Zoning Commissioner’s partner takes blame for lawless flower pot relocation

Mushak Santo 042914 015
Norwalk Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak shows the legal compliance of his Elmwood Avenue driveway, with the front setback blocked by a flower pot.

Correction, 2:49 a.m., May 1: Mushak is a licensed landscape architect, not a landscaper.

NORWALK, Conn. – A zoning complaint against a Norwalk zoning commissioner, which touched off a heated online exchange between the involved parties, has been resolved by moving a flower pot, Deputy Zoning Inspector Vladimir Mariano said.

“There was a planter that had to be placed within the driveway at a certain place, that wasn’t there,” Mariano said Tuesday.

Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo shared the news Friday: a cease and desist order had been issued on the home owned by Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak and David Westmoreland. Santo said it was part of a pattern of lawlessness by Mushak.

“He probably won’t be reappointed,” Santo said. “I think maybe perhaps he should resign now, save everybody a lot of aggravation. He’s just lost all of his credibility. Nobody wants to listen to him anymore and listen to his diatribes.”

Mushak said the order was part of a pattern of harassment, that he and Westmoreland hadn’t received the order yet, that it was funny the press found out about it first. Mushak produced a 2008 letter from Zoning Inspector Aline Rocherfort approving the property’s driveway arrangement.

Westmoreland said he retrieved the certified letter Saturday, and Monday went into the Planning and Zoning Office to look at the plan and see how they were in violation. He was relieved to see that it was just about a flower pot, he said.

The location of the flower pot is indicated in red ink on the site plan made in 2008 by Zoning Compliance Officer Adam Carsen.

Although Santo said Friday that Mushak was supposed to keep a boulder in the front setback, the anonymous complaint refers to a planter.

Zoning compliance is shown by the two tones of grass in the Mushak/Westmoreland front yard, showing a change made in 2008.

“The approved walkway indicates there should be a planter, which has obviously been moved to allow parking,” the complaint, which was filed on April 15, says.

The complaint also includes photographs of a car parked in front of the house, in the gravel area that is supposed to be blocked by the flower pot.

“I am concerned that the driveway is not a legitimate drive and that they are using gravel instead of the approved ‘asphalt’ so they can get away with parking in the designated walk way,” the complaint says.  “…The excessive front yard parking has become a real eyesore.”

Mushak and Westmoreland said Tuesday that they didn’t have a copy of the site plan made by Carsen. When Carsen inspected the property, “He said, ‘Oh by the way, why don’t you put a pot there,’” Westmoreland said.

“We thought it was an off the cuff remark,” Mushak said.

“It kept blowing over in all the storms and finally in Hurricane Irene it blew over and it was just damaged. And I just moved it away,” Westmoreland said.

Mushak said he must have parked his car in the front for 20 minutes. He doesn’t park it there routinely, he said.

The couple have a two-car garage behind the house, which allows them to have a wider driveway, they said.

“We work in every other town – Darien, Westport, Greenwich – nobody has rules like Norwalk does. Nobody. You can’t have a circular drive in Norwalk,” said Mushak, a licensed landscape architect.

People in Rowayton would love to have an entry court, but Norwalk zoning laws don’t allow it, he said. In his case, the law makes for an unsafe situation, as people must back into the street to exit, he said.

“The regulation is ridiculous. The staff spends more time being nasty going after people for something that is allowed in every other town. … It’s a dumb rule that no other town has,” he said.

The 2008 letter from Rocherfort doesn’t mention parking.

“She didn’t have to because you can’t have an existing zoning violation if you want a CO (Certificate of Occupancy) on another project even if it’s on the backside of the house. That is exactly what happened. They came out and inspected,” Mushak said.

Mushak said Santo and other zoning commissioners are guilty of zoning violations. He produced a photo from Google Earth showing trash bags in front of Santo’s house.

Santo did not return a phone call requesting comment.

Zoning Commissioner Emily Wilson has a parking spot next to her house that is three inches short of being legal, Mushak said. Because she has that spot next to her house, it is legally acceptable for her to park in the setback, he said. But the spot is illegal, he said.

Someone would have to file a complaint on that for anything to be done, he said.

Mushak said he thought Norwalk zoning regulations are designed to keep people from paving their front yards to create parking.

A better alternative would be to restrict parking to 30 percent of the front yard.

“It would be a logical rule, instead of forcing people doing these crazy, crazy things,” he said. “They’ve had people park on top of their propane tanks. Literally, on top of their propane tanks on the side of their house, they can’t go anywhere else on the property on these tight properties. The zoning staff has said ‘I’m sorry, you have to park on top of a propane tank,’ which is really unbelievable. The zoning staff has said ‘I’m sorry, you can’t park on the front yard setback.’ So the whole rule is dumb. But anyway, we did exactly what they said.”

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David Westmoreland and Mike Mushak reposition their flower pot Tuesday.


