13-Bedroom, 8-Bathroom Renovation in Stamford Sparks Zoning Question

(CT Examiner)

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STAMFORD – A renovation under way on Bonner Street has residents confounded – and alarmed.

In their Waterside neighborhood of modest homes, the two-family at 50 Bonner St. is mushrooming from six bedrooms and four bathrooms to 13 bedrooms and eight bathrooms.

Under zoning regulations, the owner of the site may double the number of bedrooms and bathrooms “as of right,” meaning no variances or special permits are required.

And 50 Bonner will still be considered a two-family home.

“To me, this looks like a rooming house,” said city Rep. Virgil de la Cruz, whose district includes Bonner Street. “Can a two-family have 20 bedrooms? How far can it go?”

He’s learned that it’s farther than residents think, de la Cruz said. 

He has been asking city officials how zoning regulations might be revised to prevent developers from doubling rental space in homes in residential neighborhoods.

De la Cruz emailed Zoning Enforcement Officer Jim Lunney to find out whether constraints can be implemented using parking requirements.

Nope, Lunney replied.

“Parking does vary due to bedroom count in some areas, but it always stops at three or more bedrooms,” Lunney wrote. “That means it is the same parking requirement for a three-bedroom as it is for an eight-bedroom house.”

De la Cruz emailed Chief Building Official Shawn Reed, who admonished him and his constituents for “falsely claiming the renovation” on Bonner Street “is turning it into a rooming house.”

“We have taken the complaints seriously and investigated thoroughly. Our inspectors have been monitoring the construction to make sure it does not deviate from the plans,” Reed wrote. 

“The work being done is in accordance with the plans approved by all required city departments,” Reed wrote. “Should the owner try and build something other than what is approved, we will take the appropriate action and a (certificate of occupancy) will not be issued if the work completed results in anything other than a two-family. I trust this will finally put an end to the constant complaints containing zero evidence and overwhelming speculation.”

Do signatures matter?

Waterside residents tried to communicate their view that zoning regulations threaten their peace and financial well-being.

They sent a letter and signed a petition urging city officials to “stand with us in opposing conversion of this structure into what is essentially a rooming house under the guise of a two-family dwelling.”

Residents wrote that their “peaceful neighborhood in Waterside, Stamford, has been a haven for many retired residents who have worked tirelessly to build their homes here. It is a place where they envisioned spending their golden years without worrying about depreciating property values.”

The letter quotes the city’s master plan, which states that  “maintaining community character and preserving and enhancing quality of life in Stamford’s neighborhoods is central to the vision for the future of the city.”

Development “should be balanced with preserving” quality of life, residents wrote.

But quality of life is precarious on Bonner Street which, like other Waterside roads, has many two-family homes and types of apartments, legal and illegal. Curbsides are parked bumper to bumper with cars, de la Cruz said.

“The area has a lot of problems with parking,” he said.

‘Word gets out’

This week de la Cruz put the Bonner Street matter before the Board of Representatives’ Land Use Committee.

“As word gets out” that zoning regulations allow developers to double the size of certain two-family homes, “we can expect more of this, not only in my district but in other districts in Stamford,” de la Cruz told fellow representatives. “So I think it calls for some constraints. … Can anything be done to the zoning regulations to limit this kind of expansion?”

Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing attended the meeting. Reed declined to attend, and declined on behalf of Lunney, who reports to him.

Blessing said some constraints are in place already. Rooming houses are prohibited in the zoning district that includes Bonner Street, he said. Short-term rentals such as AirBnB are prohibited in single- and two-family zones unless the homeowner lives there and rents to no more than two people. 

House size is limited, too, Blessing said. In the zone that includes Bonner Street, for example, a house may occupy no more than 25 percent of the lot, and may stand no higher than 2.5 stories.

“That creates the box in which a building has to fit,” Blessing said. 

“So you can’t build as big as you want.”

Zoning regulations say a double-unit house may be occupied by two families, defining a family as people related through blood or marriage, Blessing said. A family may take in up to two boarders. A unit also may be occupied by up to four unrelated individuals. 

Still, a conversion of a two-family home can go as big as the one at 50 Bonner St.

“It seems suspicious,” de la Cruz said. “There are mansions that don’t have 13 bedrooms. One of the units would have eight bedrooms, so a family with four children would still have three bedrooms to rent out. The landlord could have a field day with an AirBnB or a rooming house.”

Blessing didn’t disagree.

“If you ask me personally, does this look suspicious? Yes, it does look suspicious,” Blessing said. “But under the current regulation, there is nothing that can be done.”

Make a better place

The owner, Neville Denton of Stamford, said Wednesday he’s doing what’s allowed, and parking won’t be a problem because he has a four-car garage and plus room for 10 more parking spots on his quarter-acre lot.

There are houses on Bonner Street with many people living in them, legally or illegally, Denton said.

“Would you rather see one three-bedroom house with 12 people in it, or an eight-bedroom house with eight people in it? Which is more dangerous for the City of Stamford?” he asked.

He is providing housing in a city that needs it, Denton said. The thousands of luxury apartments that have gone up in the last 15 years are out of reach to many people, he said.

“Affordable housing cannot be found in Stamford,” Denton said. “If I left the building the way it was, I would be part of the problem and not the solution. I am not a developer who comes in and wants to generate money and go. I am a part of the fabric of Stamford.”

City Rep. Nina Sherwood, majority leader of the Board of Representatives and co-chair of the Land Use Committee, said enforcement of zoning regulations is a continuing problem. Blessing agreed. 

“As a city that is growing the way we are, we need to make sure we are hearing the people who are trying to speak about the concerns they have,” Sherwood said. “I believe there is room to grow, but we also have to make sure the growth does not negatively affect the futures of the people who have invested in our city.”

She asked Blessing whether he would work with representatives on a zoning regulation to address two-family home conversions. 

“Absolutely,” Blessing said. “I am certainly happy to draft something or have you send me the parameters of what you have in mind.”

Denton said he’s happy he helped start a conversation about housing unaffordability, congestion, and lack of enforcement.

“I hope the conversation will continue,” Denton said. “I hope we can make Stamford a better place for everybody.”


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.

a.carella@ctexaminer.com