STAMFORD – City representatives who supported Mayor Caroline Simmons’ successful push to block charter changes came face to face on Tuesday with the repercussions of the new state law.
City Rep. Carl Weinberg and city Rep. Terry Adams, both Democrats, backed the legislation in Hartford nullifying the commission’s zoning-related proposals. They learned on Tuesday that their own proposals to the Charter Revision Commission are blocked, too.
The proposals quietly became illegal in Hartford on June 7, the same day the commission handed them over to the Board of Representatives to debate. It meant that, in the middle of the state-mandated charter revision process, some of the commission’s most consequential proposals were swept off the table.
Weinberg wanted to include a definition of landowner in the charter, which now does not have one. Adams wanted the charter to specifically include condominium owners in the definition of landowner.
The definition is important because it determines which Stamford residents may appeal Zoning Board decisions by gathering signatures from landowners and presenting them in petitions to the Board of Representatives.
But the new law prohibits towns from modifying regulations in their charters that have to do with petitioning.
The Charter Revision Commission’s attorneys, Steve Mednick and Richard Roberts, told city representatives last week that they would comb through the charter to see whether “landowner” was used in a context unrelated to petitions, and perhaps a definition could be inserted there.
But no other context was found, Mednick told city representatives Tuesday as they drew up their final proposals for the Charter Revision Commission to review.
“We did due diligence, and the landowner term only refers to petitions. It is not otherwise used in the charter,” Mednick said. “So putting in a definition would very likely run afoul” of the new law.
There was bad news, too, for Adams’ proposal.
“It is not appropriate for the commission to consider,” Mednick said.
Another Simmons’ supporter, city Rep. Amiel Goldberg, tried to revive the landowner definition another way.
“Can we enact an ordinance to define landowner, or is the entire conversation out of bounds?” Goldberg asked.
City Rep. Bradley Bewkes said he would have to ask the city attorney for an opinion.
The discussion appears to go in circles, since one of the Charter Revision Commission proposals killed by the Simmons-backed law defined “landowner” and included condominium owners.
Commissioners have said during their meetings over the last year and a half that they wrote the definition to include more people in the petitioning process and make it easier for residents of dense neighborhoods, where most development occurs.
Landowners in those neighborhoods are often absentee landlords, limited liability companies, or developers whose projects residents were seeking to appeal, making it difficult for petitioners to gather signatures in those areas, commissioners have said.
Now the charter requires that petitioners gather signatures from 20 percent of the landowners within 500 feet of the development site, or 100 residents, whichever is less. When changes affect several zones, residents must gather 300 signatures from landowners anywhere in the city.
Commissioners proposed changing the petition requirement to 300 signatures from landowners anywhere in the city, no matter how many zones are involved, on the premise that all residents are affected by development.
If the new law had not passed, city representatives would have debated and perhaps modified the commission’s petition proposal. If it won approval, it would have been sent to voters to decide on election day.
Simmons has said growth would be stifled if 300 people could stop a development. With support in the State House, where she served for seven years before becoming mayor, her legislation was tucked into a multi-billion-dollar bond package that passed just before the state legislature’s June 7 closing day, so it was not analyzed or deliberated or presented at public hearings.
Another proposal from city representatives would have required the Zoning Board to protect environmental resources.
But the new law “prevents us from amending Zoning Board and Planning Board regulations,” Mednick told city Rep. Virgil de la Cruz, who made the environmental proposal.
Towns are just beginning to grapple with the new law, which applies statewide. Granby, a small town on the Massachusetts border, also is in the middle of revising its charter, including proposals to change language related to its Planning and Zoning Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals, and sale of town land, according to the Granby Charter Revision Commission report.
The office of Granby First Selectman Mark Fiorentino said Wednesday only he can comment on the charter revisions, but he is out of town until next week.
In Stamford Tuesday, the Board of Representatives committee approved a set of proposals to return to the Stamford Charter Revision Commission for consideration. If the full board approves them at a special Thursday meeting, the commission will take them up.
The commission then will prepare its final report of proposed charter changes for the board. The board will vote on the proposals, and the ones they approve will go on the ballot so voters can decide whether they become laws in Stamford. Next month the board will decide whether the proposed changes go to voters this November or in 2024.
View Thursday’s 8 p.m. board meeting here.