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Saturday, November 17 Local

Stamford’s ‘super’ Zoning Board takes up gym proposal

STAMFORD — City representatives have taken on the highly unusual role of judging a Zoning Board decision.

To do it, they must become, temporarily, a Zoning Board.

An attorney at a public hearing this week said they are a “super” Zoning Board.

It means that, for a few meetings, they must relinquish Board of Representatives rules and follow Zoning Board rules. It means they are educating themselves, sometimes on the spot, on terms such as “impervious surface,” “floor area ratio,” and a zoning district called “gymnasium or physical culture establishment.”

Wednesday representatives on the Land Use Committee had to do it in legislative chambers, where all seats were taken and residents lined the walls, pulled chairs from adjacent rooms, or stood in those rooms, leaning out to watch the hearing.

It’s all because Turn of River residents challenged a Zoning Board decision that would change regulations to allow a “gymnasium or physical culture establishment” in a half-dozen office parks short on tenants.

Representatives skirted the advice of city attorneys and accepted the residents’ petition to review the zoning decision that would clear the way for the construction of a Life Time Fitness complex in High Ridge Office Park. Residents of surrounding single-family homes are worried about increased traffic, noise, lights from almost round-the-clock activity, and degradation of the neighborhood.

So representatives Wednesday met under Zoning Board rules - the city, and attorneys for residents and the owner of the office park, each got a half-hour to speak, representatives were allowed to question them, then residents who wished to comment got three minutes apiece.

Ralph Blessing, chief of the city’s Land Use Bureau, explained how the Zoning Board is made up of five volunteers, appointed by the mayor, who must weigh the rights of the developer, residents, and the city, and ensure conformance with Stamford’s Master Plan.

It’s tricky work, Blessing said.

“The Zoning Board gets sued several times a year” over its decisions, he said. “Usually the court sides with the board.”

Plan for parks

In this case, Zoning Board members looked hard at a Master Plan recommendation that new uses be found for corporate campuses, most of them along High Ridge and Long Ridge roads, Blessing said. In Stamford and around the country, such campuses are emptying out because companies today require less space and prefer city centers near transportation hubs, he said.

The Zoning Board decided that Life Time Fitness will contribute more to the tax rolls than the empty, if historic, building that would be demolished in High Ridge Office Park, Blessing said. The project would not add children to the school system, as a housing complex would do, he said, and it might help the office park draw tenants.

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Besides, Blessing said, the Zoning Board “established tighter controls” to protect abutting homeowners, such as bigger buffers, and light and noise restrictions.

City Rep. Megan Cottrell, D-4, wanted to know how the Zoning Board justified destruction of one of the mid-century modern campus buildings designed by acclaimed architect Victor Bisharat. The building, a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places, would be replaced with a 100,000-square-foot health and fitness center surrounded by an outdoor pool and possibly other amenities.

In Connecticut, a place on the historic register does not guarantee preservation, only a delay in demolition, Blessing said.

Legally illegal

Other representatives asked why the office park is 143 percent built out.

“So it’s 43 percent above what is allowed?” asked Rep. J.R. McMullen, R-18.

Yes, Blessing said. It’s because zoning laws got stricter over time, and some of the build-outs are grandfathered in.

“It’s legally non-conforming” to zoning regulations, he explained.

Steve Grushkin, the attorney representing the residents of the Sterling Lake condominium complex, reminded representatives about their “unique situation” - the ability “to independently determine” whether a zoning change is valid “at your discretion.”

“You are a ‘super’ Zoning Board,” Grushkin said. “You have to decide whether this change is consistent with the Master Plan, which has the primary responsibility of protecting the quality of life in the neighborhoods.”

The Planning Board, which advises the Zoning Board, voted unanimously to reject the change, Grushkin said. The Planning Board was concerned about the proposed outdoor uses so close to homes, an issue that transcends High Ridge Office Park, he said.

“You’re talking about a text change and other developers who will come in and use it as a weapon,” Grushkin said. “Life Time Fitness has compared its centers to a resort that has everything but a hotel. Is this what we want up and down High Ridge and Long Ridge roads?”

Juiced-up gym

Ed McCreery, the attorney representing residents of the River Turn condominiums, said Life Time has proposed not just a gym but a summer camp, day-surgery center, bar, café, retail, child care, weight-loss counseling, and other offerings.

“This is anything but a gym. Maybe a gym on steroids,” McCreery said. “The Life Time in Harrison, N.Y., has a pool with slides that’s more like a water park. It’s fine there because it’s sandwiched between two interstates. It’s not an appropriate use here.”

Residents are right to be concerned about noise, McCreery said.

“Noise levels will be impossible to enforce,” he said in response to representatives’ questions about the police department’s limited staff of officers trained to measure decibels.

’It’s wonderful’

Bill Hennessey, the attorney representing George Comfort & Sons, owner of High Ridge Office Park, said the project will make the corporate campus profitable, benefiting taxpayers.

The 13-unit Sterling Lake condo complex once was the site of two or three single-family homes, Hennessey said, and the River Turn complex with 11 units per acre once allowed only four.

After much “arguing and fighting,” zoning regulations were changed to allow the complexes, Hennessey said.

“It turned out great. It’s wonderful. It’s nice,” Hennessey said. “It’s not bad when things change. Some things turn out great.”

Three speakers were allowed to take the podium before the Land Use Committee decided to end the hearing for the day and continue it Thursday. Two were from North Stamford and said they support the Life Time Fitness project because families need more upscale facilities, and the nearest, Chelsea Piers on the East Side, is too much of a drive.

The Turn of Rive neighborhood is “already noisy” and “not residential” because it’s near Merritt Parkway Exit 35, Elisa Esses said. A “small number of residents” are opposing the project “at the expense of the wider community of Stamford,” she said.

“It can take 40 minutes to get from North Stamford to Chelsea Piers,” she said, and “millennial homeowners” need something closer.

The hearing will resume at 7 p.m. Thursday in legislative chambers on the fourth floor of the government center, 888 Washington Blvd.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296

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