Far-Ranging Interview in Stamford Reflects Critical Role of Zoning

(CT Examiner)


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STAMFORD – Questions put to a candidate for a seat on the Zoning Board illustrate its significance in the lives of residents.

The interview of Democrat Keith Walker by city representatives ranged far wider than development, traffic congestion and neighborhood preservation. 

It touched on politics, race, class, economic equality, voting rights, privilege, fairness, and trust in government.

Zoning is about life, City Rep. Virgil de la Cruz told Walker during this week’s meeting of the Board of Representatives’ Appointments Committee.

“I used to think the Board of Representatives was the most important board in the city,” de la Cruz said. “But I have come to accept that the Zoning Board has such an impact on quality of life that it is the most important board.” 

According to its website, the Zoning Board “plays a critical role in shaping the city” by regulating property use and deciding which development projects get built, and where. The board has five regular members and one alternate, all volunteers.

The mayor appoints Zoning Board members but they don’t take a seat until the Board of Representatives approves them.

For 90 minutes, city representatives fired questions at Walker, a real estate executive and owner of Walker Asset Management Advisory Services.

Walker knows zoning. His resume says he specializes in property management, development, and redevelopment of underperforming properties. He has been before many zoning boards seeking approvals for construction projects, his resume states.

But Walker, who said he’s lived in Stamford for seven years, may not have comprehended the full heat of zoning as a topic in Stamford.

Yes or no?

The first hint came at the start of the interview with a question from City Rep. Bobby Pavia. It stems from an effort by lawmakers in Hartford to fill the demand for housing by pushing towns to relax regulations in neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing.

“If you go anywhere in Stamford, people will be talking about traffic and overdevelopment,” Pavia said. “Do you support building multi-family homes in single-family zones? That’s a yes or no question.”

Walker said no.

City Rep. Megan Cottrell may have been referencing a longtime complaint in Stamford – that powerful developers usually get the zoning changes and approvals they request – when she posed a question for Walker. Building permit records show that roughly 8,000 housing units have been built in Stamford in the last 15 years, with several hundred more on the way.

“You have a lot of experience in real estate … you are probably well-connected,” Cottrell said to Walker. “What if someone you’re connected to went before the Zoning Board? How would you handle it?”

“I would most likely recuse myself,” Walker said.

Cottrell questioned a statement Walker made earlier in the interview that it is not the Zoning Board’s job to tell developers what to build.

“There is a general feeling that the development that’s happening is not meeting the needs of the community. We shout from the rooftops about diversity, equity and inclusion, but we’re getting luxury building after luxury building, and we’re getting less diversity, if you look at the census. In fact, we’re getting more inequity and exclusion. Why can’t we go to developers and say we need apartments for regular middle-class people?” Cottrell asked.

“If you’re asking me whether a development that comes in should be looked at and suggestions made on workforce housing, sustainability, traffic, how it affects a school, should a developer make a contribution to fix an egress, absolutely,” Walker said. “Applications should be discussed with the community at large.”

Certain spots for pot shops?

Cottrell raised the issue of marijuana dispensaries. The Zoning Board approved one in Glenbrook and another on the East Side, but rejected an application to open one in the Bull’s Head neighborhood. Now there is an application to open a second dispensary on the East Side.

“The concern is that they might all be concentrated in less-affluent parts of Stamford,” Cottrell said. “What are your thoughts on equal distribution?”

“I didn’t hear the public input or look at the application,” Walker replied. “I don’t mean to be evasive, I understand your point, but I would have to review the material.”

City Rep. Mavina Moore said Stamford needs a lot more housing at below-market rates, and she is concerned that the Zoning Board allows developers to put money in the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund rather than include affordable units in their projects.

“They’re building all this luxury housing but little is being built that is affordable and deeply affordable,” Moore said. “A lot of people who were born and raised here can’t afford to stay here.”

Walker said he is a big believer in below-market-rate housing, and not a fan of allowing developers to pay a fee rather than build affordable units.

