STAMFORD — Neighbors call it “the cathedral.”
The house that just went up at 25 Ponus Ave. towers above others nearby, and the twin roof peaks make it look even taller.
Ponus, along with Mohegan, Algonquin and Wampanaw avenues, plus Rippowam and Iroquois roads, are what Stamford residents have long called “the Indian streets.” They are part of the neighborhood of Shippan – a native American term that means “the land where the sea begins” – that is farthest from the shore.
The homes on those streets, unlike the Shippan Point mansions with waterfront views, are modest single-families, many built just after World War II, along with some two-families. The house at 25 Ponus Ave. that was knocked down was a little 1,092-square-foot Cape Cod built in 1949.
Now a 4,076-square-foot, 2.5-story, two-family house consumes the small .14-acre lot. Neighbors say a demolition notice was posted at the site but they had no idea what would replace it until it started to come out of the ground.
“We saw that the foundation was four times the size of the other house. I called the city zoning department and they told me the size complies with zoning regulations,” said Leigh Frecker, a Ponus Avenue resident. “How can that be?”
When she wanted to expand her house from 850 square feet to 890 square feet last year, she had to get a zoning variance, provide architectural drawings, and dig a dry well that cost $30,000, Frecker said.
“I don’t understand how the house on Ponus quadrupled in size without the builder needing a zoning variance,” Frecker said. “I needed it just to add 40 square feet.”
The neighborhood is one of the few left in Stamford where middle-class people can still buy a home, said Catherine Garvey of Mohegan Avenue.
“It’s hard to find places to live. This is affordable,” Garvey said. “Now we have this enormous house being advertised for sale for almost $2 million. If this is the direction things are going, are we going to be able to afford our own neighborhood?”
Developers are shopping
Chuck Keeler, a longtime Mohegan Avenue resident, said he fears for the future of the tight-knit set of streets where neighbors look out for each other.
“Developers are walking around looking at houses here. They like it because you can walk to West Beach from here,” said Keeler, who was among those who gathered recently at the home of an Iroquois Road neighbor to figure out how to preserve their neighborhood.
“A lot of people have the feeling that Stamford doesn’t want the middle class here any more,” Keeler said. “They don’t want friendly neighborhoods. They just want rentals that charge a lot of money.”
When he wanted to add a floor to his ranch home, he had to ensure zoning officials that he wasn’t blocking his neighbors’ view of Long Island Sound, send letters to all homeowners within 1,000 feet of his house, and obtain a zoning variance for .3 of a foot, Keeler said.
“On one side of the house we had five feet, nine inches, but we were required to have six feet. So I had to get a variance for three inches,” Keeler said. “This new house on Ponus is four times bigger than the old house, but it doesn’t need a variance?”
Zoning laws are complex, residents said, and it’s difficult to navigate the board calendars for meetings and for the hearings that allow citizens their three minutes to speak. It’s hard to figure out which agency – building department, planning board, zoning board – is handling what, and how to reach city officials, they said. Officials direct people to the city’s online reporting system, FixIt Stamford, but residents said they didn’t know about it or they used it without result.
“We need to have the city explain this to us,” said Ramon Martins of Mohegan Avenue.
House can fill the lot
Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing said in an email that the owner of 25 Ponus Ave., Sky View Builders, met all zoning regulations for the R6 two-family zoning district. In an R6, buildings may be 2.5 stories, or 30 feet, tall. Front yards must be at least 25 feet, rear yards at last 30 feet, and side yards must be 6 feet each.
The minimum lot size is 5,000 square feet for a one-family home, and 6,000 square feet for a two-family home, Blessing said.
“While the old building may have been a cottage … there are taller buildings in the same neighborhood, in fact right next door,” Blessing said.
The Zoning Board approved a coastal site plan in December 2021 and the building department issued a permit in April 2022, Blessing said.
If a building “meets all the zoning requirements, it does not require any variances or special permits,” Blessing said. “There are no additional requirements that the building has to line up or fit in with neighboring buildings.”
Each building has to fit its “box,” Blessing said. “To what extent every owner decides to fill the box is up to them.”
Before issuing the certificate of occupancy, the city will inspect the building to ensure it was constructed according to the approved plans, Blessing said.
“If people believe that the building exceeds the zoning requirements, they may file a complaint through Fix-It Stamford,” he said. “The site will then be inspected and the parts of the building that are outside the box will need to be removed.”
Chief Building Officer Shawn Reed said Tuesday that a certificate of occupancy has yet to be issued for 25 Ponus Ave.
“The final inspections have not been completed,” Reed said in an email.
Better than a high-rise
Paul Gudas, owner of Sky View Builders and Hyde Park Properties of Norwalk, listed on city property records as owner of 25 Ponus Ave., said he is surprised by neighbors’ reactions to his building.
“We did everything by the book. It’s not too big at all,” Gudas said. “I’m here to make you a better neighborhood and increase the value of your home. If I lived on the street myself I would be happy if someone improved the neighborhood like I did. I live in Stamford and have been doing this for many years, and I would do nothing to hurt the neighborhood.”
Gudas said he creates homes for people who don’t want to live in the many high-rises going up in Stamford.
“My tenants are people tired of the big, big buildings, paying extra for parking, paying extra for having a dog,” he said. “We draw from those big buildings. We offer more privacy in a beautiful neighborhood.”
The house “is for sale or rent, either-or,” Gudas said. The sale price is $1.8 million. He is asking $5,000 to $6,000 a month for each rental unit, he said.
Shippan residents said Gudas took away an opportunity for affordable home ownership and replaced it with two unaffordable rentals, which already proliferate in Stamford.
Residents said the man who rented the original house at 25 Ponus Ave. lived there for eight years with his wife and three children, and hoped to buy it. The father cried when the owner sold it instead to Gudas, who was able to pay a higher price, neighbors said.
“Maybe Stamford has too many expensive rentals,” said Gudas, a native of Poland. “I agree that there are fewer homes people can afford to buy. We are buying houses in Stamford, Greenwich, Arizona, Florida. We’re buying all over the place. I feel bad about that man and his family. If I knew about that in the beginning, I would probably leave it alone. I would have done a cute renovation.”
Still, Gudas said, he thinks most of the houses in the neighborhood will go the way of 25 Ponus Ave.
“The neighbors want to protect their neighborhood, but you know who’s in charge of that? They are,” Gudas said. “They are the ones who have to sell the homes to me. They control the decisions.”
A coalition is born
During the meeting on Iroquois Road, neighbors began making decisions. Before the meeting broke up, they named their group the Shippan West Beach Neighborhood Coalition.
The thing they need most, they said, is better cooperation from the city.
“We are human beings who live here. Why are we being ignored?” asked Garvey, one of the Mohegan Avenue residents.
Lisa Marino of Rippowam Road said building and zoning officials do a poor job of sharing information.
“We want answers from the city,” Marino said. “We’re a community, and we’re paying attention.”
Kathy Stenbeck of Algonquin Avenue said people shouldn’t have to fight to stay in their neighborhood.
“We’re a cute little middle-class beach community,” Stenbeck said. “Why are we having trouble keeping it?”
It’s time to act, said resident Angela Cartwright.
“The almighty dollar is very powerful. But if we come together as a community, we can do something. There’s power in numbers,” Cartwright said. “We can vote out the people in the city who allow this to happen.”
“We need to push them,” said Martins of Mohegan Avenue. “Otherwise, nothing is going to happen.”
The city should let neighbors know about a new build and give them a chance to speak before shovels go in the ground, said Keeler, his neighbor.
“We just want a fair shake,” Keeler said.