The Stamford Board of Representatives voted 21-16-2 to approve a resolution urging the Zoning Board and Land Use Bureau to forward on a petition signed by more than 1,000 residents opposing zoning text changes.
The resolution calls for the Zoning Board to send on the petition and, if the Zoning Board refuses to, they will ask the Town Clerk to forward the petition for review and will “proceed in the same manner as if the petition had been referred to it by the Zoning Board.”
The Board of Reps have asked for this referral to help them determine what the next steps should be– reviewing the petition would inform their decision to support or reject the resident's claims.
In December, the Zoning Board voted to approve zoning changes that would allow housing—and other uses—to be permitted in the city’s “C-D” zones, which were commercial districts that had been mostly used as office parks. Now, the updated zoning allows a variety of uses through a special permit process, including offices, schools, assisted living facilities, senior housing, child care centers, and single-family, two-family, and multi-family housing—in districts with more than 50 acres.
Residents, particularly members of the Stamford Neighborhood Coalition, opposed the zoning changes arguing that the decision to allow housing would create too much density in the surrounding areas.
Steve Garst, a member of the coalition called on the board to review the petition.
“Please consider the 1100 signers as a voice of the people who are from all districts,” he said, adding that they are opposed to the zoning changes as they “benefit developers and not the taxpayers.”
The coalition's petition calls on the zoning decision to be overturned. According to the city charter, petitioners are required to have one hundred signatures or “twenty percent of the owners of privately-owned land within five hundred feet of the area so zoned, whichever is least, if the proposed amendment applies to only one zone.” If the amendment applies to two or more zones, they must have 300 signatures. In both cases, all people who sign the petition must be landowners.
The city’s Land Use Bureau reviewed the petition and determined that it was not valid because it did not have enough signatures from landowners in the area surrounding the zone. The city’s attorneys also agreed with this decision.
“We conclude that: (1) the Zoning Board, acting through its staff, was the proper entity to validate and count petition signatures submitted pursuant to Charter Section C6-40-9; (2) the Zoning Board was correct in taking no action after its analysis, informed by advice from the Corporation Counsel, concluded that an insufficient number of valid signatures from property owners were submitted to trigger a referral,” a legal opinion from the city’s director of legal affairs reads.
The legal opinion also states that the amendments “concerned one zone, not multiple zones, and therefore, valid petition signatures could come only from owners of property inside or within 500 feet of the areas so zoned.”
However, residents, and many members of the Board of Representatives, argued that the Land Use Bureau didn’t have the authority to determine the validity of this petition—particularly because the department was also the applicant seeking the zoning changes in this case.
Representative Nina Sherwood argued that they “have no idea if the petition is invalid.” Because the Board of Reps members said they haven’t seen the petition, they cannot fully determine its validity—even though the city’s attorneys and Land Use Bureau have said the petition is invalid.
“How can you make the case that the applicant (the Land Use Bureau) should be the deciding factor here? If we don’t stand up to this—we’re the only body that can do that,” she said, adding that one of the Board of Reps’ responsibilities is oversight of the city administration.
Representative Virgil de la Cruz said that he believed it was “quite clear in this case the rules were not followed by the administration.” He said it was “absurd” for the Land Use Bureau to apply to change the zoning amendment, serve as the Zoning Board’s staff throughout the application process, and then review the petition opposing the amendments.
“Here we have a situation where the applicant presents to the Zoning Board…guides (the Zoning Board) through the process, the petition is filed and then that petition is given to the applicant to determine the validity of the petition,” he said. “If that is not an absurd result, I don’t know what is.”
The city attorneys’ legal opinion refutes this point.
“It has been suggested that because the Zoning Board was the applicant in this matter, the Zoning Board and the Land Use Bureau should not participate in the processing of a related petition,” the opinion reads. “This is not the case. In fulfilling their statutory responsibilities, land use agencies and other municipal employees frequently and non-controversially do work on behalf of the boards that they serve and must take actions that guarantee the rights of members of the public who oppose their positions or actions.”
Members of the Board of Representatives who voted against the resolution said that they believed the board was overstepping its role and that it was unwise to go against the recommendations of the city’s legal counsel.
Representative Eric Morson said that they “have to follow the rules and the charter as it stands today.” Morson said that only those who live within 500 feet of the zone are eligible to sign and that legal opinions from the city have supported the fact that this petition did not meet that threshold.
“Without it being validated, there’s nothing to be referred,” he said.
Representative Don Mays said that it was “irresponsible to ignore legal counsel” and said that the resolution “oversteps our authority.”
“I cannot in good conscience support this resolution,” he said.
The resolution calls on the Zoning Board to forward the petition to the Board of Reps within 10 days.
The Board of Reps' Land Use Committee, which has been the one working on this issue, meets again on Thursday, Feb. 24 at 7 p.m.