Is Stamford’s Zoning Board Allowed to Say No?

A 900 Long Ridge Road corporate park building slated for conversion to housing (CT Examiner)

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To the Editor:

Stamford’s Zoning Board rejected the proposal for a 508-unit apartment complex for 900 Long Ridge Road. However, despite the unanimous rejection from the Zoning Board on November 27th, and the vehement opposition from surrounding residents throughout the application process, the developer feels empowered to appeal this decision to the courts.

There is a formidable laundry list of concerns that were expressed with respect to items that are directly and objectively within the purview of zoning (a myriad of conflicts with various provisions of the Stamford Master Plan, traffic concerns, sustainability score card, historical preservation of site, and so on) that collectively led to a rejection of this proposal.

It begs to question, if the Zoning Board cannot say no to developments that it finds incompatible with zoning, then what authority (if any) does the Zoning Board really have?  More importantly, has the preceding years of effectively ubiquitous approvals and the city’s outright acquiescence to developers’ commercial objectives endowed developers with a sense of entitlement? Has Stamford’s commitment to increase the housing stock at (nearly) any cost conditioned these developers to cry to the courts every time they don’t get their way?

For context on this proposal – if approved, this proposal would have represented roughly 8% of the Turn of the River’s population at one address – and this massive development would have been directly adjacent to very low-density single-family home zone, the lowest density residential zone in Stamford. Qualitatively, it felt like a pretty big stretch from a zoning perspective – and yet, the applicant expressed strong confidence (to the point of openly mocking residents who expressed concerns during the public hearing) that this project’s approval was a foregone conclusion.

This confidence makes sense, given the recent track record for such proposals. Afterall, this is the same Zoning Board that has approved thousands upon thousands of new residential units to be constructed in Stamford just over the last few years, a board whose members are mostly occupying expired terms under the protection of the mayor, and a city that has an executive order from the mayor herself to promote more affordable housing stock by 2025 that serves as a strong tailwind to any such proposals.

The applicant laid out the case for the project in a 270+ page application packet that can be found on the Zoning Board website, and explained as best they could how the applicant felt that this proposal was both within the zoning limits, and an appropriate development with respect to Stamford’s Master Plan and purported housing needs.

Typically, whenever a profit-maximizing proposal comes across Redniss and Mead’s (the land surveyor representing this applicant and many others over the years in Stamford) docket, and it is highly at odds with existing regulations, there is an extensive history of text changes to regulations, applications for special permits, etc. that effectively skirt around existing regulations whenever they are inconvenient. These measures are a clear reflection of a great sickness in Stamford’s zoning practices – applicants routinely apply to adjust what is permitted to accommodate the commercial ambitions of developers, and rarely if ever do developers actually adhere to existing regulations and modify their developments to fit within zoning constraints.

900 Long Ridge Road was no exception to this. Until changes were made, the general scope of this proposal was also out of the question. As the applicant notes in their legal summons, it was not until Application 221-20, which was approved in mid-2021, that this property was approved for multifamily use. Further, the scale of this project required the developer to apply for a special permit, which was later granted in July 2023. So yet again, this proposal is an example of text changes and spot zoning to assist developers in meting their commercial objectives.

However, even with these changes and special permits, the project still needs to meet the standards of the Zoning Board with respect to the Zoning Board’s interpretation of Stamford’s Master Plan, traffic impacts, sustainability, and any other items within the Zoning Board’s purview.

While property owners in Stamford have a right to pursue profitability, there are also clear protections provided to low-density zones and residential areas to prevent abuse of regulations and/or displacement of single-family zones. That indeed was chief among the reasons stated for the rejection.

In their summons, the applicant has mounted a number of accusations at the board, including that they exercised: “predisposition”, “predetermination”, “not reasonable judgement”, and that they acted “illegally, arbitrarily, and in abuse of the discretion vested in it”.

However, issues found with the application by the Zoning Board are well within their purview, such as inconsistencies with Stamford’s Master Plan 1.3, 1.3B, 6A.1, Section 8 subsections 1, 2, and 8, to name a few. They also found the complete demolition and reconstruction to be inconsistent with the stated goal of “repurposing” the existing offices. They also highlighted concerns regarding the sustainability of the project, highlighting that the project received a “C” on its report card, which the board found insufficient and lacking excellence. They also note other items in their full Resolution for Denial, which I won’t belabor here.

The public also noted issues with the traffic study, including a concerning footnote in which Kimley Horn openly discloses that certain impactful design choices for the traffic study were not made for the purpose of being accurate, but rather for the purpose of adhering to their client’s vested interests. The public noted that this appears to be a violation of the State of CT Traffic Study Guidelines section 2.4.2 which calls for “objective, measurable criteria” in such studies.

Instead of listening to these reasonable objections, the applicant has chosen to make spurious claims that discriminatory factors (how these might apply to yet another proposed luxury apartment complex, they refuse to expand on, but I digress), and other unsubstantiated motives led to this denial. They claim that these exclusionary ideals have led a lack of support for the proposal, despite no support for that claim other than their suppositions. In doing so, the applicant hopes to politicize an entirely valid and lawful rejection, and abuse culture to extract their commercial objectives.

As evidenced thoroughly on the last zoning call, the residents are very much in opposition to the proposal. The residents are clear with their voice – they aren’t against development – they are strongly in favor of development that is compatible with zoning. River Oaks, Havenmeyer, type of townhome complexes would be far more compatible and less disruptive to the many hundreds of adjacent families, traffic, environment, etc. These sentiments were echoed by the Zoning Board themselves within the wording of their denial.

The applicant suggested at the conclusion of the last public zoning meeting that if the board rejected on the basis of incompatibility of the “character” of the neighborhood, then such a rejection might be in violation of CT case law that suggests these such determinations could be discriminatory in nature. This is clearly not true (as evidenced by a litany of objection items that have nothing to do with character), and the applicant is clearly going this route in an attempt to discredit those who might dare oppose the proposal.

If the applicant is granted attention by the courts for this petulant attempt to circumvent the authority of the Zoning Board, then what indeed is the purpose of zoning? Is it not a guide that helps the Zoning Board to weigh the development needs of the city, with reasonable protections extended to the existing families of Stamford? If the developer wins this legal appeal, then what legal precedent is set with respect to future denials by the Zoning Board?

We are at a crossroads for the future of this city: are Stamford’s residential neighborhoods granted any protections to maintain their existing low density, or do developers have carte blanche to build multifamily complexes wherever suits their needs, irrespective the Zoning Board’s interpretation of the Master Plan?

Patrick Kazley
Stamford, CT