Ralsey Road neighbors are winning the battle for beach access

STAMFORD – The vote was noisy, and the outcome was initially unclear.

Ultimately, Ralsey Road residents have successfully stopped a $3.23 million renovation plan for a waterfront home they say jeopardizes their access to their beloved neighborhood beach.

Because of zoning board rules, the plan failed despite being rejected by only one in five members — a result that had to be verified with the code department before it was considered official.

Ralsey Road resident Heather Inman said the vote this week was as stressful as the homeowner’s plan for the beach, which has been the site of weddings, family celebrations, memorial services and neighborhood gatherings for generations. Certified beach rights also add tens of thousands of dollars to the value of homes.

“I’m glad the plan wasn’t approved, but I didn’t wake up in the morning feeling like it was over,” Inman said.

it’s not. The homeowner has until the first week of October to appeal the zoning board’s decision in state Supreme Court, or they can return to the board with another version of the plan.

For Inman and other residents, Stamford’s procedures for determining zoning issues have once again proven frustrating.

They watched a virtual zoning board meeting this week as members discussed an application by Jade and Samantha Lavey to renovate their 1930 colony, raise it from the flood plain, and build two driveways, one for them and one for the house on the other side of the Ralsey Road beach, narrowing the inlet.

Listen, don’t talk

Residents were not allowed to speak while the zoning board considered whether their access rights should be included in the discussion about plans for the beach, which is co-owned by the Laves family and their neighbor Allison Malloy.

This strange arrangement dates back 100 years, when this part of the Shiban neighborhood was created using material dredged from Stamford Harbor.

Forty-six of the homeowners have deeds giving them beach access, but zoning officials said that should not be a factor in their decision to approve or reject the Lavys’ plan to renovate the home they purchased in February 2022.

Along with the upgrades, the Laves want to shift the front of the house from Downs Street to Ralsey Road, creating a landscaped driveway on their side of the beach and a matching entrance on the side leading to the Malloy House.

Each trail will occupy a front corner of the beach, reducing the length of the entrance for bondholders who visit, bringing small boats, kayaks, rafts, strollers, chairs, toys, coolers, and more.

Ralph Blessing, head of the land use office, told the zoning board that the city attorney advised that access is a civil matter between the beach lot owners and the title deed holders, and that the zoning board’s jurisdiction is limited to determining whether a homeowner’s plan complies with the state of Connecticut. Coastal Zone Management Act and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection regulations.

“We’re going to have a problem”

Rosanne McManus, a member of the zoning board, said she was ready to approve Lavis’ plan.

Residents “will still have access; “It will be less spacious,” McManus said.

Zoning Board Member Jerry Bosak Jr. said he visited the beach and found the inlet was about 50 feet wide. If the walkways are built, the entrance will be 10 feet, Bosak said.

“A fence was put up so people could remove the middle rail to get their boats to shore,” Bosack said. “People are now parking their cars where the lanes will be. What will happen if cars are parked in the lanes? We will have a problem if we agree to that.”

Not every deed holder in the neighborhood may walk to the beach, including the elderly, disabled or children, said board member Raquel Smith Anderson.

But Zoning Board Chairman David Stine said Ralsey Road provides enough parking space.

“There’s plenty of space on the street for parking,” Stein said. “They don’t lose the parking area. They don’t have the right to park their cars.”

The deeds “say they have a right to the beach, which they will still have” if the Laffey project is approved, McManus said.

One great vote

McManus, Stein and fellow board member Bill Morris voted to approve Lavis’ plan. Bosak voted no, and Smith-Anderson abstained.

That created a problem because the Stamford Harbor Management Commission voted last month to recommend the zoning board reject the plan. They said that although renovating the house would reduce exposure to coastal flooding, improve drainage, and protect water quality in Long Island Sound, the boardwalk plan does not comply with the Port Commission’s fees to support public access.

Because of action by the Harbor Commission, the Zoning Board needed a supermajority — four of five votes — to approve the plan.

But the Board of Directors’ vote was three yes, one no, and one abstention.

“So what’s going on?” Stein asked.

He wanted to know whether three members would be considered a supermajority if four members voted and one abstained. It turns out that the supermajority on the five-member board is four votes.

Ralsey Road resident Megan McGrath said she remains cautious.

“Let’s just say I’m not dancing in the streets,” McGrath said. “I’m waiting to see what happens next.”

Bill Hennessy, the Lavis family’s land use attorney, said his clients are exploring their options.

“They have an opportunity to file an appeal or review the plan,” Hennessy said. “They may want to tear down the house and build a new structure, or see if there is a possibility of subdividing the property.”

Asked Wednesday about the appeal process, zoning enforcement officer Jim Looney said homeowners have two options.

They can collect signatures from 20 percent of landowners within 500 feet of their project, or 100 owners, whichever is fewer, and petition the House to overturn the zoning board’s rejection of their plan.

This is unlikely, because Ralsey Road residents oppose it and will not sign the petition.

“Or they could take the zoning board to Stamford Superior Court,” Looney said. “The zoning board will be represented by the city. The owner will have an attorney. The neighbors may have an attorney. It will all go before the judge.”

Suits are expensive

According to state law, owners will have to file notice of legal action within 15 days of the zoning board’s decision, which will be around Oct. 3.

For residents, lawsuits that can cost tens of thousands of dollars add insult to injury from not being allowed to speak during meetings, Inman said. As a “coastal site plan review,” the Ralsey Road project does not require a public hearing, zoning officials said.

“That’s why people feel disconnected from the zoning process,” Inman said. “These decisions directly impact our lives, and not only did the zoning board not let us speak, they didn’t seem to investigate it themselves. They talked about it without seeing it. You can’t make a good decision from a piece of paper. You can’t make a good decision without getting down and looking mechanism.”

Bosak visited Ralsey Road Beach, Inman said.

“As a result, he asked good questions — questions that other board members should have asked,” she said.

Bosak, the only Republican on the zoning board, became a member in November. He said he hears the frustration of residents struggling to understand the intricacies of the zoning board, but the members — volunteers appointed by the mayor and approved by city representatives — spend a lot of time reviewing documents provided to them before each meeting.

“I think most people who listen to music can tell how many hours we spent working,” Bosack said. “My experience is that informed decisions are made.”

Zoning issues can greatly impact people’s lives, so a site visit is important, he said.

“You have to study the plans, yes, but I need to look at the neighborhood and listen to the community, and not make decisions in a silo,” Bosak said. “In the Ralsei Road case, I believe the plan that was proposed was not the greatest and best use of the property that has titleholders. The best use is not to restrict access.”

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