In golf it’s called a mulligan, a second chance at a good shot. Sometimes they come when your playing partners aren’t looking. Place a ball and hit it again. Preen a smile.
Last fall in an OIB commentary, retired Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez shined a light on Hartford HealthCare’s land use maneuvering to “install a garish eight (8) foot” illuminated sign on the roof of its property St. Vincent’s Medical Center located in the middle of residential North End. Neighbors opposed the application and zoners agreed.
Then, something happened, as noted by Lopez in an update on the issue, “a change in the applicable regulations was made.” This time it passed quietly while no one was looking.
From Judge Lopez:
“Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty” declared Thomas Jefferson.
Although it has not been confirmed that Thomas Jefferson uttered these words, it is certainly a well–known concept in our American Democracy. Prominent on our list of American values is liberty and freedom. We expect our government to protect the values we consider inherent to our representative democracy.
The eternal truth of the maxim attributed to our third president, was brought home to me, at a recent meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission of the City of Bridgeport.
Had I been vigilant, I would not have been caught by surprise!
The fact that a well-heeled applicant represented by a lawyer familiar with the workings of Bridgeport’s Zoning boards engaged in a pattern of advocacy that has become all too familiar in the city of Bridgeport, did not assuage my disappointment.
As has been reported and covered by Lennie Grimaldi in Only in Bridgeport, the Hartford Health Care Corporation has been attempting to place a large illuminated sign on the roof of St. Vincent’s Hospital, located in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the North End of Bridgeport.
At the time of the first public hearing (held on June 28, 2021), Hartford Healthcare sought a special permit to permit the placement of the sign. Objection was raised by neighbors and members of the City Council. The Planning and Zoning Commission itself raised questions about the recent changes in signage regulations that may impact this application. The matter was continued.
After a series of continuances, the matter was finally heard on October 25, 2021. This time, in addition to the special permit application, a text amendment was also requested. The Commission denied the request for the text amendment, making the petition for the sign moot. Chairman Riley correctly labeled the application, an attempt at spot zoning.
So, savoring a victory for the people, the matter was put to rest.
But, lo and behold, like a phoenix, it rose from the ashes. While no one was looking, the matter reappeared on the P & Z’s agenda for the zoom meeting scheduled for February 28, 2022, after a change in the applicable regulations was made by the Planning and Zoning Commission in November 2021. The February 28th meeting included a number of controversial matters that generated much public interest, especially from the Black Rock neighborhood.
As a resident of the Black Rock neighborhood, I attended the zoom meeting. At that time, I noticed the last item on the agenda was a petition filed by SVMC Holdings, Inc. seeking a special permit and site plan review to permit the placement of a roof sign. There was no mention of Hartford Healthcare, or St. Vincent’s Hospital. Unless you knew that SVMC referred to St. Vincent’s medical center, you would have no idea that Hartford Healthcare was the prime mover and shaker behind the application.
Since I was in the meeting when the Hartford Healthcare petition was called for its public hearing, I sought to address the commission to express my objection to the proposal. At the time that the Commission asked to hear from those in opposition, I attempted to object. According to the instructions given at the beginning of a zoom meeting by the robot who answers the phone, I pressed star 6, several times, but was informed by another robot, on several occasions that I would not be unmuted by the host and would be unable to address the Commission.
It is fascinating that Hartford Healthcare not only had the full support of OPED, but also submitted evidence, through Attorney Rizio. The Commission also heard the testimony of Mr. William M. Jennings, the president of the Fairfield Region of Hartford HealthCare. He appeared before the commission, and with pride in his voice, stated that he was there on behalf of one of the largest employers of the City of Bridgeport. Although that may be true, it is irrelevant to the criteria that Commissioners must apply when passing on an application.
In contrast to the earlier hearings on this matter, no one appeared in opposition.
So, after the public hearing concluded, I could hear the unanimous approval by the commission.
This is not the first time that amendments and changes to our zoning regulations have been approved by our P & Z Commission in order to accommodate the desires of well-connected applicants. Recall the elimination of the 1500-foot rule regarding the distance between package stores in the City of Bridgeport. With OPED leading the charge, the distance was reduced to 750 feet, at the request of a City Council member and former bartender in an establishment operated by the Democratic Town Chairman.
In the Ellsworth Park area of Black Rock, residents successfully opposed a change of zone, as spot zoning. The P & Z Commission, while re-writing its zoning regulation, and redoing its Zoning map, rezoned that property and property across the street, when no one was looking.
So, back to the concept of eternal vigilance. In a City like Bridgeport, we can never turn our back or take our eyes off those charged with making land use decisions that impact the character of our City and our neighborhoods. We must never be too busy to care and to raise our voices when needed. We must be watchful and alert to notices in small print in the legal notices of the paper.
We fail to do so, at our own peril!