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Cove zoning case unresolved as crackdown begins in Stamford

October 10, 2018

STAMFORD — Twelve years of violations. Five cease-and-desist orders. A court injunction. A settlement. A motion for contempt.

The case of contractor John Servidio, who has been illegally storing construction equipment in a lot he owns on Cove Road, has come to symbolize residents’ frustration with zoning enforcement.

The city sued Servidio last October, charging him with repeated violation of a regulation that prohibits storage yards in the neighborhood. Residents have reported dump trucks, a backhoe and other heavy equipment coming and going from the lot onto narrow, congested Cove Road, zoned for single- and multifamily homes and small businesses.

A court settlement was reached in March, when Servidio agreed to remove the equipment and convert the lot into a garden shop. When it hadn’t happened by June, city attorneys filed a motion for contempt of court.

Four months later, the .11-acre dirt lot is enclosed by a locked chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and lined with black netting. A trailer is parked inside. There are piles of firewood and stacks of concrete blocks.

Emails between city attorney James Minor, Servidio attorney John Cassone, and Deborah Billington of the Cove Neighborhood Association, indicate officials held off on the contempt motion, which could result in a judge’s order for Servidio to pay $250 for each day he is in violation of the agreement plus $200 an hour in legal fees.

In July, Cassone asked Minor to reschedule the motion for September because Servidio was planning to sell the property, according to the emails. Minor agreed.

Minor’s boss, Legal Affairs Director Kathryn Emmett, said Tuesday her office is gathering information before proceeding.

“We are investigating the status of the case,” Emmett said.

Asked whether the lot is for sale, Cassone said Tuesday, “I’m not at liberty to disclose that.” The case “remains pending,” he said, and his client “is in full compliance with the agreement.”

The case has led Stamford residents to join the Cove Neighborhood Association at City Hall meetings where they called for officials to better enforce zoning rules.

Residents have long complained that violations are allowed to languish in cases that include multiple tenants coming and going from single-family homes; homes turned into rooming houses; and lawns turned into parking lots.

Cove neighbors last year said they were tired of dealing with the zoning enforcement officer, who did not pursue the case in court because it would take too long and cost too much. Zoning officials have held that, even if the city gets a violator into court, judges usually penalize only the most egregious cases.

So neighbors went before the Board of Representatives, which in March beefed up an ordinance to allow citation officers to fine property owners who build illegal structures, use residential yards for commercial purposes, run businesses out of their homes, and other violations.

Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing said the ordinance will be enacted next week, when the city’s civil citation officer and two land-use inspectors will begin writing tickets for zoning violations.

The officers will check complaints filed to Fix It Stamford, a site found by clicking on a link posted on the upper left of the city’s web page, www.stamfordct.gov.

“When we get a request about a potential zoning violation, we go out to verify it, and if there is one, we send a notice to the offender, who has seven days to fix it,” Blessing said.

If it is not resolved, the city fines the offender $100 per violation, per day.

“If, for example, someone parks two commercial trucks on a residential property, that’s $100 per vehicle, or $200 a day,” Blessing said. “If we have not heard from the person within 30 days, we send a letter saying how much they owe in fines. If the person ignores the city, we give it to the court.”

The city is making better use of “injunctions and other legal mechanisms,” Blessing said. In the Servidio case, Emmett filed an injunction that allowed the court to consider his history — a departure from the usual method of obtaining cease-and-desist orders.

Orders can be ineffective in repeat-offender cases because, by the time they get to court, the offender may resolve the problem. So the judge sees no violation and clears the case. Offenders then resume the illegal behavior.

Servidio was ordered several times to remove equipment from his lot, which he did, only to return it. The city issued him five cease-and-desist orders between 2008 and last year.

Blessing said another measure will strengthen enforcement. His office is hiring a company to digitize the city’s 400,000 tax cards, which are written on paper or stored on microfilm or microfiche — a cumbersome system that makes it onerous for inspectors to verify complaints.

“Tax cards document the use of a building going back to the 1940s, which addresses the issue of legal non-conforming uses,” Blessing said. “You can have a two-family house in a one-family zone, but only if that use existed before zoning regulations went into effect in 1951.”

The tax cards reveal that, he said.

“What we see a lot is a house that was a one-family in the 1970s and ’80s and ’90s, and then all of a sudden it’s a two-family,” Blessing said. “So we know that at some point there was an illegal modification.”

Zoning enforcement is complex, time-consuming and labor-intensive, he said, but a long-awaited crackdown —residents reporting apparent violations and citation officers responding — is about to begin.

“I think it will take time before it sinks in, but once we have a couple of cases, it should make an impact on the number of violations,” Blessing said.

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

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