18 responses to “Zoning Commissioner’s partner takes blame for lawless flower pot relocation”

  1. anonymous

    Real blight, like the boarded building on Wall St. Norwalk has several closed up commercial buildings but none as messy as that one. The buildings beautiful, can blight ordinance clean up how its boarded until it gets fixed.

  2. YankeeC

    This town has LOST its mind. It is time to move out and leave the nasty crazies behind.

  3. John Hamlin

    Time for some new sane zoning regulations and for a new planning and zoning department. Not to mention a Zoning commission chairman who is worried about something more important than the location of a flower pot and who doesn’t
    Spend his time like some petty hall monitor for political retribution.

  4. Debora

    @Anon: Unfortunately for Norwalk, the blight ordinance only covers residential properties. There is a ton of commercial blight here in Norwalk. As far as I know, Mike Mushak is the only one who ever tries to point out where businesses are not following zoning ordinances, and this is what he gets for it.
    He reads the traffic studies, the Plan of Conservation and Development, the Transit Oriented District studies, and understands that Zoning applications for new additions to the community are meant to be enhancements to the neighborhood, not burdens.
    Furthermore, he has made countless civic contributions to the community because when he sees something, he just “does”–he doesn’t file anonymous complaints and hope the city will do something about it.
    Would that everyone looked at projects the way that he does: “How can we make this the best it can possibly be for ALL of the stakeholders? and are there small changes that will have a big impact for the better for everyone?” We’d all be better off.

  5. Non partisan

    Maybe start with the biggest zoning violations that impact quality of life, and general city finances- like illegal apartments.

  6. John Hamlin

    A true crack down on zoning violations involving multiple unit and illegal apartments would make a huge difference in the quality of life for all of Norwalk and raise property values. Most of the worst offending buildings seem to be owned by out of town landlords who own in Norwalk because they know no one will force them to comply with the law. And the people who suffer the most are those who have to live in those buildings. But the illegal apartments have a devastating impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

  7. EveT

    The person who should resign is not Mr. Mushak, it’s Mr. Santo. Honestly, doesn’t Norwalk have more egregious zoning violations to worry about?

  8. the donut hole

    I don’t get it. Can you park cars there? Or is it just a gravel front yard now? If it is illegal (which maybe it shouldn’t be?) then why not backfill it with some soil and sod?

  9. Bruce Kimmel

    Excellent article. With all the costly absurdities in parking and zoning in this city (in commercial, mixed use, and even residential areas), it’s a wonder anything moves forward in Norwalk. We are long past time for some major changes in zoning. Everyone seems to know that, apart from a few folks who flinch when they hear the word “bicycle.” Again, thanks for the first rate reporting.

  10. Peter Parker

    It’s time to clean house and remove all of the good old boys from power and take back this city for the people. This is a perfect example of harassment, time wasting and an effort to stifle anyone who dare speak out against the good old boys who do nothing. They should be spending time solving the big problems in this city. We really need to get people involved in this government and registered to vote, then motivate them to vote. It is important. We ned new people and ideas in Norwalk govrnment! They all should go. Everyone vote vote vote, and get involved and take out the trash!

  11. EastNorwalkChick

    Better put some flowers in that pot before someone else complains, Mike, LOL!
    Because of this brouhaha, I drove by Mike’s property, one of the nicest homes on the street. The landscaping was exceptional, but then again, that’s the business he is in.
    Mike Mushak seems to be like most creative people, they can see in their minds eye how things could be. They can visualize what a landscape, a home or whatever they are creating in it’s final stage of completion. They also have the ability to work backwards to determine the steps necessary to get to the final outcome they want.
    Not many can do this, nor can many understand when a creative person tries to explain his/her ideas, that they see so clearly in their minds eye, what the final outcome will be when finished. It is as if the creative person is speaking another language to them.
    They are passionate people, especially passionate when it comes to making the world around them a better, more aesthetically pleasing place. That passion sometimes translates into being pushy to others, for they can’t see, nor understand what the big deal is.
    I believe this is what is happening within the Zoning Commission. On one side you have a few who are of the creative mind, who are pushing for more visionary, out of the box type of ideas to make Norwalk a better, more pleasing city. These people see the urgency of the situation, their minds are filled with the what if’s.
    On the other side you have the few who are not of a creative mind, who like things the way they are, because change to them sometimes is a scary proposition. Who can’t see what the creative person sees and has no clue to what these people are asking for. They don’t see the urgency, they don’t understand the need for change or the passion for that change.
    They speak different languages. Both sides are frustrated, both have dug their heels in, both have stopped listening to each other.
    We need both types of people in order have a more balanced approach to the planning and running of this city.
    It seems that we have the creative side taken cared of, now all we need is the other side to be open enough and willing to listen to them. At this point we can’t afford to loose the creative. We will become unbalanced, we will become stagnated once again and nothing will change here in Norwalk.

    (BTW, I have the same pots, actually they are urns, they tend to be a little top heavy and are prone to tipping over. I found by putting rocks in the base, then the soil, before planting, stopped them falling over….but you better be happy where they are, because you’ll need a fork lift to move them!)

