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Office park owner appeals Stamford reps’ rejection of fitness center proposal

August 28, 2018

STAMFORD — A 15-month fight between residents and an office park owner seeking to build a fitness complex is going to court.

The owner, George Comfort & Sons, a Manhattan-based real estate investment firm, is appealing a Board of Representatives decision to reject a zoning change that would have allowed a Life Time Fitness center to be built in High Ridge Office Park.

The board agreed with residents that the change, approved by the Zoning Board, would have opened the door to projects that could harm the character of neighborhoods surrounding half a dozen office parks on High Ridge and Long Ridge roads. Representatives overturned the Zoning Board ruling on Aug. 6.

In the complaint, filed Aug. 17, George Comfort & Sons, identified in court papers as High Ridge Real Estate Owner LLC, asserts that the company “has been aggrieved by the Board of Representatives’ purported acceptance of an invalid protest petition.”

It’s a reference to signatures residents gathered after the Zoning Board approved changing regulations so that freestanding fitness centers could be built in office parks, which are struggling for tenants and — city planners have said — must be adapted for new uses. The Planning Board, however, also rejected the change.

Residents collected hundreds of signatures but city attorney James Minor rejected most of them, saying those who signed were not landowners as defined by state law and the city Charter. Condo owners, for example, are not landowners, Minor said, and in cases in which two or more people own a property, all must sign for it to be counted.

Residents then asked the Board of Representatives to determine the validity of the petition under authority of the city Charter. Representatives decided the petition had 300 valid signatures, meeting the requirement.

Not so, the High Ridge Office Park owner alleges in the complaint.

The Board of Representatives “imputed their own definition of landowner” against state law and Minor’s advice, the complaint alleges.

“These actions of the board and (its) Land Use Committee are beyond the scope of their authority as set forth in the Stamford Charter,” it states.

It alleges that, during public hearings, city reps “exhibited clear and continual support for the petitioners that demonstrated their predetermination on the matter, as (representatives) ignored the advice of legal counsel, the Zoning Board findings letter, conclusions from their own legislative officer, the (board’s) own practices and procedures, and the standards prescribed for a Zoning Board that (representatives) are required to follow.”

Representatives “voted based upon political or other arbitrary or improper reasons or motivation,” the complaint alleges, and they “failed to follow and apply the zoning standards set forth in” the city Charter.

The office park owner is asking the court to find that the Board of Representatives had no jurisdiction over the petition because it had an insufficient number of signatures, and to overrule its rejection of the zoning change.

Attorneys for the Board of Representatives must appear in state Superior Court in Stamford on Sept. 18, according to a summons attached to the complaint.

Director of Legal Affairs Kathryn Emmett refused to comment on the pending litigation.

“The Board of Representatives will be represented in the lawsuit by outside counsel,” Emmett said Tuesday. “Beyond that, there is not anything I can say at this point.”

Emmett did not explain why the city will hire outside attorneys to represent the board, instead of the law department. The presumption is that the complaint presents a conflict, since it cites advice provided to the board by Minor, a law department employee. Minor voided 560 of the 700 signatures, leaving residents 60 short of the requirement.

In a memo during the hearings, Minor wrote that “a condominium owner does not own the land upon which the condominium is built” because the association owns it. A petition would have to include the names of all owners in a given association for it to count as one signature, he wrote.

Representatives countered that the city Charter fails to define “landowner.” They also questioned how a condo association can be a landowner, since associations are not listed on the tax rolls, and why individual condo owners can’t be counted when they pay taxes.

Residents opposed the high-end Life Time Fitness center because it was proposed as a 100-square-foot, indoor-outdoor complex that would operate from early in the morning until late at night, seven days a week. They were concerned about lights, noise, and traffic that the planned 5,000 gym memberships would bring, and that the big new building would ruin the character of their neighborhood.

Steve Grushkin, the Stamford attorney hired by the Sterling Lake Association - condos adjacent to High Ridge Office Park - could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.

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