Developer claims ‘inappropriate conduct’ by Stamford representatives in lawsuit

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STAMFORD — A property developer claims city officials decided how they would vote on a controversial 2018 zoning petition before they even heard their arguments, and the company points to recently leaked emails as evidence.

The allegations are part of the latest legal filing from the owner of High Ridge Real Estate. The LLC, which owns High Ridge Park in Turn of River, filed a motion in March asking a state Superior Court judge to let the company’s attorneys conduct an additional investigation.

High Ridge Real Estate Owner is a registered business entity at the same address as Manhattan-based developer George Comfort & Sons.

In the petition, the owner claims that the members of the Council of Representatives engaged in “inappropriate conduct” based on “partial, predetermined and politically motivated” reasons in rejecting zoning changes that would allow a gym Life Time Fitness in the underused High Ridge Park office park.

The law firm points to specific actions between some Stamford residents and at least nine of the 40 board members — including Representative Nina Sherwood, D-8; Representative Megan Cottrell, D-4; and former Rep. J.R. McMullen, R-18—among others—as examples of “ex parte” or “one-sided” conversations between petitioners and council.

Sherwood, Cottrell and the attorney representing the Council of Representatives, Patricia Sullivan of Bridgeport-based Cohen and Wolf, declined to comment on the allegations due to what Cottrell said was “ongoing legal action.” McMullen did not respond to a request for comment.

The developer sued the Council of Representatives in 2018 for nearly unanimously rejecting an amendment approved by the city’s zoning board that would have allowed it to build a luxury gym in an underutilized office park. After weeks of discussion, council members rejected amendment 35-0-5.

The owner of High Ridge Park claimed in the lawsuit that the petitioners did not collect enough signatures and that the council should not have accepted the petition in the first place. A majority of city officials sided with the petitioners, nearby residents including a condo association, who believed the zoning changes would contribute to overdevelopment.

Although the state Supreme Court ruled in March on the High Ridge Park case – changing the interpretation of the city’s petition rules and saying the Council of Representatives cannot count petition signatures in the process – the judges sent the case back to the lower court. There, a judge will decide whether city officials correctly rejected the zoning decision.

In its original 2018 complaint, the developer argued that the Council of Representatives was wrong to reject the zoning change and acted “unlawfully, arbitrarily and in abuse of power”. But in his latest filing, he went a step further, saying the Council of Representatives ‘predetermined’ how it would vote in the High Ridge Park case, incorrectly took ‘positions ahead of hearings and votes’ and coordinated votes with petitioners who wanted the rezoning was defeated.

The motion cites email exchanges, obtained through a 2018 Freedom of Information Act request, between Stamford and Cottrell residents to allege that representatives made a decision on the petition before hearing formal arguments from the developer and residents – something they say shows a disregard for “zoning standards that need to be considered.

The owner, in the motion, alleges that documents obtained from council members show that lead petitioner and local condo association president Hank Cuthbertson “coordinates votes with council members” and that Cuthbertson “had access to a list… detailing how each board member would vote on the amendments – before any votes.

In an email to Sherwood, according to the petition, Cuthbertson said he obtained a list “from another representative who is with (the petitioners) on” the case. The petition further claims that McMullen was biased in favor of the petitioners and provided them with advice to strengthen their legal arguments.

The document, the developer says in the motion, allegedly shows that McMullen “pushed the use of two alternative fitness facilities to a community member who supported” the construction of a Life Time Fitness center in High Ridge.

“If you’re looking for facilities with a wide range of amenities, you might want to look at the JCC or the Italian Center,” McMullen wrote in a July 2018 email. The resident pushed back on McMullen’s advice, according to the documents.

Prior to sending the trade, board members heard concerns from Stamford Italian Center executives who said, “Life Time Fitness could potentially force IC out of business,” the motion reads.

According to High Ridge Park’s original complaint, the petitioners’ challenge to the zoning change was improper because there were not 300 “landowner” signatures as required by the Stamford Charter.

The High Ridge owner alleged that under Connecticut law, only a condominium association was an “owner” who could sign a petition, not individual owners of condominium units. High Ridge’s latest motion suggests that Cottrell may be biased on this point because as a condo unit owner herself, Cottrell believed individual condo unit signatures should count toward the petition.

“I own a condo and think we should count,” she wrote in a July 2018 post. However, in a subsequent email to another Stamford resident, Cottrell said that she could not “take an official position on the matter before the” upcoming vote.

Although the developer and his attorney, David T. Martin, provided 20 documents obtained through the FOIA with the motion, Martin wrote that the developer needed more findings, including “email and text communications by and between the members of the board of directors, as well as with any other person. , regarding the Life Time project.

“It is clear that there were communications between the principal petitioner and several members of Council,” he continued. “HRREO should be given the right to explore … the extent of coordination efforts between Cuthbertson and the board as well as whether there is additional evidence of predetermination, bias and political motivations.”

Martin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cuthbertson said in a statement that the developer and its attorneys are “hanging on straws here because they have a very weak case.

“The idea that the Stamford Board of Reps does not have the power to overrule a Zoning Board decision is patently ridiculous,” he said in an email. “Besides, no one has done anything wrong here.”

The Council of Representatives has yet to respond to the allegations contained in the developer’s latest petition.

veronica.delvalle@hearstmediact.com


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