‘Greedy developers’

City Rep. Kindrea Walston said her West Side neighborhood is already densely populated but buildings keep going up.

“Every time they find a spot open, or they find something is blighted, a high-rise comes in,” Walston said. “We have greedy developers who put these buildings up and charge enormous rents. What they call affordable housing is not really affordable because of the standard they are using.”

Walker said that if a neighborhood “is overdeveloped and crowded, it doesn’t benefit the community.”

Other city representatives, including Nina Sherwood, asked Walker if he supports last year’s Zoning Board vote to allow homeowners who live in their homes to create accessory apartments, as long as the lot is at least 10,000 square feet.

Walker said he generally is not in favor of accessory apartments, because “low-density zoning distinctions (for single-family neighborhoods) should remain low-density distinctions.”

Voters won’t decide

Sherwood said “the most-discussed issue in the city is the rate of development.” She asked Walker about a controversy that erupted in June, when Caroline Simmons, who was a state representative before becoming mayor in 2021, enlisted help in Hartford to pass a law that blocks towns from changing their charters on a host of zoning matters. The law was geared toward changes proposed by the Stamford Charter Revision Commission that were under discussion at the time.

The Board of Representatives is slated to vote next week on which of the commission’s proposals to put on the ballot for voters to decide. Because of the new law, some of the commission’s most significant proposals cannot be on the ballot.

“Do you think the residents of this city should have the right to vote on their charter so they can have more say in community development, or do you agree with the mayor and the state stepping in?” Sherwood asked Walker. 

“I don’t mean to be evasive, but I don’t know a lot of this, so it’s difficult for me to … have a specific opinion,” Walker said. “I will say I think the community has a right to weigh in on what is good for the city … I don’t think it would be my role on the Zoning Board to weigh in on things like that.”

Asked about his views in general, Walker said he “would love to see more mom-and-pop retail in Stamford; it’s really what drives people into communities.”

He said “developers need to know – if you’re going to build in our community, you need to be part of the community. Put your money where your mouth is,” Walker said. “It can be a partnership. You can make great strides in solving some of the issues that have been spoken about tonight.”

Stamford or Brooklyn?

City Rep. Jim Grunberger said Walker had his vote.

“It’s refreshing for me to read your resume and hear you speak, and realize you have a huge depth of experience at many different levels all over the country, and you are willing to take on a volunteer job like this,” Grunberger said. 

City Rep. Denis Patterson, chair of the Appointments Committee, said people in his district were concerned about putting someone with ties to developers on the Zoning Board.

“I have had a lot of input from constituents on this. People are saying you’re letting the fox guard the henhouse. But after spending this evening talking with you, I am very much relieved,” Patterson told Walker. 

He was glad to learn about Walker’s experience reusing buildings, Patterson said, given that Stamford has a good deal of empty office space to fill. Patterson said he was even happier to hear that Walker said he thinks it’s important to listen to the community.

“My constituents feel that is not happening. They feel that development is just happening to them, that all these New Yorkers are coming in and trying to make a Brooklyn out of Stamford,” Patterson said. 

Minority voices

But Walker lost the vote, with three committee members saying the full board should approve him, five members saying the full board should not approve him, and one member abstaining.

City Rep. Anabel Figueroa said she voted no because the Zoning Board, which is not known for its diversity, has a person of color, alternate member Raquel Smith-Anderson, who knows the issues and comes to meetings well-prepared.

“[Smith-Anderson] is going on two years as an alternate. She is already there filling the vacancy and voting. I prefer for her to move up to a full seat and have Mr. Walker serve as an alternate because I feel he has a lot to learn yet about Stamford,” Figueroa said. “[She] is the only voice for the minority community on the Zoning Board.”

Some committee members agreed. Others said they voted no because Walker didn’t appear to have a lot of knowledge about about a host of issues including the new law limiting changes to the charter, the right to petition zoning decisions, a development proposed for Wire Mill Road, marijuana dispensaries, and the accessory apartments. 

The full Board of Representatives is scheduled to vote on Walker’s appointment when it meets on Sept. 5.

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.