STAMFORD — It wasn’t so much that the zoning code was changed.
It was how the code was changed.
That was the thinking of members of the Stamford Board of Representatives who Monday night rejected a rewrite of zoning regulations that the Land Use Bureau has been working on for a few years.
Land Use officials contend that sections of Stamford’s convoluted – sometimes contradictory – code needed additions or cuts, that definitions and procedures had to be clarified or updated, and that some zoning districts needed changing.
They called it a “cleanup.”
It was much more than that, city representatives said before voting 27-10, with two abstentions, to nix it.
“It’s the truth-in-labeling that I have a problem with – this is in no way a cleanup,” city Rep. David Watkins said. “There are issues on open space, Airbnb rentals, waterfront zoning … this has buried within it many, many aspects that affect our constituents in many ways, and most of them have no idea how.”
The wide scope of the rewrite included loosening restrictions for developers who want to convert commercial buildings into apartments; easing regulations to allow more child day-care centers; establishing rules for Airbnb short-term rentals; setting standards for outdoor murals; allowing balconies and patios to be counted as open space; and other changes governing how much of what can be built, and where.
Each revision “will affect how people live,” city Rep. Susan Nabel said, and “residents are having difficulty understanding how they will be affected” because there are “too many changes all at once.”
“Neighborhoods have a common goal – to preserve and improve their quality of life,” Nabel said. “Residents have the right to define that themselves.”
There were not enough public hearings for all the changes that were proposed, and residents should have been alerted that the changes are substantial, city Rep. Nina Sherwood said. The way the revisions were presented created a “public trust issue,” Sherwood said.
“This is not a fair and transparent way to change property rights,” she said. “If we want to change the section about murals, we have to have a public hearing on murals. We are missing out on the public aspect of this, and we are bound by the Charter to do that. … There are way too many changes in here for even the most knowledgeable citizen to comprehend.”
Many of the changes are good, city Rep. Rob Roqueta said. Making it easier to build child day-care centers will help meet that demand, he said, and converting office space to residential will help fill the need for housing and generate tax revenue from buildings that now are largely empty.
“I think we are at a time when we need to look at commercial buildings to create more affordable housing, but the way this was rolled out does not support democracy and public inclusion,” Roqueta said.
The Zoning Board approved the sweeping code changes in March, but Stamford neighborhood advocates gathered enough signatures to appeal the decision to the Board of Representatives.
City Rep. Bonnie Kim Campbell said the message from petitioners – that their neighborhoods are being overdeveloped without a clear plan – must be heard.
“They are citizens, they are customers, and they picked a place to live and they are passionately standing up for that,” Campbell said. “We should not get bent out of shape when they say to us, ‘No more. That’s enough. You’re not listening.’ I don’t think we get to dictate how they feel.”
Representatives who back the zoning changes said petitioners do not fully understand the revisions.
According to backers of the changes, the petitioners mistakenly believe that converting commercial buildings for residential use will increase density in single-family neighborhoods, but that is not the case, they say, because the zoning change would apply only to existing commercial buildings.
Petitioners have voiced concerns that the change would allow developers to build one unit for every 600 square feet of converted space, down from the original one unit for every 800 square feet.
City Rep. Ashley Ley explained another misconception. Ley said under the zoning changes, balconies, patios and terraces would fulfill only a fraction of the open-space requirements in a development.
The purpose of the change is to set a standard, to “define what counts and what doesn’t count” as open space when developments come before the Zoning Board, Ley said.
“It was rewritten so we can have consistency, so we can accurately quantify what the developer is providing,” she said. “Sometimes developers like to get away with things. This makes it easier to say that what you are providing here is not good enough.”
Ley said the revisions making it easier to build child-care centers were designed to eliminate layers of permission, which hampers creation of much-needed day-care slots.
But petitioners have said they are wary of years of zoning decisions they say have given developers their way, without regard for the effects on neighborhoods, and years of inadequate zoning enforcement that has resulted in uncounted illegal apartments that diminish quality of life.
City Rep. Sean Boeger emphasized that the problem was not the goal of the revisions, but the lack of public participation in the process.
“It’s not about turning our backs on children or not converting office buildings. It’s about the process not being followed,” Boeger said. “There is a lot of information in here that the public has not been allowed to digest” because their input was limited.
Representatives who supported the revisions said they will stimulate much-needed change.
“The vast majority of the changes … add guardrails to preserve the city – it’s modernizing the code based on the needs of the city today,” city Rep. Don Mays said. “The city is changing for the better. We need to support that and not stand in the way of economic growth. Times have changed. The pandemic has changed the need for office space. Letting office buildings lie fallow is irresponsible.”
The matters affected by the changes are too important to load into one large package and pass without better explanation, said city Rep. Bradley Bewkes, chairman of the board’s Land Use Committee.
“This is not how we want to govern,” Bewkes said. “We don’t have to clump together converting buildings with murals and balconies and Airbnb. It doesn’t make sense.”
Representatives discussed whether the revisions now can be taken up individually, or whether a certain Zoning Board regulation requires a one-year wait. It’s a question for the law department, they said.
“I think we have to allow more public input,” Nabel said. “If it takes 12 months to redo these changes – and time spent presenting them in a better way, one by one – that’s what we should do.”