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Saturday, November 17 Local

Turn of River retiree leads effort to stop Life Time Fitness proposal

STAMFORD — Hank Cuthbertson leans forward to the patio table and feels for a water glass he had just placed in front of him.

He says this is his “oasis,” the back porch of his Turn of River home.

But it’s a tranquil spot he fears he will soon lose.

The 67-year-old grandfather, sitting on his quiet plot just miles removed from city traffic, has become something “I’d never thought I’d be” — an outspoken land-use activist.

As he sits on the porch, he’s just feet away from the pond that prompted him years ago to become the president of the small homeowners association, and about two football fields away from the neighboring property that has consumed his past year.

The property, a vacant building in the High Ridge Office Park, has turned the unassuming retiree into a near-constant presence at planning and zoning board meetings. It has aligned him with last year’s mayoral challenger, a former city representative and a growing contingent of residents standing up to what they call over-development.

The quiet old office building will likely soon be demolished, replaced by a bustling Life Time Fitness center replete with outdoor pools and long hours. The city zoning codes prohibiting such a gym was rewritten and approved last month to allow them.

“When you buy a house, there is zoning, there are rules,” Cuthbertson said. “Then they change the rules. We’re just fighting to preserve the rules we thought were in place to protect us.”

He said the new rules will result in a “country club without a golf course,” quoting his attorney, Steve Grushkin.

Cuthbertson is an unlikely leader: He is talkative, but prefers asking questions than responding to them, and he is completely blind, having lost his sight nearly two decades ago.

He said he only became the president of his homeowners association around 2010 to combat duckweed growing in the subdivision’s pond, and couldn’t have removed the weeds without help from his wife, Jane, who now leads him to a familiar seat at city meetings about the Life Time plan.

But his prosthetic hazel eyes, which he wanted in Paul Newman blue until his wife got the last word, have not gotten in the way of his advocacy. Unable to refer to notes, he successfully memorizes his speeches to planning and zoning board members. He also keys in on the tone of questions and comments, since he’s unable to see the reactions around the room.

“You can tell a lot from peoples’ tone of voice,” he said.

Under his leadership, his small Turn of River subdivision, Sterling Lake, has stood in staunch opposition to a deep-pocketed developer.

The association even spent some $30,000 on legal fees to combat the Life Time plan. Cuthbertson’s neighbors and the anti-over-development group, the Stamford Neighborhood Coalition, spent recent days gathering signatures in an attempt to have the Board of Representatives overturn the rule change the Zoning Board approved.

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“No, I never thought I’d be ‘that guy,’” Cuthberston said. “(But) I’m persistent. I’m somebody that doesn’t give up.”

The city has given Cuthbertson, who has lived in Sterling Lake for nearly 13 years, plenty of reasons to give up.

The zoning code text change to allow gyms in office parks was approved unanimously by the Zoning Board late last month after members declined to heed the Planning Board’s recommendation to scrap the change, citing the incompatibility of outdoor uses such as busy pools with nearby homes.

New York developer George Comfort & Sons has also made it clear the Life Time plan is a priority with its CEO, Peter Duncan, attending nearly every land-use meeting on the issue this spring. The company has also hired attorneys, land use consultants and a public relations firm to see this project approved.

A Comfort spokesman said in a statement the company plans on “being good neighbors” and the zoning change was carefully reviewed and includes “numerous safeguards...to assure neighboring properties are not adversely impacted.”

Going against such a large company is difficult, Cuthbertson said.

For example, he said it was nearly impossible to find an attorney. Cuthbertson called about 25 firms and nearly all declined to take the case, citing conflicts of interest, before Grushkin agreed.

But Cuthbertson, who has been sending email blasts directing the petition effort, will not quit.

Cuthbertson said his group delivered around 600 signatures to city hall on Monday. If the Zoning Board verifies the petition, the appeal will go to city representatives on the land-use committee.

“Fighting this has been horrible,” he said. “What’s worse? Having (Life Time) or fighting it? That’s what they’re counting on.”

He said it’s a stance on protecting the rules.

“It is not just the people who could get this put in their backyards who are against this,” he wrote in an email. “The opposition is widespread and overwhelming.”

barry.lytton@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2263; @bglytton

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