STAMFORD – Longtime Planning Board Chair Theresa Dell fought back tears as she concluded this week’s meeting with an announcement.
Dell said she and fellow longtime board member Michael Totilo will not submit their names for reappointment to the Planning Board, a body of five volunteers who help decide how development goes in Stamford.
“We are going to be resigning our positions … it’s a little emotional,” Dell said. “I would like to thank everyone who has allowed me to be on this board since 2001.”
Dell, a Republican, chaired the board for most of those 22 years – an appointee of mayors from both political parties. Her fellow Republican, Totilo, said he has been a member of the Planning Board for 13 years.
Dell said she and Totilo “are not going to make any further comments on our resignations because we will be on the board until at least February 27, and we do not want to have to recuse ourselves because we might have said something that could be controversial or taken in the wrong way.”
It was an acknowledgement of the bitter dispute over development that has gripped Stamford all year, exacerbated by proposed revisions to the city charter that went on the ballot, and were defeated, in November.
On one side of the dispute are those who support the rapid development that has propelled Stamford to its No. 2 spot on Connecticut’s list of largest cities. That side includes Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons and the leaders of her party, who say their goal is to fulfill the demand for more housing.
The other side says growth is haphazard and poorly planned, driven by what suits developers, not residents who feel they have to fight to protect their neighborhoods from housing and traffic congestion.
It has been a year of scrutiny trained on the Planning Board and its sister, the five-member Zoning Board. Members are nominated by their political parties, chosen by the mayor, and approved by the Board of Representatives.
Underdog Republicans act
But the system hasn’t worked for decades. Mayors who like how their appointees vote have not, in practice, put them up for reappointment when their terms expire, for fear the Board of Representatives will reject them.
So appointees often sit on boards long after their terms are up, an element the charter revisions aimed to remedy.
Dell’s term, for example, expired in 2020, and Totilo’s term expired in 2018. In fact, all the members of the Planning Board are beyond their terms, as are three of the five members of the Zoning Board.
The Republican Town Committee is seeking to address that, said the chair, Joseph Andreana Jr.
At this week’s RTC meeting, city Republicans, who are significantly outnumbered by Democrats, voted to submit Stephen Garst and Prasad Tungaturthy to the mayor as candidates for the expired Planning Board seats, Andreana said. Under the minority representation rule, the majority Democrats may hold no more than three seats.
Garst is a business owner, former city representative, and a founder of the Stamford Neighborhoods Coalition. Tungaturthy is a software engineer who ran for the Board of Finance in 2009 and then for the Board of Education in 2015 before dropping out because of work commitments.
‘A different direction’
The Republican Party also is looking at the Zoning Board, Andreana said. Last month RTC members took a unanimous no-confidence vote against longtime Republican Zoning Board member Rosanne McManus, Andreana said.
McManus, whose latest term expired in 2018, has sat on the Zoning Board for roughly a decade.
“Rosanne McManus has served the community for many years, and I appreciate all she has done,” Andreana said Thursday. “But it seems like we need to go in a different direction than where she is headed, based on her votes.”
McManus “has continuously sided with developers,” Andreana said. “We want to ensure that the boards protect the people of Stamford and provide checks and balances. We’re not against development. We’re for development that makes sense.”
It’s not clear whether McManus will resign from the Zoning Board as a result of her party’s no-confidence vote.
Andreana said he and McManus “are in conversations. She is very professional. I think she is taking time to consider the vote and whether to step down. I have full confidence that we will work toward an appropriate resolution.”
McManus Thursday did not respond to requests for comment.
The Planning Board and Zoning Board have histories of approving developments in Stamford, where thousands of housing units have been built in the last dozen years, making it Connecticut’s fastest-growing city.
Amid the contentious discussion over charter changes, which city representatives said were designed to allow residents more say in planning and zoning decisions, residents have been speaking out. A recent Zoning Board meeting on Zoom drew more than 500 viewers.
Some members of the land-use boards lately have responded by considering residents’ objections and taking the unusual step of rejecting projects. Developers have struck back with legal action.
A slew of suits
Since October, six lawsuits have been executed or threatened against land-use boards:
- On Wednesday, 900 Long Ridge Road Property Owner, an affiliate of Monday Properties, filed a suit in state Superior Court in Stamford over the Zoning Board’s rejection of its plan to build 508 apartments in a mostly vacant office park at that address. Zoning Board members determined that the project does not conform to requirements for size and scale, and would not be “compatible with surrounding residential properties.” Board members, like residents, said the project fits high-density zoning districts, such as downtown, and not the site on the edge of woodsy North Stamford. The lawsuit asserts that the Zoning Board acted against the Planning Board, which determined that the project aligned with city master plan goals to redevelop underused office parks for housing. The suit alleges that the Zoning Board acted “illegally, arbitrarily, and in abuse of the discretion vested in it” because its decision was not supported by facts or zoning regulations but on a perception of neighborhood “character,” a consideration that violates state law.
