirements and what his opinion was about them stifling retail development, and he was quite clear that many smartly-planned cities he works in around the country have reduced their requirements or abandoned them all together, to let the market bear the burden of deciding how much parking they need.

    You would think this would be music to the ears of regulation-phobic, property rights-loving, business-friendly Republicans like Joe santo and Emily Wilson. Or so I thought, until I saw them find every reason in the book NOT to help Nora King and the concerned Rowayton community enact a SIMPLE reduction in Rowayton’s obsolete parking requirements. The discussions over the last 4 months (yes, 4 months of meetings) were painful to witness, as staff and the ZC leadership threw up every conceivable roadblock to Nora they could think of, to the point of absurdity.
    Also, as is so often the case on the Zoning Commission,, petty nonsense and game-playing got involved in what should be serious discussions, and because Nora didn’t support Joe Santo’s opposition to the Nathan Hale field lights, he decided he would retaliate (which he does so well) by just killing the proposal that Nora had worked so hard on for months. All I can say is, I just feel sorry for anyone who has to serve on the Zoning Commission in this toxic environment. It has to change, and I just hope that smart folks, including the developers investing millions in our city, and city leaders will wake up and demand change on the ZC and on our staff, now that we all can see (with help from NON’s reporting) that Norwalk is being held back for no other reason except personal animosities and childish retaliatory nonsense.
    Our city is growing rapidly, but without smart planning decisions that include following expert’s recommendations, we will end up making
    serious planning errors like we made on CT Avenue, with the poorly-planned big box explosion that ruined neighborhoods like West Norwalk with speeding traffic seeking shortcuts, and which is now costing taxpayers $80 million to fix with road improvements to help solve the choking traffic gridlock, long after the developers got their profits and moved on leaving us taxpayers the cost to clean up the mess they left behind.
    Oh wait, wasn’t that Joe Santo and the current staff who made that planning nightmare happen beginning 25 years ago? Yes, indeed it was. And now that the zone change for Main Ave to limit big boxes (and protect hundreds of small businesses in that corridor) that was recommended in our Master Plan was killed by Santo and Emily Wilson (working closely with staff who presented bogus statistics to support killing the change which is all on the record) earlier this year, we are now poised to repeat that awful CT Ave planning blunder all over again. This will surely impact Silvermine and Cranbury with the same crushing traffic overflow that West Norwalk and Flax Hill suffer from now. Is it any wonder Norwalk is now used a case study by professional planners around the state in how NOT to plan a city? A sobering thought, indeed.
    Imagine, all Nora King wanted to do was help Rowayton fill its empty storefronts with new small businesses with some simple reductions in parking requirements recommended by all the experts including our own Parking Master Plan, that we all paid for with our taxes. How demanding of her!
    Trust me Nora, you will be shocked and amazed as you now learn like I have after 6 years on the Commission how truly dysfunctional the planning process is in Norwalk. Just look at the ZC record of zone changes over the last few years that help small business and follow expert plans, including our Master Plan. That is, if you can actually find any such record, since there is none, because the staff and the Santo/Wilson team didn’t want them and worked together to kill them. Just as they are killing any chance that Rowayton will be able to have simple changes to help fill their storefronts. It’s just sad, and we all deserve better than this.

  17. Flip Wilms

    Joe Santo is half right. Nora King can get unprofessional. But, Joe Santo is not the den mother or Emily Post of the zoning ocmmission- he’s the chairperson whose job it is to move meetings along and address the needs of the city.
    Too bad Joe continues to put politics and pettiness above all else.

