Contractor cleared in use of Cove lot
STAMFORD — A state Superior Court judge has ruled that the owner of a long-contested lot on Cove Road did not violate zoning regulations by keeping his company’s trucks there, as the city charged.
According to court documents, the case hung on the definition of “contractor’s storage yard.”
Stamford zoning regulations do not explain what uses and equipment are allowed in such a yard, Judge Kevin Tierney found.
That weakened the case for the city, which took Servidio, owner of Servidio Landscaping, to court saying he was storing company equipment on the lot. The city has issued five cease-and-desist orders against Servidio since 2008.
Servidio signed an agreement with the city last year saying he would comply with zoning regulations, which prohibit a contractor’s storage yard for the site, and convert it to a retail garden center. The agreement culminated in an April 6, 2018 court order to do so.
Tierney ruled that dozens of photographs the city presented as evidence failed to prove that Servidio was using the lot at 796 Cove Road as a storage yard.
His attorney, John Cassone of Crone & Cassone in Stamford, said the judge’s ruling makes it clear “that the city had no legitimate basis” to bring action against his client.
The decision affirms that Servidio was not operating a storage yard “as the city and the neighbors have been claiming,” Cassone said. “The court’s 20-page decision was thorough and left no stone unturned.”
The case involving the small lot, only .11 of an acre, became a symbol of big frustration among Stamford residents over what they said was weak enforcement of zoning laws, and a city effort to crack down.
Cove neighbors have said the dump trucks, trailers, backhoes and other large equipment that has been coming and going for years has been dangerous on narrow, congested Cove Road, where it’s had to maneuver through the tight lot entrance. The lot is roughly across from Horton Street, site of K.T. Murphy Elementary School.
But Cassone said Servidio has been vindicated.
“This is a matter which should not have gone before the court. It was a waste of resources for all involved, including the Servidios, the city and the court,” Cassone said. “This action has cost the Servidio family tens of thousands of dollars to defend. This is shameful, and the city needs to think twice before it goes after the little guy.”
The city “may feel the need to act out against perceived zoning violators, as they should,” he said, but “they were wrong in going after the Servidios.”
‘Right to see’
Zoning officials have charged Servidio with repeated violations over the years. Director of Legal Affairs Kathryn Emmett said the city will keep on top of activities at the lot.
“We thought the case was made; the judge thought otherwise. I don’t see it as a general pronouncement,” Emmett said. “It was a factual finding. The judge says that, from what he heard, Mr. Servidio didn’t exceed the limitations that exist in the zoning regulations. The city has the right to see that he works within the boundaries.”
Servidio has not built the garden center, even though he obtained a permit in February 2018. The judge accepted Servidio’s reason for not starting the work.
Servidio told Tierney that converting the lot requires moving a shed, building concrete bins and employing large trucks. He feared the activity would result in another charge by the city that he was violating zoning regulations, Servidio said.
The judge concluded that Servidio’s plan for the garden center, as laid out in his permit application, is within his rights.
“There is no evidence before this court,” Tierney wrote, that the zoning enforcement officer, city attorney, Board of Representatives or Zoning Board “ever objected to the items and uses” as exceeding the permit.
Items and uses in the plan include mulch, top soil, wood chips, Belgian blocks, road salt, Christmas trees and wreaths, shrubs, flowers and more. Vehicles based on the site may include pick-up trucks, low-boy trailers, rack-bodied trucks, dump trucks, loaders and more.
Neighbors who have fought with Servidio for more than a dozen years say they are concerned that the garden center will be for landscaping companies, not home gardeners picking up items that fit in the trunk of a car.
“We thought it would be a small garden center,” said Deb Billington, a member of the Cove Neighborhood Association. “But now we learn he’s going to build concrete bins to separate loose materials, so landscapers will be going in and out filling up their trucks.”
Such activity will create safety hazards in that crammed corner of Cove Road, she said.
“We are waiting to see whether we have any recourse,” she said. “We will work with the city to see what opportunities there will be for the public to contest what has been permitted.”
City Rep. David Watkins, R-1, who testified in the case on behalf of residents, said they “wonder whether a gardening center is ever going to appear.”
Servidio “recently sought a variance to store equipment, and the variance was denied, but neighbors would observe he’s been doing it ever since,” Watkins said. “The judge was looking at the narrow question as to whether the current observations that precipitated the court case were sufficient, and the judge decided they were not.”
Tierney “did not look at the pattern over 10 years,” Watkins said. “I would say the neighbors and I will make sure to monitor the uses of this lot, and if we find something we feel is not consistent with the as-of-right use as a garden center, we will be very quick to notice that.”
Cassone provided a comment from John Servidio and his wife, Rosanna, who have not made public statements in the past.
“While we continue to weigh our options, including the possible filing of a civil lawsuit against the City Of Stamford for possible vexatious litigation or even harassment on its citizens, we do not want the city taxpayers to be further burdened by the miscalculations of city officials for wasteful spending of city funds and resources seeking to appease a few who feel politically strong with the taxpayers money,” they said. “The Servidios would like to move on to a more positive approach and hope this could be a helpful learning lesson for the city and its elected and unelected surrogates.”