Stamford Republican Planning Members Stay on in Long-Running Dispute to Fill Seats

(CT Examiner)


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STAMFORD – After a long discussion about whether to significantly reduce the parking space requirement for a proposed downtown hotel, Planning Board Chair Theresa Dell ended the first meeting of the month with “a side note.”

Dell said that, though she and fellow member Michael Totilo have said they would relinquish their expired seats after the board’s Feb. 27 meeting, that will not be the case.

“As of today, the applicants, if there are any, for our positions on the Planning Board have not been before the mayor or the Board of Representatives, so Michael and I may be staying on through March, until we hear further from the mayor,” Dell said. “If something does change, and new members are approved … we will change our decision. But, for now, we are on (the board) probably through March.”

Her announcement spotlights an old beef in Stamford – appointees who sit on important boards beyond their terms aren’t soon replaced.

Dell’s term expired in 2020, and Totilo’s in 2018. The two Republicans decided to step down after their party voted in December against submitting their names for renomination. 

Dell has been on the Planning Board for 22 years; Totilo for 13 years. The Republican chair has said the party would like to see smarter development decisions from the Planning Board, which has a history of approving the large projects that have produced more than 12,000 mostly high-priced apartments in the last 12 years. 

Stamford mayors who are content with how their appointees vote on their boards have been reluctant to renominate them when their terms expire, out of concern that the Board of Representatives will not grant final approval. 

Mayor Caroline Simmons has said she supports the development that has made Stamford the fastest-growing city in Connecticut. 

Simmons’ special assistant, Lauren Meyer, was asked Thursday whether the mayor has nominees in mind for the Planning Board seats. Meyer did not answer directly.

“The mayor plans to continue interviewing candidates for all boards and commissions, including land use boards, in the coming months,” Meyer said. “Our goal is to put up slates of candidates each month for specific boards and address any urgent vacancies that need to be filled.”

Administrations in the past have blamed delays on the political parties, which submit nominees to the mayor. The city Charter, however, does not require that mayors obtain names from the parties. It is only a custom. 

Meyer Thursday did not answer a question about whether Simmons will follow the custom, nominate different Republicans, or nominate unaffiliated candidates.

Under the minority representation rule, no party may hold more than three of the five voting seats on the Planning Board. Three Democrats now sit on board, all on expired terms.

Republican Town Committee Chair Joseph Andreana Jr. said Thursday that the party gave the mayor two names in December – business owner Stephen Garst, a former city representative and a founder of the Stamford Neighborhoods Coalition; and Prasad Tungaturthy, a software engineer who has run for the Board of Finance and Board of Education.

Andreana said Garst and Tungaturthy have a date with the mayor’s office.

“It’s my understanding that they will be interviewed on February 29th,” Andreana said.

If Simmons accepts the Republican Party’s submissions, Garst and Tungaturthy will be called to appear before the Board of Representatives’ Appointments Committee before the full board votes.

City Rep. Denis Patterson, the committee chair, said Thursday he is not aware of any imminent nominations for the Planning Board.

There would be “a quick, short timeline” for scheduling interviews with the Appointments Committee, then passing its recommendations on to the full board for a vote, Patterson said. 

“We would hold everybody’s feet to the fire to make it happen,” Patterson said.

The Planning Board, which makes recommendations on development matters, and the Zoning Board, which decides them, were at the center of a bitter dispute last year. Proposals to change zoning regulations in the city Charter went on the ballot in November and were defeated. 

Simmons and the leaders of the Democratic Party opposed the changes, saying they would thwart development. Supporters said the changes would give more say to residents who believe development is poorly planned and fails to protect neighborhoods from housing and traffic congestion.

The Planning Board has five voting members and up to three alternates, all appointed by the mayor and approved by the Board of Representatives. The volunteer members, who serve four-year terms, usually meet twice a month.

The Planning Board charts development for the city by drawing up the master plan, which guides the city forward based on “analysis of existing conditions and anticipated needs,” its website states. 

The board also drafts the capital budget, which “lays out the city’s investments in streets, schools, parks and other infrastructure,” according to the website.

The Planning Board’s online meetings have been drawing more and more residents interested in the deliberation of development matters. 

Last year, for example, the board approved a proposal to build 508 apartments in a mostly vacant office park at 900 Long Ridge Road. The Zoning Board later rejected the proposal, saying it would not be “compatible with surrounding residential properties.” 

In December the owner, Monday Properties, sued the Zoning Board, saying it acted against the Planning Board’s determination that the project fulfills the master plan.

A proposal for another project in an office park nearby will likely stir similar controversy.

That owner, Building and Land Technology, has made an application to build 354 apartments and 9,400 square feet of commercial space at 800 Long Ridge Road. BLT wants to demolish a large office building and garage, and put up two four-story apartment buildings.

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.