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Rick Redniss The value of zoning text changes

September 14, 2018 GMT

Barry Michelson has again deliberately misled readers in his Aug. 6 op-ed “Zoning in Stamford should not be for sale.”

With more than a dozen factually incorrect claims it will take a multi-part series to correct the record entirely. Facts matter, and I will only addresses the one he has most brazenly distorted.

Michelson supposedly substantiates his self-proclaimed “mantra” against zoning text changes by citing two text applications on the Aug. 6 Zoning Board agenda. One was for Chick-fil-A, which was withdrawn after multiple negative comments from the Planning Board, traffic department, city staff, and numerous members of the public. This demonstrates the simple truth that bad ideas get denied, withdrawn, or filtered out before they even apply. The process works.

Michelson insinuates that the other application to amend Section 10-H Nonconforming Uses is proof of the veracity of his “mantra,” has “no fidelity,” “eviscerates” the zoning regulations, and that the Zoning Board acts “capriciously” while approving it. His claim is 100-percent baseless.

Section 10-H has allowed many office buildings to be converted to housing, thus reducing peak hour traffic with people living, walking, and supporting local retailers, stabilizing the tax base, strengthening public safety, creating jobs, on-site affordable housing, enhanced public infrastructure, and the benefit list goes on.

Michelson, as usual, ignores the facts of this existing important zoning tool and of this application, which related to the old Sabini building in Shippan. An acre of land zoned Neighborhood Commercial (C-N) with a large, practically abandoned, non-conforming commercial building and a small separately owned rundown residential building. The truth is that the large building was foreclosed, bank owned, and vacant for years. It is zoned for many uses that do not require any Zoning Board approval or any public participation. Among the as-of-right uses are religious institutions, clubs and lodges, public and charitable agencies, supermarkets, various retail uses and many others.

The development team worked with neighbors and the city, and there was zero opposition at the Aug. 6 hearing. The result will be an attractive, low impact, residential adaptive reuse with better landscaping, parking, circulation, water quality, aesthetics, and overall quality of life.

It took two text changes to allow the residential density, move development rights, redesign the site plan, and significantly reduce an existing traffic issue. How does this fit Michelson’s misinformed “mantra”? Without text changes, this derelict building would have continued to languish, waiting for perhaps an as-of-right use with no public input, no traffic solution, and no improvements to public sidewalks.

Zoning text changes have been a part of the land use process since the Stamford Advocate first published Zoning Regulations in 1926. Hotels, Churches, Schools, Clubs, and other institutional type uses were allowed in residential zones with no public participation. There were no parking standards. Regulations will always need to adapt to the changing needs of Stamford. Period.

Let’s look at some changes that helped create the neighborhood where Lifetime Fitness sought to locate.

The Turn of River Volunteer Fire Department needed a text change to create sleeping quarters for fire fighters. Like all applications, it required drafting the text, meeting with staff, filing, publication, referral process, public hearing, and approval. Was that “capricious”?

Sterling Lake wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for text amendments. Do these beautiful single-family homes “eviscerate” zoning?

Riverturn Condominiums exists via a text change to establish a transitional zone that helps buffer High Ridge Road commercial uses from the single-family homes on the west side of Turn of River Road. The misleading Michelson “mantra” would have you believe that these valuable additions to the neighborhood represent “no fidelity.”

Text changes also allowed Sunrise Senior Living and Stonebrook homes. Are these assets to this attractive, diverse Turn of River neighborhood “detrimental to the long-term well-being of the community” as Mr. Michelson wants readers to believe?

Since the Lifetime outdoor pool seemed to be one of the critical issues, readers might be interested to know that prior to 1959, Summer Camps with outdoor pools were allowed as-of-right. Prior to 1962 Swim and Tennis Clubs were also allowed as-of-right. No public input. No conditions. No required screening, no limits on hours of operation, no mitigation of lighting or noise. Get the picture? It took zoning text amendments to make these uses by special exception with a full public process.

Also, if text amendments are so destructive, then why, when Barry was on the Zoning Board, did he vote in favor on more than 80 percent of them? These included extra height in Glenbrook, Parking reductions, and benefiting Building & Land Technology.

The few times he voted against text changes include the “universal” flood protection text that the Board of Representatives wanted done, the denial of the Surgery Center use in the C-D zone that the Board of Reps questioned during the Lifetime appeal, and Section 10-H, the benefits of which have already been discussed.

Deceptive diatribes aimed at manipulating people’s fears, frustrations, and lack of understanding of the facts are hardly a “mantra” worth repeating.

Rick Redniss is a land-use consultant from the Stamford land surveying, engineering and planning firm Redniss & Mead.