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Wednesday, November 14 Local

Stamford reps: Reject zone change to allow freestanding fitness centers in office parks

STAMFORD — Homeowners seeking to overturn a Zoning Board ruling that would allow a large fitness center in their neighborhood are a step closer to succeeding.

Turn of River residents appealed the zoning decision to the Board of Representatives, whose Land Use Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend that the full board reject it.

The board will decide it Monday night.

Residents filled seats in the government center’s legislative chambers and applauded after a meeting that lasted just minutes.

They thanked the committee members, Annie Summerville, D-6; Anzelmo Graziosi, R-13; Nina Sherwood, D-8; Benjamin Lee, D-15; Megan Cottrell, D-4; Bob Lion, D-19; Charles Pia Jr., R-18; and Virgil de la Cruz, D-2. One member, Bradley Michelson, R-1, was out of town and could not attend the meeting.

Residents have been fighting a proposal to build a high-end, 100,000-square-foot, indoor-outdoor health club, one of a national chain called Life Time Fitness, in High Ridge Office Park for more than a year.

Three months ago the Zoning Board approved a change in zoning rules that would allow such a facility to be built in that office park and five others along High Ridge and Long Ridge roads. Office parks are increasingly hurting for tenants and city officials are seeking ways to repurpose them.

Representatives on the Land Use Committee decided Wednesday the rule change isn’t the way.

Lion said his concern is that the change does not fit the description of “adaptive re-use” of office parks called for in the city’s Master Plan.

“Outdoor pools were never in any of the C-D zones and therefore it was added, in my view, and not adapting an existing building,” Lion said. “Having said that, an indoor gym would be an amenity many of my constituents would like to see. But this text change went beyond that.”

Lee said the zoning change needs further review.

“I share the residents’ concerns that, as drafted, noise would not be effectively controlled,” Lee said. “While I understand the concern for seeing that office parks are viable, there were no practical measures for protecting the character of the community.”

A ‘savior?’

Cottrell said the developer did not make a case for such a facility.

“We were told that this is a great savior for office parks but we didn’t have the data showing a demand for luxury fitness,” she said.

She is concerned about the number of added cars such a facility would draw to an area congested with traffic coming on and off Merritt Parkway Exit 35, Cottrell said.

“We were told there would be no effect on traffic, which I think is disingenuous,” she said. “They told us traffic would not be bad because 35 percent of the Life Time membership would be people who work in High Ridge Office Park. I think that number is really high, given the price point for Life Time Fitness.”

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De la Cruz said he rejected the Zoning Board decision on its merits.

“I evaluated all the testimony and I felt the residents and their representatives have made a good case,” de la Cruz said. “The city needs to grow, but residents depend on the protections that Zoning affords.”

Graziosi agreed.

“People’s houses are their biggest investment, and this would clearly impact their quality of life,” Graziosi said. “They didn’t bargain for this when they bought their homes. When you purchase a home near an airport, you can’t complain about the noise. That’s not the case here.”

He is concerned that the rule change would affect future proposals for the other corporate campuses, Graziosi said.

“It can have collateral damage,” he said. “It’s not something that should be taken lightly.”

‘Just wrong’

Sherwood said the rule change does not conform with the Master Plan.

“The concept is ‘adaptive re-use.’ This is not that,” Sherwood said. “I’m happy this board listened to the people, because that is our job. I’m glad we were able to provide a check and balance. The Zoning Board was just wrong on this.”

Summerville said she voted against the change “because of the outcry of constituents” in Turn of River and other neighborhoods.

“I have never seen such an outcry,” said Summerville, who has been a representative for more than 40 years. “People have a right to make themselves heard. They did that. There were mistakes with the Zoning Board that highly concern me. I think this is a signal to look at things a little more carefully in the future.”

The issue began to heat up in February, when the Planning Board, which advises the Zoning Board, rejected a proposal to change a zoning rule governing office parks to allow stand-alone fitness centers.

Planning vs. zoning

The Planning Board helped rewrite the Master Plan to allow corporate parks to be adapted for new uses so owners can attract tenants. But neighborhoods must be protected, Planning Board members decided.

In May, however, the Zoning Board, which does not have to act on the Planning Board’s advice, approved the rule change.

Residents of the Sterling Lake condominiums near High Ridge Office Park pooled their money and hired an attorney to do battle with attorneys for the owner, George Comfort & Sons.

Joined by other residents who said they are worried about development in their neighborhoods, Turn of River residents gathered signatures to petition the Board of Representatives to review the Zoning Board ruling, as the city Charter allows.

They gathered 700 signatures. But city attorneys rejected 560, saying condominium owners can’t be counted because they are not landowners. City attorneys also said a signature is invalid unless all inhabitants of a co-owned home also sign — a husband’s signature, for example, can’t count unless his wife also signs.

That left residents short of the number of signatures needed for the Board of Representatives to review the zoning decision. They then asked the board to determine whether the signatures were valid. The board accepted their petition last month, then agreed to review the Zoning Board ruling.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296

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