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Tuesday, November 20 Local

Zoning fight turns political as two sides air grievances in the paper

STAMFORD — A zoning fight waged for more than a year has been fought long enough, it appears, to transcend the traditional roles of developers vs. neighbors in favor of the impassioned finger pointing more typical of the broader political arena.

Many say a zoning code allowing gyms in office parks is now a referendum on development, on whether the city is being bought and sold under residents’ feet.

After eight hours of public comment this month before the board’s Land Use Committee, the tide change became clear: Attorneys who usually make their living petitioning the Zoning Board for code changes, took the unusual step of defending the board by citing codes; elected city reps struggled to establish themselves as an apolitical zoning panel to take up the matter, and residents, though layman, presented their independent research on traffic and noise to counter purported experts in the fields.

Everything “flipped on its head,” said attorney William Hennessey, who has fought on behalf of developer George Comfort & Sons to bring Life Time Fitness to the High Ridge Office Park for more than a year.

The developer made its appeal directly to Advocate readers on Sunday with a full-page ad detailing its support for the measure, ending with a link to sign an online petition. “Health clubs, such as Life Time Fitness which would come to High Ridge, are an amenity not only for the office park’s tenants but for residents city-wide,” the ad reads. “Enabling new opportunities like this represents the kind of forward thinking that has kept Stamford at the forefront among small cities nationwide.”

On the other side, the Stamford Neighborhoods Coalition, a 700-member group that organizes 10 smaller resident associations, laid out its own argument against permitting the “resort” fitness center in an Op-Ed piece Sunday.

“To equate a private enterprise to sidewalks, streets, schools, bridges, roads, waste transfer stations, sewage treatment plants ... even public parks ... is irresponsible,” the letter to the editor read. “These are enterprises that are in the ‘public’ interest and funded with the public’s money. A profit-driven, noise- and traffic-inducing resort-like club simply does not meet the greater good criteria.”

Meanwhile, lines appear to have been drawn among city reps who will soon vote on the matter, starting Wednesday with the Land Use Committee.

All this, over a change to the city’s zoning text that had, until this spring, forbade stand-alone gyms in office parks. The text preemptively quashed plans by a developer to open a Life Time Fitness center in its Turn of River neighborhood park.

But with the political landscape still soaked with anti-development fervor after last fall’s mayoral election, and elected officials now voting on the matter instead of the appointed Zoning Board, the text change has become part of a larger, political story of entrenched interests and the establishment against a growing contingent of residents who say their city is for sale.

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Who’s shouting the loudest

Neighbors nearby are certain the Life Time will destroy their tranquil part of the city, and the argument has caught favor with hundreds of other city residents as evidenced in the city-wide petition to bring the issue to the Board of Reps, which garnered nearly 700 signatures in fewer than 10 days.

On the other side, the developer and its team of lawyers contend the change will save office parks from an empty future and bolster the city’s tax rolls. Such a change is called for in the city’s Master Plan, the first item on a list of “key projects to be undertaken,” Hennessey said.

“Frankly, the dynamic to all these Board of Reps appeals is that they become politically charged, and to my view, that’s the shame of it,” Hennessey said in an interview.

The Zoning Board had made its approval contingent on a number of concessions from the developer and had included a number of restrictions to protect neighbors, he added.

“So much time has been spent with facts and data,” Hennessey said. “And then the paradigm shifts from an analysis of what is good planning and what is right for the community to who’s shouting the loudest.”

No Calypso parties

Special exceptions and edits to the zoning text and map are needed, the development arguement goes, as they facilitate how the city moves forward — reshaping itself for the businesses and living patterns of the future.

“To the gentleman that came up here and played noise from a boombox, there are not going to be any Calypso parties on the party deck here, and the Zoning Board could stop it in an instant with a condition that said no amplified sound,” Hennessey said at the last hearing. “I think what has happened here is that the prospect of change has deprived us of a little bit of context.”

Some of that “context” could come later in the process. The Zoning Board’s approval of the text change is just the first step— developers would still need other approvals including a special exception to build the gym.

City attorney Jim Minor echoed Hennessey.

“The idea that this is a totally blank slate — that’s wrong,” Minor said. “All these arguments made tonight: we can’t enforce noise control, they will have drunken orgies at night and it’ll disturb my sleep. (The Zoning Board) can base their rejection on that.”

Meanwhile, residents beyond the next-door neighbors argue that it is not the city’s role to edit its codes for private interests when those interests downgrade the quality of life for those nearby.

Zoning codes are there to protect residents and alterations that add cars to streets and noise to backyards go against the maxims on the first page of the 356-page rulebook.

“The purpose of this Zoning Code is to encourage the most appropriate use of land; to conserve and stabilize the value of property; to provide adequate open spaces for light and air; to prevent and fight fires; to prevent undue concentration of population; to lessen congestion on streets,” it reads, in part.

A repeated refrain among opponents of the change is that the city is “bailing out” developers by making the changes.

For development, are established land-use fixers, consultant Rick Redniss and Hennessey, both of whom have petitioned the city Zoning and Planning boards long before many current members were appointed to the panels.

Hennessey, pressed to tell city reps how many text changes he had worked on in the city, said at the last hearing that he had done many, but couldn’t count off off hand.

Redniss, in an interview this week, said this fight reminds him of a similar appeal over a condo complex he proposed in the early 1980s. The Zoning Board’s approval of a 52-unit cluster on 95 Intervale Road in 1984 was appealed to city reps, who after hearings upheld the approval.

“And in the end, look at it — it’s totally innocuous,” Redniss said.

But now, “what we have is all these things coming together — anti-development, anti-text change — and they are not accurate,” he said. “They are conflating text changes and evil. It’s not sustainable.”

An overturn, Redniss added, would be a Pyrrhic victory and set the city back.

No standards

And against it, nearby homeowners are linked with a the burgeoning anti-development group, the Stamford Neighborhood Coalition, itself led in part by the former mayoral candidate, Barry Michelson, and former city Rep. Cynthia Reeder.

“Its about developers against this city,” Reeder said. “They are protecting their own interests — the people are depending on you to protect their interests.”

“By constantly changing the standards we, in effect, have no standards,” said Michelson.

The coalition, formed around the time of Michelson’s campaign, appears to be growing.

It hosted its first in-person meeting this spring and saw some 50 people, including city reps and members of Mayor David Martin's administration, attend.

Wednesday, the Land Use Committee will likely make a recommendation on whether gyms should be allowed in a half dozen office parks in the city.

The full board is slated to then take up the matter on Aug. 6, where 21 votes of the board’s 40 are needed to overturn zoning.

barry.lytton@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2263; @bglytton

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