Local Reps Propose Repeal of Simmons Bill Limiting Local Authority on Land Use

(CT Examiner)


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STAMFORD – Nine months after a bill was slipped into must-pass multibillion state borrowing stripping towns of much of their power to change how local land-use decisions are conducted, a local lawmaker has introduced legislation that restores much of that authority.

Senate Bill 333 would allow towns, once again, to revise rules in their local charters governing planning and zoning boards, the taking of private land, and sales of public property.

But the bill leaves in place new restrictions limiting the ability of towns to change petition procedures for decisions by local zoning boards.

State Sen. Ryan Fazio of Greenwich, who introduced Senate Bill 333, said there was support for repealing three of the prohibitions included in the so-called “rat bill,” but the fourth, repealing a prohibition on petitioning zoning decisions, faced significant opposition and was dropped.

Fazio represents District 36, which includes parts of Stamford and New Canaan.

“I spoke with House Democratic leadership and we thought it should move forward with a hearing on three-quarters of it,” Fazio said. “We’re appreciative of the input and willingness of leadership to do a hearing and to potentially make changes to the law so we can come to a compromise on giving towns the ability to make their own decisions while keeping reasonable guardrails in place.”

According to Fazio, state Democratic leaders were still concerned “that a vocal minority could slow down planning and zoning decisions through a petition, especially if it could be signed online.”

“They would rather see development decisions made through ordinances, in a more orderly way,” Fazio explained.

A public hearing on Senate Bill 333, An Act Concerning Local Charter Revisions, is scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow, Wednesday. 

Two Stamford Democrats, State Rep. Anabel Figueroa of District 148 and State Rep. David Michel of District 146, sponsored the bill with Fazio.

Fazio’s fellow Republican, state Rep. Tom O’Dea, was also a sponsor. O’Dea represents District 125, which includes New Canaan, Darien and parts of Stamford.

Figueroa said Monday she’s dismayed that Senate Bill 333 would not restore towns’ ability to improve the petitioning process for citizens who wish to challenge zoning decisions. But it’s important that towns regain control over decisions on eminent domain, which most affects working-class people, Figueroa said.

“They are usually the ones whose property is taken, and they don’t have the money to fight the loss of property in court. To appeal, you need money,” Figueroa said. 

But, she said, “we have to do what we can, and return some of these rights back to residents.”

Simmons, who was a state representative before becoming mayor of Stamford, went to Hartford on the final day of the legislature last year and, with help from Democratic leaders, had the restrictions inserted into the budget package approved as the session ended. Most members of Stamford’s state delegation have said they didn’t know Simmons inserted the bill into the budget deal.

The bill outlawed proposals that at the time were being discussed by the Stamford Charter Revision Commission. Simmons said at the time she did not support the revisions because they were anti-development.

One proposal would have made it easier for residents to appeal Zoning Board decisions through petitioning. Another would have added requirements for more public hearings and public notice before decisions on proposed developments. Two others would have increased the number of votes required for the city to take private property by eminent domain or to sell public land.

But the law, sparked by a local political fight in Stamford, prohibited all 109 Connecticut towns that are governed by charters from modifying those and other zoning regulations.

Fazio said the bill ended up with statewide implications, but with no chance for citizens to weigh in. 

“As I’ve gone around the state I’ve seen that people are frustrated by the change. I have heard very few people in the past year tell me they like the statute, or how it was passed,” Fazio said. 

Simmons’ special assistant, Lauren Meyer, and chief of staff, Bridget Fox, were asked Monday whether the mayor will speak in opposition to Senate Bill 333. Neither replied.

The Stamford Neighborhoods Association is notifying members to speak at Wednesday morning’s public hearing by Zoom, or submit written testimony, said Barry Michelson, who runs the group.

“These ‘rat bills’ are an ongoing practice. When things are controversial, they just get slipped in. They’re not discussed, not debated,” Michelson said. “We got a lot of calls as a result of the ‘rat bill.’ People said, ‘This is not how democracy should be run; this is not the kind of government we want. Aren’t we the constitution state?’”

Wednesday’s hearing offers a chance for the public to weigh-in and debate legislation, said Fazio, something they weren’t afforded originally.

To submit testimony for the hearing, visit here.

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.