STAMFORD — Seconds after Board of Representatives President Matthew Quinones opened balloting on a motion to reject a zoning change that would allow large fitness centers to be built in the city’s struggling office parks, the lights beside the names on the electronic voting board began to glow.
One by one, they clicked on green. It meant representatives were voting to reverse the Zoning Board decision. It meant regulations will not be changed to accommodate such fitness centers.
Residents who filled the seats and stood along the walls in the board’s legislative chambers at the Stamford Government Center Monday night clapped and cheered, shouting “thank you” to the representatives.
The residents, who in an unusual move petitioned the 40-member board to take up the matter, needed at least 21 green lights to flip the Zoning Board decision. They got 35.
There were absences and abstentions, but no representative opposed the motion to overturn the Zoning Board.
The vote culminates a 15-month battle in which residents pooled their money to hire an attorney to go up against George Comfort & Sons, owner of High Ridge Office Park, where the company wanted to build a 100,000-square-foot, indoor-outdoor facility for a prospective tenant, the high-end chain Life Time Fitness.
“I don’t know that the board has ever had a unanimous vote on something so contentious,” said Rep. Eric Morson, D-13. “I’m thrilled because residents feel like their efforts weren’t for naught. The city system worked for the benefit of the people.”
Morson said office parks, which are losing tenants, need to be repurposed, and some type of fitness center in the Ridges would be good.
“Just not on that scale, and not in that location,” he said. “I didn’t see any way to mitigate noise and traffic with a facility like that in High Ridge Office Park or any of the others that would be affected” by the zoning change.
Morson said Mayor David Martin and his chief of staff, Michael Pollard, called some representatives before the vote to try to persuade them to support the Zoning Board ruling.
“I understand that. It’s the mayor’s job to get new tenants into these office parks and build the tax base. He has to raise revenue so taxes don’t go up,” he said. “At the same time, neighborhoods have to be protected. How do you balance those two things without hurting somebody? It’s an impossible act. But I feel like we really served the public with this vote.”
Not all would agree. Word of the vote Monday night filtered down the hall to the room where Zoning Board members were on a break from a discussion of affordable housing and a proposed Chick Fil A restaurant for Bull’s Head.
Zoning Board members and land-use consultants there to win support for their proposals were not surprised, since the representatives’ Land Use Committee recommended an overturn last week.Read Full Article
Rosanne McManus, a Republican Zoning Board member, appeared irritated.
“Why even have a Zoning Board?” McManus asked.
So did Rick Redniss, a prominent land-use consultant.
“Elections have consequences,” Redniss said, a reference to November, when voters chose several newcomers for the Board of Representatives.
Some new members identify themselves as reform Democrats and ran on residents’ concerns about overbuilt neighborhoods, traffic congestion, and diminishing quality of life because of what they view as poorly managed development.
Now to court?
Geoff Thompson, spokesperson for George Comfort & Sons, said the vote “is disappointing and does nothing to address the underlying issue confronting Stamford’s office parks.”
They were “designed in another era, and while they are still viable, they will not remain so if they are not allowed to adapt to meet today’s market realities,” Thompson said in an email.
The company and the Zoning Board heard neighbors’ concerns and incorporated “numerous modifications and protections” to address them, Comfort said.
“The fact remains that additional uses must also be permitted if the office parks are to continue as important contributors to the city’s tax base,” Thompson said. “Other communities throughout the region are successfully adapting and Stamford must do the same.”
The company has not decided whether to appeal the Board of Representatives action in court, he said.
“In the coming days we will review our legal options as we continue to seek viable solutions to a very real economic concern for all Stamford residents and taxpayers,” Thompson said.
Steven Grushkin, the Stamford attorney representing residents of Sterling Lake condominiums, which abut High Ridge Office Park, and others from the Turn of River neighborhood, said an appeal to the court “would be fruitless.”
“From our point of view, the Board of Representatives as a legislative body has an absolute right to make the decision they did,” Grushkin said. “It’s very difficult for the judicial branch to overturn the legislative branch unless it’s for good, solid reasons.”
Neither residents nor his firm are anti-development, he said.
“No one questions there have to be other uses for the office parks,” Grushkin said. The application “did not give consideration to what would be a proper adaptive reuse of that property and any property in a C-D zone. That’s what it was about.”
Residents who said they were fighting to protect their homes attended repeated meetings of the Planning Board, which also rejected the change, and then the Zoning Board.
After the Zoning Board approval, residents gathered signatures on a petition to have representatives review the decision. But city attorneys voided most of the petition, saying many signatures were invalid.
Residents then asked representatives to determine the validity of the petition. Under authority of the Charter, representatives voted to do that then voted to review the Zoning Board decision.
Representatives said they took their constituents’ views to heart. Some explained their thinking before voting.
Rep. Bob Lion, D-19, said the zoning change “was worded specifically for Life Time Fitness, as it is in their way of doing business to include outdoor uses. The inclusion of the outdoor use, which is not an adaptive use of the current office park, I think was done to make it attractive to Life Time Fitness.”
Rep. Alice Liebson, D-11, said her family owned a home in North Stamford, a neighborhood on the other side of the Merritt Parkway from Turn of River, for 49 years.
“Our family’s motto was to keep North Stamford woodsy, green and quiet,” Liebson said.
Staff Writer Barry Lytton contributed to this report.