Land use director named Chief Zoning Enforcement Officer

The city’s director of permitting and land use recently was named chief zoning enforcement officer, a move that Mayor Ben Blake says will increase efficiency in the city’s land use departments and move building projects along more quickly. But it is a move that a group of residents argues undermines the democratic process here.

The story about Milford’s department of permitting and land use — or DPLU — started in 2009, with the implementation of a report compiled by the Kimball Report Implementation Team, dubbed KRIT. The city had hired Kimball, an architectural and engineering firm, to study the city’s land permitting processes and come up with recommendations to improve efficiencies.

Back then, there were myriad complaints about a bogged-down process that left builders angry and annoyed, sometimes forgoing Milford as a place to build because the process was too difficult to wade through.

One builder at the time said he was afraid to go into Milford’s planing and zoning office.

“It’s not business friendly,” said another longtime local builder in 2009. “Everybody knows that. Builders are often told it will take eight months to get a permit, so they go over to West Haven or Stratford with their project.”

Other local builders and businessmen, like James Beard, Louis D’Amato and Len Napoli, also spoke at the time, explaining that building was a hard process to get through in Milford.

“You go looking for help and they seem to want to knock you down,” Napoli said at the time the KRIT report was adopted.

Centralized department

The solution, outlined in the KRIT report, relied on a new centralized department to coordinate the permitting process and to be staffed with a customer service-type director to help applicants through the process. This new director oversees the building office, planning office and inland wetlands office.

The position, now manned by Joseph Griffith, wasn’t too popular with some zoning board members and environmentalists. Opponents dubbed the new position “the land use czar” and said it undermined the zoning board’s authority.

Back in 2009, City Planner David Sulkis had this to say: “In most cases, the developers know perfectly well that their plans are not up to snuff, and they submit them anyway. It’s up to professional city planners to find all these problems and make sure they get fixed, and that takes time.”

Since 2009, there have been two official DPLU directors — first Jocelyn Mathiasen and now Joseph Griffith — and the position has gotten more powerful. Last year, the DPLU director was named the new city building official, a move that angered the city’s previous building official. Thomas Raucci, the chief building inspector, had been serving as ‘building official’ until Griffith was given the job. Raucci is still chief building inspector, but lost the ‘building official’ title.

When Blake announced recently that Griffith is now chief zoning enforcement officer, too, the complaints came anew.

There are several reasons that a group of people opposes it.

Jeanne Cervin, Planning and Zoning Board member, said she is concerned on several fronts. The matter was on the P&Z board’s agenda for several months, and Cervin planned to vote against it. Then the item was removed from the agenda, and next thing she knew, the requested change had been made without the board’s authority.

“In 2009, when the Department of Permitting and Land use was created, Mayor James Richetelli, on the record, stated that ‘the DPLU director will be responsible for administrative functions only and not land use decisions,’” Cervin said. “It was with that understanding that the DPLU was approved by the Board of Aldermen.

“[Last] Wednesday the mayor announced that he has appointed the DPLU director as Milford’s chief zoning enforcement officer. This action not only bypasses the authority of the Planning and Zoning Board’s responsibility to enforce regulations but if it stands will leave all future land use decisions vulnerable to political influence.”

Board oversight

Cervin and Barbara Bell, a local environmentalist and a member of the Connecticut Siting Council, explained that the people who had been authorized to enforce city zoning regulations — the zoning enforcement officer, the city planner, the assistant city planner, and in a pinch, the chairman of the Planning and Zoning Board — answer to the Planning and Zoning Board. They said Griffith, as DPLU director, does not answer to the board but answers directly to the mayor and is appointed by the mayor.

They question if the mayor had the legal right to create what they see as a position that is outside the pre-existing structure.

Mark Lofthouse, a former P&Z vice chairman, said he was taken aback when he heard that Griffith was indeed made chief zoning enforcement officer, minus a vote by the board.

