STAMFORD – Two court cases in which the city Board of Representatives went to bat for residents challenging development projects have been decided.
Representatives won one case and lost the other.
In each case, attorneys for the developers questioned whether signatures gathered by residents protesting changes in zoning regulations were valid.
Judges in state Superior Court in Hartford, where land-use cases are heard, have ruled that a petition from residents contesting Zoning Board approval of plans for a large fitness complex in a High Ridge office park is lawful.
But another petition that sought to limit the number of apartment units that can be built on a South End parcel is not lawful, the court ruled.
The developers’ attorneys also questioned whether representatives have the authority to overturn changes in zoning regulations that allow projects to move forward.
In the South End case, the city’s largest developer, Building & Land Technology, can move forward with plans for a 4.4-acre parcel at Woodland Place and Walter Wheeler Drive.
BLT, which is remaking a huge portion of the South End, wants to build up to 476 apartment units on the site, which is partly in the South End Historic District.
To build the apartment tower, BLT asked the Planning Board to reclassify the property for high-density housing. The Planning Board agreed.
But South End residents – who said they were fed up with tall buildings packing in more people – challenged the reclassification by gathering signatures on a petition that they presented to the Planning Board.
The Planning Board passed the petition on to the Board of Representatives, which ruled it was valid and voted to reject the reclassification of the property for a high-rise.
BLT sued the board and won. The board appealed and now BLT has won again.
The court last week found that the petition was not signed by the requisite number of property owners in the area, and that the Board of Representatives does not have the authority to say whether a protest petition is valid. The Planning Board should have done that.
So the petition is no good, and neither is the Board of Representatives’ rejection of the zoning change that will allow BLT to build 476 apartments on the site instead of the 128 units that would have been allowed under the original classification.
Sue Halpern, vice president of the South End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone and filer of the protest petition, said she is disappointed in the ruling because the neighborhood needs cluster homes, townhouses, and multi-family homes, not more high-rises.
“Allowing 15- and 25-story towers to be built in this historic neighborhood is unreasonable and incompatible to the vision of creating neighborhood value,” Halpern said.
BLT expects to “begin work on the approved development immediately,” spokesman Rob Blanchard said.
He charged the Board of Representatives with operating outside the scope of its authority.
“The city’s own legal counsel confirmed that the (board’s) appeal was invalid in 2019, and this decision was further reinforced by the Superior Court a year later,” Blanchard said. “The actions of a few members of the Board of Representatives have harmed the property owner, the taxpayers, and the entire South End community. This has proven to be an expensive and unproductive exercise for all involved and we hope that those responsible on the Board of Representatives are held accountable.”
In the High Ridge case, representatives took action after the Zoning Board approved a regulation change to allow developer George Comfort & Sons to build a large Life Time Fitness center in High Ridge office park, which is surrounded by single-family homes.
City officials have been seeking ways to repurpose the city’s half-dozen corporate parks, which are significantly empty, and get them back on the tax rolls.
Residents protested the Zoning Board change, signed a petition and gave it to the Zoning Board, which gave it to the Board of Representatives without determining whether the signatures were valid. According to the court, the city Charter gives the Zoning Board the power to validate petitions.
Representatives then decided the petition was good and voted to reject the zoning change, in effect blocking the Life Time Fitness project.
George Comfort & Sons sued and won. The Board of Representatives appealed, and last week the court found in the board’s favor, ruling that the signatures were valid.
This court decided that the signature of each homeowner counts, even when a dwelling is jointly owned. The law’s intent for protest petitions is “to give some protection to … owners against changes to which they object,” so each owner must be counted, the court found.
The earlier court ruled that joint ownership – say, a couple – merits one signature because the two own a parcel together; alone they represent only partial ownership.
So even though representatives had no say in determining whether the petition was valid, it was valid, the court ruled. But the case was kicked back to trial court to hear the developer’s other claim that representatives incorrectly decided on the merits of the zoning change.
“So it’s all still up in the air,” said Hank Cuthbertson, one of the homeowners who fought the Life Time Fitness project. “At this point, I don’t have any idea what George Comfort intends to build there.”
More questions have arisen since a December decision by the Zoning Board to change the regulations to encourage development of office parks such as High Ridge, Cuthbertson said.
“What does that mean for the neighborhood?” he asked. “I just don’t know.”
A spokesman for George Comfort & Sons did not return a request for comment.
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, a District 8 Democrat who supported the protest petitions, said the judges appear to have contradicted themselves.
“They said representatives had no right to validate the signatures, but if the board had not gotten involved in the process, the petition that the court now says is valid would have been thrown out, because the administration decided it was not valid.”
There’s a problem in the city Charter which, according to the court, says the Planning Board and Zoning Board validate protest petitions. Sherwood said that’s a conflict of interest.
“The entities that have an interest in making sure their decisions aren’t overturned are the ones that decide whether the signatures of the people who are questioning them are valid,” she said. “This puts the right of the people to petition their government in direct jeopardy.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the court’s decision and to include comments from BLT