Stamford is in the middle of amending its charter, the basic document that defines the powers and functions of city government, which would seem to be a local affair.
But it is drawing statewide attention to a public hearing scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday. It has housing advocates who favor state mandates calling on their supporters to speak, and citizens who favor local control calling on theirs.
It started when Stamford’s Charter Revision Commission proposed amendments that members say would make it easier for citizens to appeal zoning decisions and participate in public hearings on proposed developments, and would require higher vote thresholds for city officials to take private property by eminent domain or to sell public land.
But unnamed officials blocked the measures by inserting a law into the state’s massive multi-billion-dollar bonding package, which passed late on the night of June 7, just as the legislative session in Hartford was ending. The new law prohibits all 169 towns in Connecticut from changing their charters on certain zoning matters.
Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons, a former state representative, has declined to say whether she had a hand in devising the legislation, which passed on the day the Stamford Charter Revision Commission presented its proposals to the Stamford Board of Representatives for deliberation.
Simmons has said that, instead of the commission’s proposals, she “advocated for legislation to preserve existing municipal practices and tools.”
The commission’s proposals now are dead before city representatives can debate them and vote, then pass them on to Stamford residents to consider at the polls.
Members of the Stamford Charter Revision Commission and Board of Representatives are furious that Simmons, who they say knew on June 7 that the proposed changes were made illegal, didn’t tell them. They found out after the CT Mirror story was published June 22, members said.
City representatives say they are discussing how to respond to the state’s restrictions on the charter proposals.
Now Desegregate CT, an advocacy group sponsored by the Regional Plan Association that pushes for zoning reform in Connecticut, has issued an email calling for “pro-homes advocates” to attend the board’s public hearing Wednesday at the Stamford Government Center.
“The Stamford Board of Representatives is proposing a series of revisions to the city charter that will make it harder to pass pro-homes developments in the city,” a mass email by Desegregate CT reads. “These revisions are a power grab to allow a small group of anti-homes homeowners the ability to overturn the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.”
But Stamford has a Planning Board and a separate Zoning Board.
According to Desegregate CT, one Charter Revision Commission proposal would have expanded a right given by the charter that allows citizens to appeal zoning decisions. “This would most likely be used to block affordable housing developments,” read the organization’s email.
But the commission’s proposal would have allowed citizens who disagree with a zoning decision to gather 300 signatures from landowners citywide to petition the Board of Representatives to review the decision. It also would make it easier for citizens to gather signatures.
According to the Desegregate CT email, another proposal would “require a ⅔ supermajority vote on multiple city boards in regards to land use decisions.”
But the proposal would have required a ⅔ vote of the Board of Finance and the Board of Representatives before the city could acquire private property by eminent domain, or sell city-owned land.
The email also claims that the proposed charter change would have required “any housing developments with 20+ units to go through a long-winded bureaucratic process, which would drive up housing costs and worsen the housing shortage.”
The specific charter changes would have added hearings where members of the public could speak on developments of that size, and require that developers reach out to residents when they first propose their projects. It would have required the Zoning Board to define the manner by which developers reach out.
Pete Harrison, director of Desegregate CT, said Wednesday the proposal that 300 homeowners can sign a petition to appeal a zoning decision to the Board of Representatives is too narrow.
“Regardless of the impact of the provision in Stamford, we want pro-homes advocates to attend the meeting tonight to highlight the absurdity of a very small minority of homeowners in the city circumventing the existing process of local control and derailing the prospect of much-needed development at the expense of all residents,” Harrison said. “We hope and expect it will be defeated on its merits without any state-level games, and we plan to make that case tonight.”
Harrison said Desegregate CT found out that the zoning provisions had been added to the state bond bill “when everyone else did, after the fact.”
“It’s not a process that reflects well on anybody in the state legislature,” Harrison said.
A ‘runaway’ commission
Opposition to the charter revisions also is coming from the Stamford business community, including Arthur Selkowitz, who was chairman of the board of downtown’s Mill River Park Collaborative for two decades. The collaborative derives revenue to renovate Mill River Park from properties and new development around the park.
Selkowitz sent an email on June 24 asking fellow Stamford residents to attend Wednesday’s hearing to oppose “a runaway Charter Revision Commission” and a “power grab” by the Board of Representatives, even though the last-minute law had already outlawed the commission’s proposals.
Selkowitz said in the email that the commission, knowing “how insidious these changes would be … waited until the last minute to submit its recommendations, held one public hearing that was not widely publicized, and is now pressing to get the Board of Representatives to approve it quickly, knowing its allies on the board who put them on the commission will push it through.”
Selkowitz said Wednesday he did not know about the state legislation tucked into the bond bill, “but I applaud it as it eliminated the most egregious amendment provisions; however, there are still several aspects of the proposals that I oppose.”
He does not think the Board of Representatives should be allowed to hire its own attorney, which was proposed for cases in which the city attorney would be called on to represent two different branches of city government when they conflict.
“This would be a costly and redundant addition with the potential for more unnecessary and ultimately costly lawsuits from the city,” Selkowitz said. “There are other provisions such as changes in the appointment process for boards and commissions that would shift control for these boards to the Board of Representatives, discourage good people from serving, and further slow the review process worse than it already is. Bottom line, this was a flawed charter revision process and a poor outcome that I oppose.”
‘Sad blow to democracy’
City Rep. Bradley Bewkes, co-chair of the board’s Charter Revision Committee, said the Selkowitz email illustrates that opponents of the changes fear they will pass if put on the ballot for voters to decide.