“What is so urgent that the mayor decided to bypass the P&Z?” Lofthouse said.

Lofthouse said the board creates a separation of power between the mayor’s office and the land use departments. This change eliminates that separation of power, he said.

“I find this really disturbing,” he said.

Mayor Blake responded, saying that Milford’s zoning regulations give the mayor the ability to appoint zoning enforcement officers, and since there was no budgetary impact, “Joe Griffith’s appointment just made sense.”

Mayor pushes efficiency

Blake said when he hired Griffith he had been looking for a candidate who was a licensed building inspector, which Griffith is, so he could take on some additional roles, as the KRIT report recommended. When he named Griffith chief building official last year, over Raucci, the mayor said “the realignment of responsibilities within the department is targeted to decrease wait times for building inspections and plan reviews while bolstering communications to the applicant.”

Naming Griffith chief zoning enforcement officer makes the process even more efficient, Blake said, adding that it simply increases Griffith’s administrative capabilities.

“The city is still in the process of implementing the KRIT recommendations,” Blake told the zoning board during a meeting late last year. “This is one component of that report. One of the things that came out of KRIT was there should be cross-training. This lends itself to that. Also, that champion, the DPLU director, needs to have those mandates to move projects forward and to move the department forward, and that is consistent with that charge from the Kimball Implementation Report that since 2009, the Planning and Zoning Board and the city of Milford have been trying to fully implement.”

He said the change does not negate the Planning and Zoning Board’s authority.

Democratic Town Committee Chairman Rich Smith agreed, saying that the board approves and denies building proposals, but it doesn’t go out and check works in progress to make sure they’re up to code and being done according to the approved plans. That’s the job of a zoning enforcement officer, or one of the other city officials with the power to enforce city regulations.

Speculation remains

Bell still finds the new arrangement unsettling, saying “an administrator is not supposed to be in a supervisory capacity over himself.” She and others said that, as chief zoning enforcement officer, Griffith now has the final authority to interpret city regulations, leaving many important land-use decisions in the hands of a political appointee.

Lofthouse speculated that the increase in power could be abused over time. He said he wants to see the decision reversed.

A builder’s view

Louis D’Amato, a long-time Milford builder, said he doesn’t have all the details of the latest change, but he thinks it sounds like a good idea.

D’Amato said gaining approval for building projects hasn’t gotten easier over the years, and that developers are still getting frustrated and taking their business to other towns.

D’Amato thinks the city planner’s office is too picky and stringent in following regulations, some that are obscure, and that more common sense needs to be employed.

“Sometimes, they need to make reasonable decisions, as long as they’re not to the detriment of the community,” he said. “Sometimes you have to be flexible.”

In some cases, builders are re-filing their plans under affordable housing regulations because it gets them around the stringent zoning interpretations that prevent them from building the subdivisions they prefer.

D’Amato said many of Milford’s developers are still turned off by the process here.

“It’s happening with everybody,” he said. “They give up and go somewhere else.”

If naming the DPLU director chief zoning enforcement officer creates a situation where the director can get around the system and get projects through, that’s a good thing for businesses and for the city, D’Amato said.

Rich Smith said he doesn’t think the DPLU director will set out to override decisions by the city planner, but he may end up being another authority for a disgruntled builder to debate a decision with: He will be another set of eyes.

“This actually creates more checks and balances,” Smith said. “There’s another person to arbitrate.”

Making it work

Smith also said the mayor has to make changes to the land permitting offices because as they are now, they are “dysfunctional.”

“I’ve tried to hire contractors to work on my house and they tell me they won’t come to Milford,” Smith said.

He said the opposition is wrong, and that it isn’t a matter of doing things the way they have always been done; rather, “it’s about what’s going to work,” he said.

Mayor Blake added, “City government can’t cling to the status quo – there’s an ongoing need to improve the way we do business, and in Milford, we continue to seize opportunities to make our Permitting and Land Use Department more effective than ever before.”