Push for Coastal Development Puts Role of Harbor Management Commissions ‘Under Fire’

(CT Examiner)


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STAMFORD – To convert its Elmcroft Road headquarters into 256 apartments, Building & Land Technology, the city’s largest developer, didn’t need any special permits – only a coastal site plan review.

It’s because the six-story office building, former home to Pitney Bowes, once Stamford’s largest employer, sits on the waterfront.

In August the Zoning Board voted 3-2 to approve BLT’s plan for the site. But there was a problem.

The Stamford Harbor Management Commission was not asked to review the developer’s coastal site plan ahead of the Zoning Board.

It was strange because such reviews are always referred to the harbor commission first, said the chair, Damian Ortelli. 

“We and the Zoning Board are supposed to be a team, working together for the good of Stamford residents,” Ortelli said. “I don’t believe it involves skipping steps. The more eyes on a site review, the better for Stamford.”

By state law, commissions prepare plans for managing recreational and commercial use of Connecticut harbors, and work to preserve coastal resources for citizens.

There are 27 harbor management commissions in Connecticut, said John Pinto, president of the Connecticut Harbor Management Association and a member of Norwalk’s commission. 

Their role appears to be under fire, Pinto said.

There are two issues, he said.

Shot ‘in the foot’

One is a recent ruling in a Greenwich case by a state Superior Court judge who said harbor management commissions may review applications for local site plans, but they have no authority to review the often larger applications made to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“Commissions are advisory – they review any application that comes before them for consistency with the town’s state-approved harbor management plan,” Pinto said. “We cannot veto anything DEEP does – we never had the authority to do that. But when we made a recommendation on a site plan, it was binding unless a state official indicated their objection in writing.”

Now, however, harbor commissions “cannot pass judgment on any state application,” Pinto said. 

“The judge really shot us in the foot. His edict denudes the authority of all harbor commissions in Connecticut,” Pinto said. “Harbor commissions, which are supposed to look out for average citizens, have no more jurisdiction than the average citizen.”

The second issue explains why he thinks harbor commissions are under fire, Pinto said.

“In Norwalk, Stamford, Greenwich, Stratford, Fairfield and other places, they are building within coastal management areas. In Norwalk they just increased the population density allowed in flood zones,” Pinto said. “The state and cities want multi-family dwellings on the coastline. They want development. They want what developers want.” 

It’s why Ortelli, after noticing the Zoning Board’s August approval of BLT’s coastal site plan, asked Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing why the Stamford Harbor Management Commission was not asked to review it, as is the process.

A quicker approval?

Ortelli said he was told by a Land Use Bureau planner in August that it was because BLT had to move forward with its project quickly. He also contacted Zoning Board Chair David Stein, Ortelli said.

Neither the planner nor Stein mentioned a policy change, Ortelli said, but in September Blessing told him that the Land Use Bureau had altered its procedure for referring coastal site plans to the harbor commission.

“For almost 20 years, all coastal site plan reviews were automatically sent to us,” Ortelli said. “This policy flies in the face of that. Blessing said he asked the law department for an opinion and they took a more narrow view of the state statute.”

The opinion is based on language in the law that states that the commission has to review plans for property that is “on, in or contiguous to” the waterfront, Ortelli said.

“The opinion left out that the law also says we can review plans that ‘cause an effect on the harbor,’ which denotes properties that may not be directly on the water, like Elmcroft, but cause things to drain into the water,” Ortelli said. “The whole thing doesn’t make sense because they sent a site plan for that building to us in February or March, when BLT was making minor changes to buildings and grounds, and we had no objections.”

Blessing said the law says the commission “shall” review plans for properties on, in or contiguous to the water, but it uses the weaker “may” for those that can cause an effect on the water.

Given the years of precedent, something else is going on, Ortelli said.

‘A push for development’

“I think there is a push for development because of the swell of people that have come into the state since COVID,” Ortelli said. “I think swapping unused office space for housing is probably a good idea. But the job of people in land use is to create the rules developers have to follow – rules that were established to protect the general interests of the people of Stamford, not the general interests of developers.”

During the commission’s September meeting, Blessing said some coastal site plan reviews should not be sent to the harbor commission. The city’s engineering department and Environmental Protection Board are better equipped to review them, Blessing said. 