  12. Suzanne

    Did I miss something? Who made this complaint?

    Also, Mike Mushak is a Licensed Landscape Architect. This requires a lot more qualification and education than a landscaper who can basically be anyone who hangs up their shingle and calls him/herself one.

    Thank you for the clarification in this article. I appreciate all of the comments above. It puts this issue in perspective and, I hope, to bed.

  13. RU4REAL

    Which is it? I was told by P&Z staff in a phone conversation less than two years ago they didn’t accept anonymous complaints, when did that change because my neighbor is still non compliant. I just wanted them to cite him for the violation and they wouldn’t even look.
    When I last called the man said they wouldn’t accept them because people could make false complaints. At the time I didn’t question it, but now I feel lied too.
    Selective Enforcement?
    I’ll call them in the morning with my anonymous complaint, or should I send it to Mr. Santo?

  14. Mike Mushak

    My lawyer as advised me to not comment further on the Great Retaliatory Flower Pot Scandal, which based on the evidence was definitely an “inside job”.
    I will comment however on all of your comments above that are enlightening and supportive. Thank you. I have been saying for the 15 years I have lived in Norwalk that we have a dysfuntional and obsolete planning and zoning system. Instead of focusing on big picture problems and listening to all the experts we have hired, the department gets bogged down in harassing mostly law-abiding small businesses and residents over minor details whole ignoring really blatant violations right in front of their face all over town.
    Jackie Lightfield tried to fix the mess, but she ran into the same problem I have had-an entrenched staff and a few commissioners supporting them that make zone changes extremely difficult and complicated. The trouble I have had to update our code to follow our Master Plan and dozens of expert studies that are sitting on shelves collecting dust is now legendary as many have witnessed, and the sad part is that that losers are taxpayers and businesses of Norwalk who are struggling with the results of decades of bad planning decisions. CT Ave and now Main Ave come to mind.
    I was interested in comments by two former zoning chairs, Rnie DesRochers (EDR) and Jackie Lightfield, who both said the annoying driveway code needs to be fixed. As former chairs, I am sure you can agree that making changes and fixing the code was never presented to you as a smooth process by staff. JL’s years long struggle to fix the draconian and obsolete sign ordinance is a great example. I was there, and saw how difficult it was. FYI, the P and Z staff counted the discreet prayer signs in our healing garden at our church (that are not visible from the street) towards our church sign allowance, leading me to assume the outdoor stations of the cross at some other churches would also be counted! Enough said.
    It’s a broken system that is just a huge waste of taxpayer money as it gets bogged down in minutiae like my flower pot and our healing prayer signs, which is highly inefficient and does not produce the effective results and progressive changes that move our great city forward, while protecting and enhancing existing neighborhoods, property values, and quality of life.
    It is time for a major overhaul, and unfortunately we will not get that this year with the current commission, unless we do start cooperating with each other as EastNorwalkChick so eloquently puts it above. Let’s see what happens at the next meeting.

  15. the donut hole

    “let’s see what happens at the next meeting”. You mean your second to last meeting ever. Amen.

  16. Wanda Reese

    So in short, Mr. Mushak, a Zoning Commissioner, was guilty of a violation, and they are giving him preferential treatment by letting him out of it with something trivial. For some reason his violations of the laws of this city are funny. Because he rails on, somehow he can do what he wants. Because there are other problems in the city, his issues are somehow meaningless?

  17. Mike Mushak

    Wanda Reese, the violation was the moving of a flower pot. It has been fixed by moving the pot back into the middle of the driveway where folks can’t turn around anymore to safely leave my driveway, forcing them to back out across a sidewalk and into a narrow street of often speeding cars.
    Our Zoning Chair, Joe Santo, puts his garbage out without a can (use Google Earth Streetview to 14 Eugene Drive, don’t take my word for it) in violation of City Code 94-5, with a fine of $250 per day. Our Zoning Co-chair Emily Wilson has an apparent zoning violation (not filed) because her driveway is apparently narrower than the code requires. As a result, every time she parks in her driveway, she may be violating the same “parking in the front setback” code I am being raked over the coals for by you and others. Zoning Commissioner Jim White appears to illegally park a truck in his front setback (Google Earth Streetview 72 Perry Ave). The Planning Commission Chair has a questionable parking area in his front lawn on Morgan Ave. that has two cars parked in his front setback.
    I mean seriously, Ms. Resse, you want me to be persecuted for moving a flower pot in my driveway but all these other folks are dismissed from their alleged code violations? I suppose if they are folks you like, its OK. How absurd this all is. Please move on, everyone else has.

  18. cc-rider

    Wanda- please enlighten us what Mushak’s actual violation was and how it impacted any Norwalk residents?

    This entire issue is so trivial and petty. It would be like calling a someone a lawbreaker because they are caught going 60mph in a 55 zone on I-95.

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