- In November, a partner with the private equity firm backing Nautilus Botanicals said the company is consulting attorneys to determine whether to pursue legal action against the Zoning Board for rejecting their request to operate a marijuana dispensary at 1110 E. Main St. The Zoning Board denied the application over concerns, shared with residents, about inadequate parking and added traffic in a congested neighborhood.
- In November, a Shippan Point couple filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court charging that the Zoning Board “acted illegally, arbitrarily and in an abuse of its discretion” in rejecting their application to renovate the $3.2 million waterfront home they bought last year and build driveways on the edges of a shared beach on Ralsey Road. The plan failed over concerns about access rights deeded long ago to dozens of homeowners who live near the beach.
- In November, Jim Cain, president of Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee Cain Management, said he will appeal the Zoning Board of Appeals’ rejection of his application for a drive-thru permit. Cain said he will take the case to state Superior Court. The Zoning Board of Appeals voted to overturn the zoning enforcement officer’s decision to grant Cain a permit for a drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts at 364 Hope St., saying it would add to the traffic burden on heavily congested Hope Street.
- In October, the Zoning Board settled with Sweetspot, a marijuana dispensary seeking to operate in a shopping center at Bull’s Head. Sweetspot had sued the Zoning Board, alleging that members acted arbitrarily, and contrary to city regulations and state law, in denying its application for the site at 111 High Ridge Road. Board members agreed with residents, saying the application did not fit the neighborhood, was too close to businesses that serve children, and would add traffic in an area already under development – reasons that may not have prevailed in court, given the settlement.
- Residents are waiting to see whether Horn & Hoof Properties will challenge a November decision by the Planning Board to reject an application to build 12 townhouses on adjacent parcels at 961 Long Ridge Road and 16 Wire Mill Road, beside the Merritt Parkway. Planning Board members, concurring with residents, cited traffic safety concerns about the exits and entrances planned for the complex, and said they would rather see small starter homes than high-end townhouses on the site.
It’s not clear whether the litigation discourages sitting board members, or people thinking of seeking board appointments, from serving.
Deterred from service?
Michael Larobina, a former legal affairs director for the city, and a member of the Charter Revision Commission and the RTC, said he doesn’t think so.
“I see the opposite. I think there are plenty of people who want to serve,” Larobina said. “There are people who deeply care and want to be engaged. I think that’s true across all boards and commissions.”
Larobina said “a good thing” came out of the push for charter changes, even though they failed at the ballot box.
“Charter revision raised people’s knowledge of how city government works and brought a lot of attention to the issues facing the city,” Larobina said.
Gerry Bosak, a Republican who took a seat on the Zoning Board last year, agreed.
The people of Stamford “are concerned about how significantly the landscape has changed in Stamford, and they have become more engaged in the year I have been on the Zoning Board,” Bosak said. “People definitely want to serve.”
Attitudes may be changing, said Republican city Rep. Bradley Bewkes, who co-chaired the Board of Representatives’ Charter Revision Committee. Rejections of projects by the land-use boards “are almost unheard of,” Bewkes said, adding that it’s time for Stamford to stick to its zoning regulations rather than bend them to accommodate development projects, a practice known as spot zoning.
“The lawsuits are a symptom of our broken process. They are not the cause,” Bewkes said. “During charter revision people from other cities saw how Stamford does zoning and said, ‘That’s backwards.’ The lawsuits are coming because our process is broken.”
Waiting on the mayor
Republican Shelley Michelson, who also sat on the Charter Revision Commission, said she thinks land-use board members are “starting to listen to what communities want with development.”
Michelson said that “the contract people thought they had with the Zoning Board to protect their homes and neighborhoods has been abrogated. Now people are coming together, and the pressure may have the boards rethinking all the spot zoning.”
The small number of appointees on the land-use boards make big decisions about the city, and it’s not known how Simmons will handle the new candidates Republicans are nominating. The city charter says that, each January, mayors must submit nominees to the Board of Representatives “to fill each vacancy where a term of office has expired.”
In her two years in office, Simmons, like other mayors, has not done that. Her special assistant, Lauren Meyer, and chief of staff, Bridget Fox, did not respond to an email asking whether Simmons plans to renominate appointees serving on expired terms.
According to the charter, if a mayor fails to submit a nomination to the Board of Representatives within 120 days after an appointee’s term expires, the president of the Board of Representatives may nominate someone.
Board of Representatives President Jeff Curtis, a Democrat like Simmons, said he would be the first president in recent memory to do it.
“I don’t want to say that, if the mayor doesn’t submit names, I have a list of people, because I don’t. I have to talk to board leadership to see what their recommendations are,” Curtis said. “I have the charter to fall back on, but let’s see what the mayor does.”