STAMFORD – Ahead of a Tuesday public hearing, the controversy over proposals to change the city charter is heating up.
The flap is fueled by Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons’ move to pass a law, enacted last month with help from her party contacts in Hartford, that blocked the most consequential of the charter proposals – those having to do with zoning.
The hearing is among the final steps the Board of Representatives must take before deciding which proposals will go before the voters.
Critics of Simmons’ move say they are angry that people in Hartford, not Stamford, chose what zoning laws will be on the ballot and how the city’s constitution may be changed.
Sue Halpern, one of 15 citizen volunteers who sat on the Stamford Charter Revision Commission, said the panel worked for nearly a year and a half to draw up proposals that would give residents more say in the rapid development happening in Stamford.
“Last Friday I was watching News12 and they were interviewing Simmons about this,” Halpern said. “Then Governor Lamont got on and he said, ‘I don’t see what the problem is – Zoning Board members are elected.’ But they are not elected; they are appointed by the mayor. And most of them are there on expired terms.”
The five members of the Zoning Board, which makes final decisions about development, are mayoral appointees who must be approved by the Board of Representatives. Zoning is chaired by David Stein, whose term expired in 2017. Member Rosanne McManus’ term expired in 2018, and member Bill Morris remains in his seat even though the Board of Representatives rejected his reappointment in July 2021, five months before Simmons became mayor.
All were kept on by former Mayor David Martin, who didn’t bring them before the Board of Representatives for fear they would not be approved. Martin has said the political appointments were an extension of his mission and strategy on zoning.
Simmons’ chief of staff, Bridget Fox, told city representatives last July that the administration would not remove board members whose reappointments were rejected. The administration’s attorney at the time said it’s because a Connecticut court has ruled that appointees whose successors have not yet been appointed may serve until they are replaced.
Lamont weighs in
Lamont did not return a request for comment Monday, but he told Hearst Connecticut Media last week that Stamford has “a planning and zoning board” – the city actually has one of each – and mistakenly that members are elected. The governor said the city “probably (has) a board of appeals if you want to challenge a decision.”
The city does have a Zoning Board of Appeals. According to its website, its purpose is “to consider variances of the zoning regulations where there is an unusual hardship with the land.” Its members also are appointed by the mayor.
Lamont told Hearst that, since planning and zoning rules allow for public input, he thinks the system “works the way it is” and charter changes are not needed. In Stamford, public input is allowed only during those meetings that include public hearings. Each resident is given three minutes to speak.
Halpern said the governor thinks “everything here is working, when he apparently doesn’t even know what’s going on.”
Charter Revision Commission members have said they crafted proposals that would make it easier for Stamford residents to appeal zoning decisions; provide more public hearings where they could comment on development plans; and improve public noticing so they will be more informed about upcoming projects.
There were proposals to require a greater number of votes before boards could take private property by eminent domain, and before public land could be sold.
But those proposals were killed by the new law backed by Simmons, a former state representative. The law, which passed after it was tucked into a huge bonding bill just as the state legislature ended, applies to all towns in the state. The law limits how a municipality may change regulations of planning and zoning boards.
When the state steps in
State Rep. Vincent Candelora of North Branford, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, said Monday he agreed to four of the provisions in the state law and objected to two provisions that were then dropped.
He, and his party, “support local autonomy,” Candelora said, “but there are instances where the state steps into action.”
Connecticut statutes govern “how zoning is handled – it’s done through planning and zoning commissions, and local legislative bodies don’t have much of a say,” Candelora said. “If people want to petition zoning decisions, they can go through the court system.”
But Stamford’s unusual charter allows citizens to petition its legislative body, the Board of Representatives. Members of the Charter Revision Commission have said they wanted to make petitioning easier because most residents don’t have the means to take a municipality, or a developer, to court.
That is “the other side of the coin,” and Connecticut “needs a uniform process for zoning grievances,” Candelora said.
“This issue has to come back next session,” he said. “We have a lot of problems with our zoning laws, and I hope this will spark more honest and open debate. In Hartford the Democratic majority has been trying to address zoning behind closed doors without conversation, and without input from stakeholders or Republicans. But there are serious questions here – how should we appeal zoning decisions? How do you prevent people from staying on boards and commissions when their terms are expired? We have to figure this out on a state level.”
The Democratic Speaker of the House, Matt Ritter, who helped Simmons get the law through the legislature, now says it will be taken up when the legislature reconvenes next year.
Beyond what state law allows?
Ritter did not return a request for comment Monday, but he told a Hearts columnist last week that he discussed the law on the closing day of the legislature for “at most 15 minutes.” Ritter said it was enough time for him to determine that the Stamford charter revisions went beyond what state law allows.
That’s not likely, Halpern said.
“Through the whole process we made sure we didn’t do anything that would be out of our scope of legality. That was always in the conversation,” Halpern said. “We had plenty of legal expertise, and no one felt we were overstepping the bounds.”
Stamford’s Charter Revision Commission hired two attorneys, Steve Mednick and Richard Roberts. Each has said they have advised dozens of Connecticut towns on charter changes during their careers.
