Richard W. Redniss op-ed: Zoning safeguards are working in Stamford

By Richard W. Redniss

Published 12:00 am, Thursday, December 7, 2017,

For those who “fear runaway growth” (news story, Nov. 12) a recent Zoning Board approval for development on Colonial Road is an educational case in point. The owner of the site is Congregation Agudath Sholom (CAS) and the purchaser/developer is Randy Salvatore (RMS).

The zoning history of this particular neighborhood (between Strawberry Hill and Hope Street, from Colonial Road to Stamford High School) is similar to several other areas of Stamford such as Springdale and the Cove. Much of the area was zoned R-5 multifamily, which allowed 17 units per acre at the time and permitted “as-of-right” development — meaning you could just go get a building permit.

No neighbor notices; no public hearing; no public input; no Planning and Zoning Board approvals, conditions, or off-site improvements. For decades it wasn’t a problem, but after World War II the result in many cases led to “overdevelopment” and residential streets lined with parked cars. The Planning and Zoning Boards, using the Zone Change and Text Change processes that people seem to be demonizing now, began to protect these neighborhoods from further impacts.

Large areas were changed from R-5 to R-6 (2-families per lot) and RM-1 (11.6 units per acre), and R-5 became a Design District requiring formal site plan approvals, public hearings, and comprehensive reviews. The process includes “special exception” application. Contrary to peoples claims these are not “exemptions” or “loop holes.” Special Exception is the name of the process that requires the formal application, notification, public hearing, and conforming to a list of criteria relating to the public convenience and welfare. You cannot get a significantly sized development approved in most zones without a Special Exception.

The CAS property, which was the home of King School for many years, was in two different Master Plan Categories and three different zones. Like many religious institutions around the city have done, CAS studied and planned what to do with its excess land over the years. They processed Master Plan and Zone changes to make the site uniform, Text changes to incentivize certain design goals, and most recently (the day before election day), received Special Exception and Site/Architectural Plan approval from the Zoning Board for RMS to build 62 new homes. There was no opposition from the public and no report in the Advocate. A review of the approval process and details helps explain why this approval is an example that the “runaway development is hurting our neighborhoods” mantra is unfounded.

CAS conducted a rigorous process to select a developer. In the end, they selected a local one with a specific plan that respected the neighborhood. There were meetings with the neighbors in advance of public hearings, publicly disclosed private agreements with abutting neighbors that included taking trees down on neighboring property, and planting on others.

RM-1 Zoning allows up to 67 units; RMS proposed and received approval for 62. Zoning allows three stories; the RMS plan is for 2 1/2 stories. The plan used a prior text change that encourages two-car garages by granting additional coverage by Special Exception. All of the proposed homes have two-car garages plus 26 surface spaces for a total of 153 spaces, where the Zoning Regulations require only 104. There is a condition of the approval which states “The site shall be excluded from receiving residential street parking permits should the surrounding neighborhood apply for such resident parking restrictions.” This was agreed to because it was understood that on-street parking in this neighborhood was already a challenge and the proposed parking was right-sized for the development.

Approximately 700 linear feet of public sidewalk will be replaced, adding landscape buffers and snow shelfs. All the new homes facing Colonial Road will be single family and designed to look like fronts even though their primary entrance will be from internal site driveways. The Zoning Board appreciated and helped guide this sensitivity to the neighborhood.

Instead of more front-page articles containing generic uninformed opinions objecting to zone and regulation changes, the Advocate would do its readers a better service by reporting more facts. Parking regulations in residential zones have not been reduced for the Cove, Glenbrook, or anywhere outside of the Downtown and South End. Let’s also not confuse zoning enforcement and inadequate parking in areas that were built decades ago when parking demand and regulations were less.

So, Stamford elected officials, Advocate reporters, and others — fear not. The Planning and Zoning Boards have your back. They also have the backs of the overall community when they review these applications in a context. Downtown housing where Master Plans have called for more housing for decades, and where we have thousands of public and private parking spaces available every night is not the same as infilling new development in a suburban location that is already under-parked. The 62 new homes on Colonial Road prove that the systems in place are working.

Richard W. Redniss is a Stamford land-use consultant.