NORWALK, Conn. – The BJ’s application scared a lot of people, said a Norwalk zoning commissioner who is now pushing for a change in zoning regulations to make a large retail store illegal on Main Avenue.
Mike Mushak relentlessly questioned lawyers behind the application to put a 109,000-square-foot BJ’s Wholesale Club on the old Elinco Corporation site at 272-280 Main Ave. because, he said, the application was not in conformity with the 2008 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) nor the 2006 Westport-North Main Corridor Study. He was told those studies were not made into zoning regulations. Now that the application has been pulled, Mushak is working with Norwalk planner Dorothy Wilson to study the situation and come up with a recommendation.
“The whole point of the study was that Norwalk can no longer afford to be the regional draw for retail on our antiquated road system,” Mushak said last week at the Zoning Committee meeting. “How much money are taxpayers going to have to spend in order to basically subsidize these national, international firms to come in? It happened on Connecticut Avenue.”
Mushak’s point in that instance was that, while retailers paid for improvements to Connecticut Avenue when their stores were built, the cumulative effect is that the road is beyond its capacity, sending some people to out-of-town branches of local stores because they want to avoid the traffic.
“The state has plans to widen Route 1 way beyond anything we ever required developers to do,” he said. “Those costs are $60 to 80 million and those costs are going to be borne by taxpayers.”
Commissioners indicated a willingness to consider a zoning change, even if their patience was worn short by Mushak’s zeal.
“My question is still ‘pursue what?’ I don’t even know what you’re proposing,” Chairwoman Emily Wilson said at one point.
Dorothy Wilson informed them that the POCD was contradictory in places, but there was a theme to its recommendations regarding the segment of Main Avenue in question.
“Basically we have been told we should create a new village district,” she said. “Limit retail, business service to 11,000 square feet but allow auto repair, mixed use development and residential and industrial uses without any limitation. It also recommends creating two different front setbacks.”
The alternative is an amendment, she said. But she argued against the simplicity of simply limiting the size of retail establishments.
There are 81 curb cuts for 140 businesses in the one-mile stretch of Main Avenue between New Canaan Avenue and the Merrit Parkway, she said.
“There’s a little bit of a disconnect between the recommendation to reduce high traffic generation and yet we’re not going to encourage curb cut elimination if we limit because as you know a larger site can be subdivided and they can create smaller sites,” she said.
She provided some statistics, the best she could find, she said, without being a member of the International Traffic Engineers Association. A discount store is known to generate an average of 70 trips per day per 1,000 square feet, she said. A supermarket generates 125. A convenience store generates 322; if it is open 24 hours it generates 626, she said.
Road improvements are 90 percent paid for by the state or the federal government, she said.
Those are still tax dollars, Mushak said.
Mushak countered the trips per day figure by saying that a convenience store would draw local traffic. The big box stores on Connecticut Avenue draw people from out of town, people who drive on the side roads to get there because the main route is jammed, he said.
Mushak said he wasn’t in favor of a village district. He wanted to hurry the process along, because, he said, it’s been five years since the 2008 POCD.
Joe Santo asked him if he was trying to prevent BJ’s from resubmitting its application.
“No, this has nothing to do with BJ’s,” Mushak said. “What happened were the fears, the issues that were brought up by the BJ’s application. … Their own average store of 107,000 square feet is on 14 acres. Their own average store of 70,000 square feet is on eight acres. This was on five acres and it was 109,000 square feet. We were going to have the largest BJ’s on the smallest site in America. It scared me and it scared a lot of people.”
Santo said it was a moot point.
“Our zoning regulations allowed it,” Mushak said.
Mushak asked that a public hearing be held next month, but commissioners put it off further, saying they needed time to digest the information. It will discussed at the next committee meeting, they said.
“We have to get down to what it is that we do want if we want to make a change,” Zoning Commissioner Linda Kruk said. “Be very specific, quantify it correctly, so that we can come to some agreement. That’s really what you want, to agree on something new. A change. What we need to know is how big is the scope? What are the parameters? How to we gain consensus so that it satisfies (everyone)?”
Dorothy Wilson said she had been “out straight” since Sept. 19 working on the Washington Village application.
The last zoning change, for North Avenue-High Street in 2008, stemmed from the POCD, she said.
“It took several months of staff work to move that to public hearing,” she said. “I would caution you that we need the same amount of time if we’re going to pursue any other changes.”
Correction, 12:24 a.m. Oct. 15 – Quote was from Linda Kruk, not Dorothy Wilson.