Mednick said Monday Stamford’s charter was created in 1953 by a special act of the state legislature, so he and Roberts had to guide the commission through two legal binds – the provisions of the act, and state statutes.
“When you’re dealing with special acts, you have to be enormously careful — there is no statute that tells you how far you can go in massaging the provisions of a special act,” Mednick said. “We were trying to be faithful to the special act and work around the edges to make it more effectual for the public. But we cannot change the special act.”
He doesn’t know what Ritter meant by saying the charter provisions overreached, Mednick said.
“I would have to ask him specifically what he thought we were doing to alter the special act,” Mednick said. “The lawyers working with the Charter Revision Commission are experienced municipal lawyers, and I think what we did was within the range of what is appropriate.”
A developer owns the neighborhood
Halpern, who lives on the South End, where much of Stamford’s development has occurred over the last decade, said the commission was true to its mission – creating ways for citizens to more easily navigate zoning regulations.
When she and other residents wanted to appeal a development planned for the old B&S Carting site on the South End, they were required to gather signatures from 20 percent of the landowners within 500 feet of the site, or 100 residents, whichever is less.
The charter proposal that is now moot under the new law would have allowed the residents to gather 300 signatures from landowners anywhere in the city, on the premise that everyone in the city is affected by development.
“In the South End, one developer, BLT, owns 70 percent of the neighborhood,” Halpern said. ”How is a citizen going to get the needed amount of petitioners to sign when the developer of the parcel owns most of the property around it? The same is true on the West Side, where developers own groups of properties. It’s very hard to get signatures from the owners of abutting properties.”
‘What exactly are we getting from all this growth?’
Democratic City Rep. Rob Roqueta, co-chair of the Board of Representatives’ housing committee, said he voted for Simmons two years ago, in part, because she said during her campaign that development in Stamford needs to go farther than the hundreds of luxury apartments being built in South End and downtown high-rises.
Roqueta said that, after he heard that the mayor blocked the charter changes in Hartford, he posted on his Facebook page a campaign video in which Simmons says, “We must make sure all of our residents have a voice in this discussion” about development.
“Now the mayor has her law, and the voice has been taken away from the electorate. I’m so disappointed in the mayor,” Roqueta said. “She said one thing and it looks like she’s doing another.”
Roqueta said Simmons points to a May public hearing at which people from a housing advocacy group and others showed up to agree with her premise that the charter changes would stifle development and decrease the amount of housing, which is in short supply statewide.
“If there is overwhelming support like she said about the public hearing, why not let the process play out? Wouldn’t that support show up at the ballot box?” Roqueta said. “But I think the reality is they know that many voters want these charter changes, and this was how to prevent it. I think if there was a question on the ballot, ‘Should Stamford continue to develop the way it is developing?’ Ninety percent would say no.”
It’s because the luxury high-rises are unaffordable to many Stamford residents who need housing, including the below market rate units the city demands from new developments, Roqueta said. And the high-rise prices are pushing up rents in two-family homes, four-unit complexes and other small apartment buildings, he said.
“The charter changes were a way to say, ‘What are we doing here? Are we creating housing that is actually affordable? Or are we using all this land for apartments where only high-income people can live?’” Roqueta said. “We have to ask ourselves what exactly we are getting from all this growth, because most people think it has to be smarter.”
A tool in the political box
Asked Monday whether Simmons has changed her views about all residents having a voice in the discussion about development, Fox, the chief of staff, did not reply.
Simmons has said the charter should stay the way it is, even though a January 2022 email shows she wanted to eliminate Stamford’s petitioning process altogether. Simmons has said the charter proposals would hurt Stamford’s growth, so she used “another tool in the political toolbox” to stop them in Hartford.
That remark was prominent in the most recent public hearing on charter revision, where residents were sharply critical of the mayor for blocking the zoning proposals from the voting booth.
Criticisms appear to be growing, as people share stories about the controversy on social media, including the Hearst column that said that Ritter and other leaders in Hartford, “and most likely the governor’s staff, which includes Simmons’ brother,” would have approved the language of the law she supported.
Simmons’ brother, Nick Simmons, became Lamont’s deputy chief of staff in February. Before that, Nick Simmons was director of strategic initiatives and a policy advisor to Lamont, from 2019 to 2021..
Adam Joseph, spokesman for Lamont, said in an email that “Nick Simmons played no role in negotiating the bond bill.”
Fox said the mayor did not enlist the help of her brother.
“While we don’t comment on specific conversations that Mayor Simmons has, the mayor of any large city traditionally has a direct line to the governor or their chief of staff,” Fox said in an email.
While not walking back his comments, Candelora called the process in Stamford “disconcerting.”
“I stand by my point that zoning should be a creature of the state, but when you drill down on the facts of what’s happening in Stamford, it’s disconcerting,” the Republican House leader said. “It’s more and more the way government structure is set up — it’s who you know. The process isn’t right. The way the legislature handled it is not something we should be making a habit of. It’s too much who you know and who you can get in front of.”