“Quite honestly, I’m not quite sure what your competence is when it comes to reviewing drainage plans and compliance with the city drainage manual,” he said. “In that sense, I think it’s a good thing we think about what should be referred and what should not.” 

The value of the harbor commission is its unique perspective, evidenced by the recent Ralsey Road beach case, Ortelli said.

Shippan residents were concerned about a new homeowner’s plan to move the front entrance of his home and build two driveways, one for himself and one for his neighbor, on either side of the beach, significantly narrowing the entrance. 

For 100 years Ralsey Road neighbors have had deeded rights to the beach, and they were concerned that their access was in jeopardy. The Harbor Management Commission listened to their concerns, notified the Zoning Board before it met on the matter, and advised the board to hold a public hearing.

The Zoning Board consulted a city attorney who concluded that beach rights are a legal matter, not a zoning matter, and advised the board against a hearing.

So residents were not allowed to speak. Three of the five Zoning Board members then voted to allow the homeowner to build the driveways. The plan would have passed, but the harbor commission had voted to recommend that it be rejected, so the Zoning Board needed four votes for approval instead of three, and the driveway plan failed.

“Our role is to be that advisor, to get a sense of what the neighbors are thinking, to share what we learn with the Zoning Board,” Ortelli said. “It’s a good process and that’s why we should use it, not circumvent it.”

Seven voices

During the commission meeting, member Russ Hollander laid out the significance of its role. The commissioners are seven volunteers who “are passionate about the harbor because we spend our lives there,” Hollander said. 

“Half of Stamford is covered by water at high tide, and it’s only seven voices that look after that half of Stamford,” Hollander said. “We may not always be experts on how high a generator pad should be, or what the runoff effect is, but what we are expert on is how much we care about the harbor, and sometimes that perspective in an application is the most valuable perspective that comes to bear.”

Because commissioners know the harbor well, they are good judges of how it “is used by all the citizens that come to the water, love the water, fish the water, view the water, traffic on these waters,” Hollander said. It’s worth “a few minutes of application review,” he said. 

Geoff Steadman, a consultant to the Stamford Harbor Management Commission and others in the state, said that if BLT’s Elmcroft Road coastal site plan had been referred, he would have had questions about the nearby hurricane barrier, which protects 600 acres of the city from flooding during storms.

“I would have asked whether BLT will need any kind of approval from the Army Corps of Engineers for a project so close to the hurricane barrier,” Steadman said to Blessing during the meeting. “But you made the decision to not refer it, so there was no discussion.”

Blessing said Wednesday the Land Use Bureau values the commission’s expertise and service. 

His office changed the policy after a review of state requirements for referrals to harbor commissions, “to make sure that Stamford practices are aligned with statutory requirements.”

Stamford’s final policy “will depend on a discussion between (the commission,) the Land Use Bureau and the law department,” Blessing said. 

“Until then, staff was instructed to revert to the previous referral process,” he said. The Greenwich case “played no role in changing Land Use Bureau policy,” he said.

A check and balance

Ortelli said referring site plans to harbor commissions helps guard against “people getting special favors.” Pinto said commissions “can help take out some of the politics.”

A harbor commission “is an interesting island of its own,” Ortelli said. “It has responsibilities to the city, responsibilities to the state, but not a lot of political pressure. We are more independent. It allows us to say, ‘This thing doesn’t fit; that does.’” 

Zoning Boards typically deal with more of the politics, he said.

“The Zoning Board might say, ‘This doesn’t fit, but maybe we can make it fit by changing this over here, that over there,’” Ortelli said.

Rules are loosening across coastal Connecticut, Steadman and Pinto said. Communities are using resilience planning for rising sea levels, for example, as a way to build on waterfronts, they said.

“The purpose of resilience planning is to accelerate recovery for flood-prone areas and to prevent flooding, not to develop flood areas,” Steadman said.

The goal of resilience planning “is not to increase population density; it’s to manage what’s already there,” Pinto said.

“I feel quite strongly about protecting coastal areas and keeping strong harbor commissions that work for the people to protect water quality and access,” Pinto said. “I want prudent development, not rampant development that’s looking to build whatever they can in flood-prone areas. But the waterfront is becoming a playground for developers.”

Editor’s note: John Pinto, president of the Connecticut Harbor Management Association, is a member of Norwalk’s commission but he is not the head of it as previously published. This story has been updated.

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.