Zoners amend ‘yard setbacks’ after Leary ruling

The Planning and Zoning Commission voted 7-1 in favor of amending the town’s definition of “yard setbacks” at its Tuesday, Jan. 2, meeting. Commissioner Mark Zeck was the only member of the commission to vote against the amended language, with Vice Chairman Joe Fossi choosing to recuse himself from the discussion.

The new amendment will remove the phrase “or use” from the town zoning regulations’ definition of a yard setback — “the shortest distance between any part of a building or structure and the nearest lot line or recorded right-of-way,” as the regulations currently define setbacks.

The amendment was proposed by the commission as a result of a court ruling in which Judge William J. Lavery overturned the commission’s 2015 decision to allow Larry Leary Development LLC to build a contractors yard off Route 7, near the Regency townhouse complex.

“The commission acted unreasonably in granting the special permit of the developers’ intention to build a multi-unit construction lot,” Lavery wrote in his 16-page ruling on the case, because the development included “structures and uses in violation of the rules set forth by the Ridgefield Zoning Regulations with respect to front yard setback in Business B-2 Zones.”

Residents of the Regency at Ridgefield community filed the appeal, after the commission approved the plan despite neighbors’ concerns.

Fossi previously recused himself from several hearings on the subject, on the grounds that he had done work with Leary in the past as a builder.

The judge’s ruling “turned around 71 years” of town zoning regulations, said Director of Planning and Zoning Richard Baldelli at the Jan. 2 hearing.

Shed in the driveway

The amendment would also add a new section to the zoning regulations (7.14), which would allow “incidental improvements” to go as of right within the yard setbacks, Baldelli said. That section would allow homeowners to install, among other improvements — walls, retaining walls, and certain signs already permitted in the town’s regulations.

Baldelli also clarified that the town could add to the amendment language that would allow homeowners to place small sheds within the yard setbacks. Prior to the court ruling, Baldelli explained, homeowners were able to build small sheds within the yard setback and without requiring a permit from the town zoning department.

With the new yard setback definitions, however, a shed put up on a homeowner’s property would have to be built outside the setback area, Baldelli said — unless the commission chose to include this in the list of “incidental improvements” allowed under the new amendment.

Commissioner Zeck argued in favor of that possibility.  

“But, of course,” he said, “I’m from New Jersey, where just about every house had a shed, so …”

Peace of mind

Longtime commission member John Katz said the sheds ought to remain outside the setbacks, in the interest of neighbors’ peace of mind.

“That’s there for a purpose — to protect neighbors,” said Katz, “and I don’t see any reason why we don’t need it.”

He added that he could “envision a shed being crowded against a property line,” to the annoyance of a neighbor.

But Zeck argued that for homes on very small lots, the shed might end up in the middle of the driveway — if the homeowner had to adhere exactly to the town’s setback rules.

In the end, the commission opted to move forward with the amendment, without adding small sheds to the list of incidental improvements.