  18. Norewalk Lifer

    Santo needs to go, period. he brings out the worst in people instead of the best.
    Norwalk Lifer

  19. Jlightfield

    @mushak I wish you would stop citing incorrect facts about zoning parking requirements. There have been some major changes to the parking regs in zoning in the not so recent past. Those changes introduced the introduction of shared parking in mixed use developments, a reduction is minimum parking requirements in the urban core (twice) on residential projects and the elimination of the parking fee in lieu in SONO.
    The parking study which you mention was funded out of zoning and was created to assess the urban district parking. That study should have produced an parking projections under full build out of the urban core. We do need a parking master plan still, as the unresolved question remains — is the city in the municipally owned parking business, or are the parking assets we have development incentives for for future redevelopment plans? Then of course there’s the zoning policy of minimum requirements for on site parking while municipal lots and garages are within 1000 feet. The policy remains misaligned and cause for too much parking on land that could be more densely developed.
    While I’m a strong advocate of eliminating any on site parking requirements I the urban core, I have found that developers have tending to build excessive parking to meet financial leasing requirements. This has resulted in too much parking built for example, at waypointe. Developers have little to complain about regarding our parking requirements in the urban core because they are below what is required by leases etc.
    Finally, the municipal parking that some in Rowayton point to as evidence of adequate parking for the commercial village district was created by the very same parking requirements in place when the commercial strip was developed. I would say that was pretty good planning.
    Unfortunately parking is one of those contentious issues. For every area that wants to relax parking requirements, eg Rowayton Village a District, there’s an area that wants increased parking eg Stepping Stones in Mathews Park.
    Zoning in the past has been proactive about modernizing parking regs and shaping better connectivity between projects. It can be that again, and I feel confident that when Mayor Rilling has the opportunity to appoint commissioners, zoning will again be responsive to looking at parking as a district-wide resource and move further along reforms that will incentivize growth while balancing needs.

  20. Don’t Panic

    That’s pretty funny considering that this zoning board routinely cherry-picks or ignores studies and master plans, and allows developers to scope traffic studies that defy reality.
    There are staff members in departments that do not know the difference between traffic COUNTS and traffic STUDIES.
    BTW, did you notice that your own master plan for OHPA does not mention the word “traffic” anywhere in 112 pages? Did you refer it to traffic and engineering for comment like other park plans do? I guess getting proper traffic counts at peak and off peak times are facts that West Norwalk didn’t need to know.

  21. Mike Mushak

    Jackie, you missed my point. I am not citing incorrect facts about parking at all. The majority of the applications we are seeing have been residential projects that are not mixed use, and so the discounts you mention do not apply to these projects. And, In Rowayton, the properties that are so hard to rent are not mixed use either, but single use commercial.
    The fact is that the parking standards applied to the single use properties in Rowayton, or anywhere else in Norwalk, have NOT been changed in decades, and reflect obsolete standards devised for suburban strip malls in the 70’s, as I said. Rowayton is a walkable dense community and is clearly not a strip mall on Route 1. Any first year planning student would be able to tell you the same standards should not apply.

    I understand your sensitivity to any criticism of the Zoning Commission since you chaired it for 6 years until 2011, but let me be clear. the lack of progress I refer to happened since you left, over the last 3 years, when Emily Wilson and Joe Santo took over the Commission, flipping the Chair seat back and forth repeatedly with the phony Democrat Jill Jacobsen’s reliable vote for anything Joe or Emily ask of her (her famous line on the record during the Lowe’s second story vote, when she got confused over amendments, was classic, when she turned to Joe santo and said, “Joe, what should I do?”) The ZC is now a dysfunctional do-nothing body that rejects almost every single smart suggestion to update our obsolete code and standards. Fixing Roawayton’s parking is just the latest attempt to make improvements that they rejected.
    Stay tuned for more of this politically-motivated nonsense until qualified replacements are made. It really is like watching Nero fiddle while Rome burns. Norwalk is widely known now as a city of lost potential, even with the new projects coming up, which will remain as isolated islands without any connectivity and blocks of empty storefronts and empty lots unless we get some new blood on the ZC that know what they are doing.

  22. Jody Sattler

    Nora, your doing the right thing. It’s time to get these stores filled with tax generating sales and continue to improve the economy of Norwalk. Thank you for your perseverance!

  23. Joe Santo

    The zoning commission may adapt changes to parking in Rowayton that are appropriate.

  24. Suzanne

    What is appropriate to you, Mr. Santo, may not be appropriate for the existing conditions nor Rowayton Village. What’s wrong with doing the research? Funny. Is this what is called “crying to the press?”

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