As new types of signs pop up on residential properties and throughout the downtown, including many that are prohibited by local zoning regulations, town officials say New Canaan must make a conscious decision about whether to be more lax about them. Members of the town’s legislative body say they’re receiving calls about proliferating lawn signs, from those promoting sports teams such as New Canaan Squash and New Canaan Football, to events such as Lobsterfest. “Technically they are against our ordinance,” Town Councilman Steve Karl said at a recent meeting of the body’s Bylaws and Ordinances Committee, which he co-chairs. “In the old days, [Planning & Zoning] had a sign police that would say, ‘Hey that’s an illegal sign,’ ” Karl said at the Oct. 1 meeting, held in Town Hall.
In the wake of a widely discussed unpermitted demolition on White Oak Shade Road, members of New Canaan’s legislative body say they’re looking to go beyond the rather soft penalties dictated by state law for such actions. The owners of a rare pre-American Revolutionary War-era house at 251 White Oak Shade Road faced only a $500 fine after removing the top half of the home in February without authorization to do so—less than they would have paid in fees for a legal demolition permit.
Last week, the co-chair of a Town Council committee that oversees ordinances in New Canaan said it’s important to “figure out how to not have that happen again.”
“Here is somebody that went in and tore off half of a house without any kind of notice or permit—and that was an antique house, it was built in the 1700s,” Steve Karl said at a meeting of the Council’s Bylaws and Ordinances Committee, held Oct. 1 at Town Hall. “They did something really, really bad and a $500 fine is ridiculous,” Karl said. “There has to be something more than that, when you do something that egregious.
New Canaan is seeing an increasing number of food trucks pulling into town parks, alongside the new athletic fields by the Waveny water towers and elsewhere, to the point where it’s affecting local businesses, officials say, and creating a need for a formal policy with teeth. Though town officials have dealt with eager food truck vendors for years—at times running them out of public parks (where they’re not allowed), pointing them toward a “Peddlers” or “Itinerant Vendors” license that’s outlined in the Town Code, or even inventing rules about how licensed trucks can only go to construction sites—there’s no ordinance on the books that limits when and where those vendors can go, and no fine or enforcement agency to back up a formal policy in any case.
“We are getting kind of overrun with food trucks and we don’t really have something specifically in place,” New Canaan Director of Health Jen Eielson told members of the Town Council’s Bylaws and Ordinances Committee at its meeting last week. “It’s starting to run more rampant and then they [food truck vendors] want to have more trucks, and we are trying to limit it because we are getting flack from the businesses in town that pay a lot of money in rent, so I understand their plight and it’s not really fair to them.”
Nearby towns that are similar to New Canaan have rules in their Charters or zoning regulations that are enforced by police or other agencies in the municipality, Eielson said.
While New Canaan for specific events, such as the Family Fourth at Waveny or the Sidewalk Sales downtown, has food trucks come in as caterers—complete with license checks and health inspections, as well as agreed-upon terms of hours and location—open questions remain about what types of trucks the town may want and what sorts of checks should be required of the businesspeople that operate them.
Councilman Steve Karl, a committee co-chair, said there’s “definitely a need” for either a beefed-up “Itinerant Vendors” ordinance or new one.
“Any time we have something like this where you see it’s growing, it’s up to us in the town to control it,” he said. Karl added: “You look at all of the good work that Baskin Robbins does in terms of charity and volunteering and all of the stuff that goes into having a business, and they pay rent to be there, and to have somebody pull up in a truck and take some business away from someone like that, that is a pretty big deal. And I think all of New Canaan and all of the taxpayers they would side on Baskin Robbins’ side.”
Ultimately, the Committee called on Eielson, with help from Administrative Officer Tom Stadler, who also deals with food trucks, to propose some language that the group could bring to the full Town Council.
Members of the town’s legislative body said Monday that they want to control the rising use in New Canaan of popular online rental-by-owner service after seeing an uptick in activity. Airbnb has been a subject of wide discussion in town and with more properties being offered as short-term rentals through it, the Town Council should “get ahead of abuse of that app,” Steve Karl, a co-chair of the body’s Bylaws and Ordinances Subcommittee said during a meeting at Town Hall. “We have had issues. Folks that are using it on more frequent basis, neighbors that are complaining about some transient activity at homes. So we actually looked into a commercial use tax possibility.
Saying it would be best if a volunteer group of residents oversaw the sensitive and nuanced process of handling a blight complaint, New Canaan’s chief building official on Monday night proposed the creation of a new municipal committee.
Brian Platz said that in his position, he must be absolutely consistent in how he handles complaints about blighted properties in New Canaan, but such rigidity does not allow him to address on case-by-case basis situations where, for example, a resident has fallen on hard times. For that reason and others, Platz said, a Blight Committee such as other towns have created is a better vehicle for fielding the complaints.
“I think that if [town residents] were to be, for want of better word—‘judged’—on the condition of their property, it may be better received by a jury of their peers rather than a building inspector who is an enforcement agent of the town,” Platz told members of the Town Council’s Bylaws and Ordinances Committee during a meeting held at Town Hall. “Once I knock on their door and introduce myself, they already, understandably, get a little defensive. And I have had situations where I knocked on a woman’s door and she had gone on chemotherapy. She could barely answer the door and was fighting cancer, and she was well into her 70s, lived alone.