Reps seek to ease way to challenge planning and zoning decisions
STAMFORD — Like fellow landowners, 97-year-old Estelle McCauley wanted to sign a petition to prevent a developer from erecting high-rises in their historic South End neighborhood.
She enlisted the help of her daughter, Elizabeth McCauley, to gather the documents she needed to prove she owns a 2.5-story 1925 house on Walter Wheeler Drive so she could sign the petition.
But the document-gathering across multiple city departments was so onerous that Elizabeth McCauley missed the signing deadline by a day. So she brought her mother to the February meeting of the Board of Representatives to ask that her signature be added to the petition.
“I am a little nervous,” Estelle McCauley said after taking the podium in the board’s Legislative Chambers during the public-hearing session that precedes each meeting. “I don’t think it’s really right that I had to go through so much runaround about my home ownership. I have been paying taxes on the home for 40 years.”
The home was handed down over time and ownership was shared among family members. Elizabeth McCauley said they had a probate order that passed the property from her grandmother to her mother, but she learned in City Hall it wasn’t enough. She was told she needed a warranty deed, but that didn’t turn out to be enough, either.
“They told us we needed additional signatures from two cousins, which we did end up getting,” even though one cousin lives out of state, she told the board. “The Town Clerk let us know that Zoning seemed to have an issue with mom’s part of the ownership, but no one knew if the probate document was enough. Land Records thought it should be, but then sent us to Probate. Probate thought it should be, but then sent us to the Tax Assessor ... but they were not certain, so they sent us up to Legal. Legal said they couldn’t confirm it” and recommended that Estelle McCauley consult her own attorney.
The McCauleys eventually obtained the needed paperwork, but it was too late.
“In light of the difficulties mom and I had obtaining the information ... we would really like to ask for reconsideration that 18 Walter Wheeler Drive be allowed to be a valid part of this appeal,” Elizabeth McCauley told the board, which was about to vote on the validity of petitions challenging two Planning Board decisions.
South End residents generated the petitions after the Planning Board changed the city’s Master Plan to allow denser housing on the former B&S Carting site between Woodland Avenue and Walter Wheeler Drive. The Planning Board approved one application from developer Building and Land Technology to make the change for land it owns, and another application from city officials who want to establish consistency by rezoning an adjoining property in the same way.
The South End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone petitioned to appeal the changes, which would permit a high-rise building in the South End Historic District. The group wants BLT to keep its big buildings within its massive Harbor Point redevelopment, and out of the historic district.
To appeal, the group had to collect signatures from 20 percent of landowners within 500 feet of the area in question, according to the city Charter.
The Board of Representatives ultimately voted to verify both petitions, without McCauley’s signature, though it means only that there are enough valid signatures for appeals. The board will consider next month whether the appeals have merit.
In the meantime, representatives acknowledge that something must be done to make it easier for residents who own property to prove that it’s so, and to sign petitions when they wish to challenge planning and zoning decisions.
“We want to clarify what the city Charter says about this, and set out the steps, so people can get clear instructions,” said city Rep. Charles Pia Jr., R-18, co-chairman of the Board of Representatives’ Land Use Committee.
The steps differ depending on the type of decision, Pia said.
“A Master Plan change is different from a zoning-text change,” Pia said. “We need to set up the application channels for each of those options, and streamline the process so people know exactly where to go.”
Representatives intended to begin doing that last summer, after they rejected a zoning change that would have allowed a Life Time Fitness center to be built in High Ridge Office Park.
Representatives agreed with residents that the change, made by the Zoning Board, would have opened the door to projects that could harm the character of neighborhoods surrounding half a dozen office parks in the city.
Residents had collected hundreds of signatures to appeal the zoning change, but the city attorney’s office rejected most of them, saying, among other things, that condo owners are not considered landowners under the city Charter. If condo owners had been counted, residents would have had more than enough signatures to appeal.
When they didn’t, residents appealed to the Board of Representatives. But that board’s agreement with their position resulted in a lawsuit from the owner of High Ridge Park, who claims representatives accepted an “invalid protest petition.” The suit is underway in state Superior Court in Hartford.
Representatives decided to await the outcome of the court case before beginning a discussion on how to clarify the petition process for residents, Pia said. But they may not be able to wait, he added.
“It might be tough to have a discussion without referencing the matter before the court, but I think we are going to have to,” since residents seem to be bringing more cases before the Board of Representatives, Pia said.
City Rep. Bob Lion, D-19, a member of the Land Use Committee and chairman of the board’s Special Committee on Communications, said too many records in City Hall are still on paper, difficult to find and even to read.
“I don’t know that the requirements are clear, or where it says what the requirements are,” Lion said. “I think we should look at whether any process is easily available to our constituents.”