Public Dissatisfaction, Curbs on Development Consume Charter Revision in Stamford


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Stamford’s Charter, which lays out the functions and powers of city government, is in the middle of a once-each-decade revision. And sides have formed around a contentious issue over how the Charter should be changed this time around. Development.

On one side are those who think the city’s remarkable rate of development – thousands of mostly pricey apartment rentals have been built in the last 10 years – should continue apace. Keep building to grow the list of taxable property and hold taxes in check, they say.

On the other side are those who think profit-driven developers are creating congestion, harming neighborhoods, and failing to provide housing units of the size people need and at rents people can afford. Residents’ concerns must have weight, they say.

From the start, members of the Charter Revision Commission have said one of their aims was to propose changes that will give citizens more say in their government, including zoning decisions.

During last week’s public hearing on the drafted Charter changes,  prominent officials – leaders of the Board of Finance, Planning Board, city Democratic Party, downtown business district, a law firm representing developers – reacted.

The changes would make it easier for citizens to stifle development and worsen the housing shortage, the officials said. A land-use attorney called it “zoning by referendum.”

Now the duties of the Charter Revision Commission are winding down. They met this week to vote on their proposals before submitting them to the Board of Representatives by the June 7 deadline.

‘Organized’ opposition

At their meeting, commission members discussed some of the opposing comments raised during the public hearing. 

“There was a lot of sameness to the comments,” commissioner Steve Loeb said. “Clearly there was some organization to them.”

Beyond that, Loeb said, “I don’t think there is a lot we can change at this point. I think it’s going to be up to the Board of Representatives.”

By the end of the meeting, commissioners had voted to keep most of their proposals as drafted, modifying only two before preparing to hand them off to city representatives. 

One was a proposal that would require developers seeking to amend zoning regulations to build a project with five or more residential units to first reach out to the neighbors. During the meeting commissioners raised the number of units.

“People at the hearing commented that five units or more was too low a threshold,” Loeb said. “To be responsive, I would change it to 20 or more, which is what we originally contemplated.”

Commissioner Cynthia Bowser disagreed.

“I thought the issue … was to give more people the opportunity to comment on development, which has just gone skyrocketing,” Bowser said. “When you talk to the average, ordinary person, they’re concerned with what Stamford is turning into, and that they don’t have the ability to comment to try to slow the train down.”

But the commission agreed with Loeb, voting to raise the community engagement threshold to projects of at least 20 units.

Eminent domain and bike lanes

Members also modified a proposal that would prohibit the Zoning Board from reconsidering a developer’s rejected proposal for two years. The wait now is one year. Commenters at the public hearing said it should stay there.

But the commission compromised, settling on 18 months.

The commission sought the change because developers’ proposals “keep coming back, even if they don’t pass, so there should be a period of time before they can request another vote,” Loeb said. “It’s a matter of constant, repetitive content before the Zoning Board.”

Another point of contention raised during the public hearing concerned eminent domain, a government’s authority to take private property, after negotiating a price with the owner, for the public good.

Now it takes a majority vote of the Planning Board, Board of Finance and Board of Representatives to approve city condemnation of private property. The Charter Revision Commission proposed raising it to a two-thirds vote.

Some speakers at the public hearing balked at that.

“They said that would make it impossible to ever do an eminent domain proceeding,” Loeb said.

His fellow commissioners defended the two-thirds threshold.

“We were trying to narrow the times when eminent domain could happen,” commissioner Shelley Michelson said. “Before, the city could do it for any purpose. To take a person’s front yard to create bike lanes is punitive. I take it as a serious violation of people’s property rights.”

Commissioner Karen Camporeale agreed.

“Eminent domain often affects poor people,” Camporeale said. “I think protecting people’s property is a moral issue, so I don’t want to change it.”

Bowser also concurred.

“I know people personally who have had their property taken and they were not given market value in return,” Bowser said. “The most vulnerable are always the most hurt. I will not vote for this.”

The requirement remained at two-thirds of each board’s membership.

Petitions for the people

One of the biggest objections at the public hearing concerned a Charter Revision Commission proposal that would allow changes passed by the Zoning Board to be appealed to the Board of Representatives if 300 property owners citywide sign a petition.

To try to resurrect a change the Zoning Board rejected, however, would require 750 signatures from property owners citywide.

Speakers at the hearing said 300 petitioners should not be able to overturn Zoning Board decisions, and, at the least, the signature requirements for favoring or objecting to amendments should be the same.

But the 300-750 ratio follows one that’s set in the Charter, said Loeb, a real estate attorney who chaired the commission’s Land Use Committee.

“The formula is already there,” Loeb said. “What we added is that it could be citywide. People all over the city are concerned about congestion and zoning. It’s not just in their backyard. So I think … (it’s) a good provision.”

Commissioner Clemon Williams said it’s a chance for all residents affected by a zoning change to weigh in. The development going on at Bull’s Head in the geographical center of Stamford is an example, Williams said.

Very few people live within 500 feet of the Bull’s Head project, but it will have “a significant effect on a lot of people,” Williams said, “particularly people in North Stamford because there are only two ways down … High Ridge (Road) and Long Ridge (Road.) … It’s already a bottleneck there, and it’s just going to get worse.”

Another criticism raised during the public hearing was that condominium owners were not included in the petition process. But they are included in the commission’s changes, Loeb said.

Renters are left out because Connecticut law prohibits it, Camporeale said.

“It’s not in our purview to add renters because state statute says we can deal only with landowners,” Camporeale said.

It takes three appointees

Loeb countered another criticism – that making it easier to challenge zoning decisions through the Board of Representatives politicizes the process. But the five members of the Zoning Board and the Planning Board are not elected; they are mayoral appointees, and it takes just three of them to approve a development, Loeb said.

“Our Zoning Board and Planning Board are already political,” Loeb said.

Gathering signatures does not stop a development, said another commissioner, Steve Kolenberg, a former city representative.

“The Board of Representatives can turn down the appeal. What we’re doing is putting it back in their court,” Kolenberg said. “People have the democratic right to petition.”

Michelson, his fellow commissioner, said petitions are uncommon.

“If you look at the number of (zoning) map changes and the number of petitions filed against them, you will find it is miniscule,” Michelson said. “The frequency will become even lower as people’s concerns are taken into account.”

The commission also upheld its proposal to prohibit the zoning and planning boards from voting on a developer’s application during the same meeting as a public hearing on that application. It does not allow enough time for board members to truly consider public comment, members said.

“I have no intention of changing that,” commissioner Anthony Pramberger Jr. said. “There is a strong position on the commission that we want the public’s voice heard.”

The commission’s attorney, Steve Mednick, said the Board of Representatives will get the proposed Charter changes next week and begin deliberating.  

“They can accept everything you’ve done, end this process and act on it. But that’s unlikely to happen on an agenda this vast,” Mednick told commissioners. “I expect you will see this document come back to you in July with a series of recommendations. When you get it back, it will be to respond to the Board of Representatives.” 

The board must hold at least one public hearing. Then representatives will craft ballot questions for voters to consider at the polls, possibly this November. Only the measures approved by voters become law.

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.