Maybe had the Diocese of Bridgeport and Fairfield University genuflected to the neighborhood earnestly there’d be a clearer understanding of what their college proposal means for the North End. Now they’re in search of the Holy Grail.
Retired Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez peels back the layers in her latest commentary highlighting the conspiration and resulting perspiration at the Jewett Avenue location.
From Judge Lopez:
It has been famously observed, that no battle plan, however brilliant and well-conceived, survives first contact with the enemy.
Just ask Russian President Vladimir Putin!
But this is Bridgeport, where well-connected special interests and their lawyers always get what they want, right?
Well, almost always.
Thanks to Lennie Grimaldi and Only in Bridgeport, readers have been kept informed of the zoning battle taking place in Bridgeport’s North End. In fact, it was Lennie Grimaldi who made a City Attorney Opinion issued at 5:00 PM on a Friday available for inspection within hours.
Attorney Ray Rizio recently planned and executed an offensive on behalf of his client, the Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corporation. The objective is to secure permission for the Diocese and its ally, Fairfield University, to establish a beachhead in the form of a two-year college in the heart of a residential neighborhood.
The campaign called for a special permit application to be submitted to the Planning and Zoning Commission on December 29, 2021, two days before the Bridgeport Zoning Regulations were to expire.
As an experienced Bridgeport zoning tactician and strategist, Attorney Rizio must have known that a “college” is not a permitted use in a Residence R-A Zone.
Oh well, no need to abort the invasion. Just call the college a ‘school,’ and the Bridgeport City Attorney, the Zoning Department and the P & Z Commission, won’t notice the nomenclature.
After all, fifty years ago, the property was the home of Notre Dame Girls High School.
Unfortunately for Attorney Rizio, and his client, people did notice and Jewett Avenue residents and taxpayers, led by City Council Member Michelle Lyons began to mobilize. They read the zoning regulations, particularly those sections which distinguish between a ‘school’ and a ‘college.’
Their intelligence assets and good common sense informed them that Bellarmine College as the name implies, and the special permit application affirms, is in fact, a college.
The residents worried about increased traffic and congestion in an already overcrowded neighborhood, where wooded areas and open space have been replaced by high density housing along with a boarded up Stop and Shop supermarket, over the past fifty years.
These residents planned to show up at the special permit public hearing in an attempt to halt the Diocese’s Blitzkrieg.
Faced with a legally dubious special permit application, budding neighborhood opposition, and the prospect of a contentious public hearing, the Diocese and its lawyers called for reinforcements and legal air support.
They got the necessary cover from Russell Liskov, a former Associate City Attorney turned consultant, who advises Bridgeport’s zoning officials and its land use boards and commissions.
Liskov issued a brief two-paragraph legal opinion, in an effort to outflank the neighborhood, and capture the legal high ground before the transparency of a public hearing could take place.
Liskov claimed to have reviewed the special permit application, which described Bellarmine College and its plans to award a two-year Associate Degree.
Based upon this ‘review,’ he informed Zoning Administrator Dennis Buckley that the Diocese could use its property ‘as of right,’ for educational purposes.
He also said that certain ‘approvals’ had been given in the past, although no special permit authorizing a college had ever been recorded on the land records and no special permit weapon of neighborhood destruction was provided.
Having received the Liskov ‘opinion,’ Buckley saluted, and informed Council Member Lyons that the Special Permit Application would be withdrawn, and Bellarmine College would not require a Special Permit, or a public hearing, in order to open its doors.
The Diocese must have believed that it had a clear path to victory, and any rear-guard action by opponents would be futile. Believing that it had routed the neighborhood, it assumed that all that remained were mopping up operations, over the counter approvals and a victory parade.
Or so Ray Rizio and Bishop Caggiano believed!
Imagine their chagrin and frustration, when they learned that their scheme had been repelled, their invasion of the neighborhood had been stalled, and they were in for a long campaign.
The embattled neighbors counterattacked. They appealed Buckley’s ruling to the Zoning Board of Appeals. They refused to surrender their right to a public hearing concerning the special permit, without a fight.
After scrambling to uncover any prior approvals on which Liskov relied, and scrounging to find a justification for his attempted ambush of those anticipating a public hearing, the City Attorney capitulated, and Mayor Ganim followed.
City Attorney R. Christopher Meyer, agreed wholeheartedly with Council Member Lyons and those who had resisted Liskov’s opinion. The City attorney opined that a college is not a permitted use in a Residence R-A Zone and that no prior special permit approvals justified the use of the Jewett Avenue property as a college.
The City Attorney had clearly overruled Liskov’s opinion, although he claimed to be answering a different question.
His attempt at camouflage and legal obfuscation, is reminiscent of General Oliver Smith’s comment during the Korean War, when he described a retreat as “an advance in a different direction.”
Trench warfare has now set in, and the special permit application is back on the P & Z agenda for May 31st.
It seems that Attorney Rizio and his clients have two options, neither of which is promising.
First, they can gear up for an attempt to overwhelm the P & Z and convince the commissioners that they should ignore the law, the City Attorney’s opinion and the neighbor’s concerns, and grant the requested special permit. Any such decision by Mayor Ganim’s Planning & Zoning Commission will certainly result in an appeal.
As a second option, they can apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals and seek a variance, even though no legal hardship exists and the regulation under which the special permit was filed, is no longer part of the Zoning Regulations. The ZBA has been known in the past to ignore the requirement of ‘hardship’ when called upon to do so by a favored applicant. Any such dereliction of duty by four members of the ZBA, would also result in a meritorious appeal.
I have one word of advice for the Diocese and Bishop Caggiano. Withdraw your troops, call off your offensive and have an honest discussion with the neighborhood.
Your first question should be, “what are your concerns?”
This is a question that, to date has not been asked.
To be continued …