“Misinformation like this, from such a respected member of our community, is yet another sad blow to democracy coming from the anti-charter revision establishment,” Bewkes said. “Almost everything Mr. Selkowitz has described is blown out of proportion, misleading, or simply a lie. Deception is another form of voter suppression, which seems to be the leading strategy for the anti-charter revision activists.”
The “amount of disinformation around the Charter Revision Commission and Board of Representatives is growing and alarming … [and] dangerous,” Bewkes said.
Desegregate CT, Selkowitz and other opponents of the charter revisions contend that taxes would increase with the charter amendments, but according to Bewkes, “the proposed charter revisions have nothing to do with taxes.”
“Taxes are directly related to government spending, and the changes do not call for higher spending,” he said. “The notion that more development lowers our tax liability is misleading. In fact, with the enormous amount of continued development in our city over the last 10 years, the operating budget during the same period has increased by 30 percent. More development does not mean lower taxes.”
According to Bewkes, opponents are wrongly tarring the charter amendments as a power grab by the Board of Representatives, when “in fact, most of the proposed charter changes give a lot more power to the people of Stamford.”
Bewkes also took issue with charges that the commission has “worked hastily and in secret.”
According to Bewkes, the commission was forced to work quickly because the former corporation counsel, Doug Dalena, did not allow members to hire a charter attorney until October, eight months after the commission was formed.
“There have been many hours of public hearings, and every meeting from the Board of Representatives or the commission has a place on the agenda for public comments, is open for the public to attend, and goes on the permanent public record,” he said.
Desegregate CT’s assertion that city representatives want to “block affordable housing developments” is particularly false, Bewkes said.
“The term ‘affordable housing’ is a misnomer in our city. In fact, many people involved in the charter revision process have urged the administration to focus heavily on deeply affordable housing, for those communities that struggle the most,” he said.
“If current ‘affordable housing’ regulations build apartments that are $2,500 a month instead of the luxury $5,000 a month seen at new high-rises, they still aren’t ‘affordable,’” he said. “It is time to focus on those residents that can barely afford groceries … and the proposed charter revisions support the many residents who are in that position.”
Westport weighs in
In Westport, officials said they are monitoring events in Stamford. The two municipalities are the only ones in Connecticut that offer citizens the right to appeal zoning decisions to municipal lawmakers. It’s because Stamford and Westport were created many years ago by special acts of the state legislature.
Wendy Batteau, who sits on the Planning and Zoning Committee of Westport’s legislative body, the Representative Town Meeting, said there is concern about how the new law will affect home rule.
“I heard about the inclusion of this language added to the state budget only this past weekend, so I haven’t had time to review its details. Much more problematically, state legislators not only didn’t have time to review its details – having received the 800-page budget just before having to vote on it – but evidently at least many of them were not even alerted to its inclusion. This is one of the overarching problems here,” Batteau said.
“A major problem I see is that legislation designed with respect to one municipality now applies to every community in the state. That limitation of local control is objectionable overreach,” Batteau said. “State law empowers municipalities to devise their own charters, ordinances and regulations for good reason. Each community is different, and the right to revise existing town and city charters should remain with the voters.”
Her colleague on the Westport RTM, Matthew Mandell, chair of the Planning and Zoning Committee, said it’s all about home rule.
“I have a problem with the state, once again, trying to tell towns how they are supposed to go about their business,” said Mandell, who is executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce. “It was a piece of legislation a couple of paragraphs long that was stuck into a document with hundreds of pages that got passed at the last minute. If it was heard in the light of day, it would never have moved forward. That is exceedingly problematic.”
Westport First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker said Tuesday the town attorney is reviewing the new law. Westport does not have a timetable for revising its charter, Tooker said.
Westport residents have petitioned to reverse Planning & Zoning Commission decisions, but instances are rare, Tooker said.
From 100 years to five
Norwalk is amending its city charter this summer, on roughly the same schedule as Stamford, said Patsy Brescia, chair of the Norwalk Charter Revision Commission.
“We are not considering planning and zoning changes because our charter has not been amended since 1913,” Brescia said. “So the majority of our work is reorganizing it, bringing the language up to date, and making it more understandable.”
But it could become an issue in the near future. The Norwalk commission is recommending that the document, from now on, be reviewed every five years, Brescia said.
She did not know that the legislation affecting city charters was passed on June 7, Brescia said.
Nor did members of the Stamford delegation in Hartford. State Representatives David Michel, Anabel Figueroa and Hubert Delany, all Democrats, like Simmons, said last week they voted for the bond bill not knowing the charter restrictions were included.
Their fellow Democrat, State Rep. Corey Paris, said Monday he didn’t know, either.
“I voted in support of the budget and the bond bill, which I think are good for communities in the state and resulted from a bipartisan effort,” Paris said. “Now that I see the confusion and challenges from this part of the legislation, I hope local officials will work it out and state officials will be supportive going forward.”
Mike Battinelli, co-president of the Stamford Neighborhoods Coalition, said the group supports the Charter Revision Commission’s attempt to allow what he says is “more citizen input” in zoning decisions. The coalition is calling on residents to speak at Wednesday night’s hearing.
“We are not anti-development – that is an extreme that they like to use to label us. We are for smart development, and we are seeking fairness and better access to our government,” Battinelli said. “We understand this is a city that wants to build. But with that comes some downsides, and they don’t want to look at that. When they build 100 housing units with 90 parking spaces, all the cars they say people don’t have are parked in front of our houses. People are reacting now because it’s getting out of control.”
Wednesday’s Board of Representatives hearing starts at 6 p.m. in the cafeteria on the fourth floor of the Stamford Government Center, 888 Washington Blvd.