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Stamford plans overhaul of unwieldy zoning regulations

January 24, 2019

STAMFORD — At 356 pages, the city’s Zoning Regulations are 164 pages longer than “The Great Gatsby,” 100 pages longer than the “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and 84 pages longer the “The Scarlet Letter.”

And unlike the still-slim novels, the code continues to grow. It seemingly gains a footnote, subsection or a definition every few months as new projects are proposed in this fast-growing city where changes are requested to facilitate the growth.

Since adopted in 1951, the bulky pamphlet governing what can be built in this city and where it can go has become a tome that even strikes seasoned land-use professionals as a lot of zoning for a little town, Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing said.

“The zoning regs have kind of been growing for the last 50 years,” Blessing said. “This is to rationalize everything that is in there.”

In April, the Zoning Board will hold public hearings on changes the city hopes will tame the unwieldy regulation publication through what Blessing is calling an “omnibus text change.”

The omnibus will add sections and delete others, Blessing said, and will also scrub secondary references that complicate and sometimes undermine other regulations.

City land-use experts largely agree its a good time for the city to examine its regulations, particularly to increase transparency.

“It’s timely to better organize the regulations to be more transparent to everyone who wants to read them,” said Martin Levine, zoning chairman in the 1970s and 1980s and now a special assistant to Mayor David Martin.

Prominent consultant Rick Redniss, who has argued countless edits to city codes, said he “welcomes the staff taking a look at the variety of zoning issues” even if the edits could change things he had worked to codify.

“That’s the thing with zoning,” he said. “It’s a dynamic process.”

Although many of the changes will be technical, the end product will likely have a few major rewrites that will better organize city codes and promote sustainability and affordable housing.

Affordable housing and organization

The city’s nearly two-decade-old mandate that requires 10 percent of all units built in large housing complexes go to those making half the area’s income will likely see the largest overhaul.

It, too, is an example of how the regulation has grown — spreading from its home chapter to others over the years. The spread is largely thanks to successful arguments from builders, attorneys and consultants who have long sought to weaken the mandate because arguing it proves too costly.

The result of such clauses, granted through text edits, footnotes and exceptions added over the years, make it so the city’s affordable housing rules are sprinkled throughout hundreds of pages.

“We want to close the loopholes,” Blessing said.

Levine said “it’s healthy for the Zoning Board to take the initiative in making changes to the regulations, rather than all the changes coming from individual applicants.”

A text analysis of the Zoning Code shows that the majority of appearances of the term “BMR” or “Below Market Rate” fall outside of the program’s defining section.

The overhaul will get all that back in one section, Blessing said, which is harder than it may seem, because of lurking cross references making a red-pen strike impossible.

All exceptions that allow developers to provide fewer than the 10 percent of new units as affordable will be nixed, according to Blessing, and income legibility will likely be broadened.

Nearly all affordable housing units in developer’s buildings are for those making 50 percent of the area’s median income, but changes could require some units go to those making less or more.

The reexamination of affordable housing mandates coincides with the nearing completion of a study by former Land Use Bureau Chief Norman Cole.

“It is a lot of things that Norman has proposed,” Blessing said. “Now is the time to implement the recommendations.”

On the organization front, gone will be the “ghost districts” that appear only in the code’s appendix after being deleted elsewhere.

“It’s things that came up at the Planning Board, the Zoning Board,” he said.

Sustainability

The post-omnibus zoning code will have a newfound emphasis on sustainability.

The code has long had differing requirements for car parking, but now developers will have to install electric vehicle spots with charging stations, Blessing said.

Another new section will add requirements and standards for bike parking.

Until now, bike racks and electric-car spots were sometimes included in buildings, but not required.

The city will also establish a new minimum standard for sidewalks, and require tree-plantings, in almost all of Stamford except where it wouldn’t make sense, such as low-density North Stamford, Blessing said.

Another section has in interesting provenance. The idea for a “sustainability scorecard” to grade new buildings first floated in 2012, but never went anywhere. The grading system is now getting a second life.

The idea, to give buildings a green grade of sorts for tenants to see, never took off but will now be incorporated in the new overhaul after Land Use staffers discovered a 7-year-old presentation in a filing cabinet, Blessing said.

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