STAMFORD – The vote was a squeaker, and the result, at first, unclear.
Ultimately, Ralsey Road residents succeeded in stopping a renovation plan for a $3.23 million waterfront home that they say jeopardized their access to a beloved neighborhood beach.
Because of Zoning Board rules, the plan failed even though only one of five members rejected it – a result that had to be verified with the law department before it was deemed official.
Ralsey Road resident Heather Inman said this week’s vote was as stressful as the homeowner’s plan for the beach, which has been the site of weddings, family celebrations, memorial services and neighborhood gatherings for generations. Deeded beach rights also add tens of thousands of dollars to home values.
“I’m glad the plan was not approved, but I didn’t wake up in the morning feeling it’s over,” Inman said.
It’s not. The homeowner has until the first week of October to appeal the Zoning Board decision in state Superior Court, or can come back to the board with another version of the plan.
For Inman and other residents, Stamford procedures for deciding zoning matters again proved frustrating.
They watched this week’s virtual Zoning Board meeting as members debated an application by Gad and Samantha Lavy to renovate their 1930 colonial, raise it out of the flood plain, and build two driveways, one for them and another for the home on the other side of Ralsey Road beach, narrowing the entrance.
Listen, not speak
Residents were not allowed to speak while the Zoning Board considered whether their deeded access rights should even be included in the discussion about plans for the beach, which is co-owned by the Lavys and their neighbor, Alison Malloy.
The odd arrangement dates back 100 years, when that part of the Shippan neighborhood was created using dredged material from Stamford Harbor.
Forty-six homeowners have deeds that grant them access to the beach, but zoning officials said that should not be a factor in their decision to approve or reject the Lavys’ plan for renovating the home they purchased in February 2022.
Besides the upgrades, the Lavys want to switch the front of the house from Downs Avenue to Ralsey Road, creating a landscaped driveway entry on their side of the beach and a matching entry on the side leading to Malloy’s home.
Each driveway would take up a front corner of the beach, reducing the length of the entrance for deed holders who visit, bringing small boats, kayaks, rafts, strollers, chairs, children’s toys, coolers, and more.
Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing told the Zoning Board that the city attorney advised that access is a civil matter between the owners of the beach lot and the deed holders, and the Zoning Board’s jurisdiction is limited to determining whether the homeowner’s plan conforms with the Connecticut Coastal Area Management Act and state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection regulations.
‘We’re going to have a problem’
Zoning Board member Rosanne McManus said she was prepared to approve the Lavys’ plan.
Residents “will still have access; it just will be less wide,” McManus said.
Zoning Board member Gerry Bosak Jr. said he visited the beach and found that the width of the entrance is roughly 50 feet. If the driveways are built, the entrance will be 10 feet, Bosak said.
“There is a fence that is made so people can remove the middle rail to get their boats onto the beach,” Bosak said. “People now park where the driveways will be. What’s going to happen if cars are parked in the driveways? We’re going to have a problem if we approve this.”
Board member Racquel Smith-Anderson said not every deed holder in the neighborhood may walk to the beach, including those who are elderly, handicapped, or touting children.
But, Zoning Board Chair David Stein said, Ralsey Road offers enough space for parking.
“There is a lot of room on the street to park cars,” Stein said. “They are not losing the parking area. They don’t have the right to park.”
The deeds “say they have a right to the beach, which they will still have” if the Lavy project is approved, McManus said.
One mighty vote
McManus, Stein and fellow board member Bill Morris voted to approve the Lavys’ plan. Bosak voted no, and Smith-Anderson abstained.
That created a problem because, last month, the Stamford Harbor Management Commission voted to recommend that the Zoning Board reject the plan. Even though the house renovation would reduce vulnerability to coastal flooding, improve drainage, and protect Long Island Sound water quality, the driveway plan does not comport with a harbor commission charge to support public access, they said.
Because of the harbor commission’s action, the Zoning Board needed a supermajority – four of five votes – for the plan to be approved.
But the board vote was three yes, one no, and one abstention.
“So what happens?” Stein asked.
He wanted to know whether three is considered a supermajority if four members vote and one abstains. It turns out that a supermajority on a five-member board is four votes.
Ralsey Road resident Megan McGrath said she remains wary.
“Let’s just say I’m not dancing in the streets,” McGrath said. “I’m waiting to see what happens next.”
Bill Hennessey, the Lavys’ land-use attorney, said his clients are exploring their options.
“They have an opportunity to take an appeal, or revise the plan,” Hennessey said. “They may want to demolish the house and build a new structure, or see if there is a possibility to subdivide the property.”
Asked Wednesday about the appeal procedure, Zoning Enforcement Officer Jim Lunney said the homeowners have two choices.
They can gather signatures from 20 percent of the land owners within 500 feet of their project, or 100 owners, whichever is less, and petition the Board of Representatives to overturn the Zoning Board’s rejection of their plan.
That’s unlikely, since Ralsey Road residents oppose it and won’t sign the petition.
“Or they can take the Zoning Board to Stamford Superior Court,” Lunney said. “The Zoning Board would be represented by the city. The owner would have a lawyer. The neighbors might have a lawyer. It would all go before a judge.”
According to state law, the owners would have to serve notice of legal action within 15 days of the Zoning Board’s decision, which would be about Oct. 3.
For residents, lawsuits that can cost tens of thousands of dollars add insult to the injury of not being allowed to speak during meetings, Inman said. Zoning officials have said that the Ralsey Road project, as a “coastal site plan review,” does not require a public hearing.
“This is why people feel so disconnected from the zoning process,” Inman said. “These decisions directly affect our lives and the Zoning Board not only didn’t let us speak, they didn’t seem to investigate themselves. They talked about it without seeing it. You can’t make a good decision from a piece of paper. You can’t make a good decision without coming down and looking at it.”
Bosak visited Ralsey Road beach, Inman said.
“As a result, he asked good questions – questions that should have been asked by other board members,” she said.
Bosak, the Zoning Board’s only Republican, became a member in November. He said he hears the frustration of residents who struggle to understand Zoning Board complexities, but members – volunteers appointed by the mayor and approved by city representatives – spend a lot of time reviewing documents presented to them before each meeting.
“I think most people who tune in can see how many hours we put in,” Bosak said. “My experience is that there are thoughtful decisions being made.”
Zoning matters can significantly affect peoples’ lives, so site visits are important, he said.
“You have to study the schematics, yes, but I need to look at the neighborhood and hear from the community, and not make decisions in a silo,” Bosak said. “In the Ralsey Road case, I think the plan that was proposed was not the biggest and best use of a property that has deed holders. The best use is not restricting access.”