STAMFORD – Shippan residents concerned about the future of their neighborhood beach were up past midnight Monday watching a Zoning Board meeting on Zoom.
Though they had questions and comments, residents were not allowed to speak at the meeting. The Zoning Board chairman said they would not be able to speak in the future, either, because public hearings are not required for such matters. And to their dismay, residents listened as the chairman prohibited Zoning Board members from raising the issue of access rights written into the deeds of homeowners who live near the little beach off Ralsey Road.
For a century, the spit of sand has been a spot for neighbors to share, a place to launch a kayak into Stamford Harbor, build a sand castle, celebrate birthdays and hold weddings. The deeded beach rights add tens of thousands of dollars in value to their homes.
Residents are concerned because a proposal before the Zoning Board would allow a new homeowner to build two driveways across the front corners of the beach. Residents fear the project will harm the beach and impede their access to it.
“One of the Zoning Board members started to ask about our deeds but he was told he couldn’t bring it up,” said Heather Inman, a longtime Ralsey Road resident and one of the leaders of the opposition. “They are legal deeds. Why aren’t they part of the conversation?”
During the meeting, Vineeta Mathur, principal planner with the Land Use Bureau, which advises the Zoning Board, said a city attorney told board members they could not consider the rights of private deed holders when deciding whether to approve the plan.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard that,” said Megan McGrath, another Ralsey Road resident leading the opposition. “They didn’t let us speak. We wrote letters, but they didn’t bring up any of our points. Now there is this legal opinion that we know nothing about. I feel like we were railroaded. I thought it’s the job of a Zoning Board to protect the character of a neighborhood” – a reference to language in the city charter that describes the powers and duties of the Zoning Board.
Inman, McGrath and other neighbors, who are studying maps from the 1920s and ‘30s to determine the number of deed holders allowed to use the beach, so far have counted 46.
“We wrote letters, we gathered signatures, we identified deed holders,” Inman said. “The Zoning Board should at least let us ask questions so they can explain things to us.”
The problem, for residents, began after Gad and Samantha Lavy purchased the 1930 brick colonial at 141 Downs Ave. for $3.23 million last year. The couple plans to renovate the waterfront home, which backs up to Ralsey Road, raise it out of the flood zone, and add a pool, patio and landscaping.
The neighbors have one issue with the plan – the Lavys want to move their driveway from Downs Avenue to Ralsey Road.
The couple, as owners of the home adjacent to one side of the beach, own half of it. The other half of the beach is owned by Alison Malloy of 1 Ralsey Road South, the home adjacent to the other side. For aesthetic reasons, the Lavys are redoing Malloy’s driveway to match theirs.
Neighbors say the paved driveways will create drainage problems at the spot, which is already prone to flooding from rain and from Long Island Sound storm surges. They also say the driveways will narrow the beach entrance and create hazards between cars coming and going from the houses, and families coming and going from the beach.
“Kids ride their scooters to the beach, and now cars are going to be backing out of two driveways?” McGrath said.
“Deed holders have significant concerns. Why are they taking our voice away?” Inman said. “During the meeting it looked like the law department shut the Zoning Board down.”
It’s like a fence
Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing said Tuesday his office requested the legal opinion to better understand the nature of the deeded beach rights.
The gist of the opinion “is that it’s a private agreement that the city is not party to,” Blessing said. “Disputes between private property owners about access rights are a civil matter that the city generally does not get involved in. For example, if your neighbor’s fence is on your property, it’s between you and your neighbor to resolve the issue.”
Matters such as the Ralsey Road project fall under the zoning category of “coastal site plan review,” Blessing said. State law, the city charter, the city code of ordinances, and zoning regulations determine which types of applications require a public hearing, Blessing said. Coastal site plan reviews do not, he said.
Blessing explained that the Zoning Board has limited authority over coastal site plan reviews to make sure the project conforms with the Connecticut Coastal Area Management Act, as determined by the Stamford Environmental Protection Board and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Those two agencies, Blessing said, found that the Ralsey Road project would not adversely affect coastal resources.
But Inman and McGrath said residents had their hopes up after last month’s meeting of the Stamford Harbor Management Commission, where members recommended that the Zoning Board not approve the Ralsey Road project. Commissioners said there was not enough information about how much of the beach will be taken by the driveways, how many deed holders have access rights, and what the rights entail.
Because of the commission’s recommendation, the Zoning Board now will need yes votes from four of its five members for the Ralsey Road plan to be approved, instead of a simple majority of three votes.
‘This is why people get angry’
Harbor commissioners and Zoning Board members both said they like aspects of the plan because it would reduce vulnerability to coastal flooding, improve drainage, and protect water quality in Long Island Sound.
But the commissioners wanted the Zoning Board to hold a public hearing so residents could have their say.
It’s a huge disappointment that there will be no hearing before the Zoning Board decides, Inman said.
“Where is our right to say, ‘Hold on a second, these questions need to be answered,’” Inman said. “It makes us feel like this is going to pass regardless of residents who hold deeds. This is why people get angry with how zoning works in Stamford.”
Zoning Board member Bill Morris said during the meeting that, 15 minutes before it started at 6:30 p.m., he received a list of conditions that would go along with approving the project. He didn’t have time to read the conditions, Morris said.
Yet some board members were prepared to vote on the Ralsey Road project.
“Since the applicant owns the property and there will still be access to use the beach, I don’t see a reason not to approve this” with conditions, board member Rosanne McManus said about 15 minutes after midnight, as the meeting approached its sixth hour.
It was frustrating to watch, McGrath said.
“How can you vote when you haven’t read the conditions? And don’t we get to see what the conditions are?” she said Tuesday. “We are just regular people. We had to wait until almost midnight for them to start talking about our issue and then it seemed like they hadn’t even read the information. It doesn’t sound like the Zoning Board has our backs.”
It’s difficult to understand the rules, terms, and lingo of zoning, in meetings that go far into the night, McGrath said.
“You can’t figure out what’s happening, and it concerns your home, your neighborhood. I feel like we’ve been left high and dry,” McGrath said. “It sounds now like the only thing we can do is get a lawyer. [Lavy] has more money; he can afford high-powered lawyers. We can’t. I don’t want to look at it that way, but it’s tough when we aren’t heard, and the one with the squeaky lawyer is heard.”
Like McManus, Zoning Board Chairman David Stein said during the meeting that he was ready to support the Ralsey Road application with the conditions. But Morris and fellow members Gerry Bosak and Racquel Smith-Anderson said they were not, meaning that board approval was still short of the four-vote threshold.
Stein then said the Zoning Board will take the matter up at the next meeting, slated for 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 18.
McGrath said residents fear that a Zoning Board decision in favor of the driveway project will begin a slide toward inaccessibility.
“If they don’t respect our deeded beach rights, what will this owner do next?” she said. “Will he buy the other half of the beach? If that happens, then what?”