P&Z Watch: GHS Neighbors Voice Outrage at Idea of GHS Campus Rezone

Greenwich residents interested in the proposed upgrades to Greenwich High School’s Cardinal Stadium got an eye-full on the P&Z Zoom meeting Tuesday night.

The stadium bleachers, condemned in April 2019, are being held up by rental scaffolding that is now shrouded in orange safety netting.

The BOE, as part of Phase 1A, seeks to replace the bleachers with new ADA compliant ones that have an elevator to a new press box.

They seek to also build toilet facilities and team rooms underneath the bleachers and create handicapped parking.

A challenge is that there is no Floor Area Ratio (FAR) remaining for the 54.87 acre campus.

Initially the BOE, who have hired attorney Tom Heagney to represent them, planned to seek a variance for additional FAR through the Zoning Board of Appeals, but were instead encouraged by P&Z to propose a rezoning.

The rezone would yield almost 80,000 sq ft of additional FAR.

The high school is already 72,000 sq ft over its allotted FAR, which reflects a series of variances over the years.

The school was built in 1970 and sought its first variance in 1975.

Over 100 people waited for hours for the item, and about a dozen GHS neighbors spoke passionately against the proposed rezone of the GHS campus to R20. Currently it is split between RA1 and R20.

The neighbors shared two sentiments: resentment and fear.

They said their resentment stemmed from what they described as years of poor treatment from their neighbor, GHS.

When the high school received a variance for MISA, the neighbors were promised 120 trees and extensive landscaping. It never happened.

P&Z also required a follow up traffic study as a condition of MISA approval, but that didn’t happen either.

MISA was completed in 2014. The traffic study didn’t happen until 2019, after neighbors complained repeatedly in public hearings.

Back in 2017, then Schools Superintendent Dr. Jill Gildea hosted neighbors for a “What If” meeting to talk about possibly lighting fields 6 and 7 and other upgrades. At the time school start time had just changed and athletes were playing in the dark.

The neighbors were outraged. They recalled how blasting to create field 7 in 2005 was a nightmare, saying that no notice was given to neighbors, who now have cracked foundations.

They described years of litter, construction, snarled traffic, and lights left on all night.

One Old Church Rd neighbor said, “You do not honor covenants you agree to. You are not trustworthy. We are sick of it. We have had it. None of us believe we can deal in good faith with the high school and the town.”

Many of these same residents turned out in summer 2018 to oppose a proposed a text amendment that would potentially allow public and private schools in residential zones a 30% bump in FAR.

At the time BET, member Leslie Tarkington spoke at length against the text amendment, saying an increase in FAR for schools would impact residents’ quality of life, diminish neighborhoods’ value to the town’s grand list and have a major impact on land values in town. She said the amendment was “a give away” to private schools and even suggested that the change was de facto spot zoning.

The proposal was ultimately withdrawn.

GHS students cut the ribbon at the grand opening concert in the GHS Performing Arts Center, Oct. 7, 2015. Credit: Leslie Yager
GHS students cut the ribbon at the grand opening concert in the GHS Performing Arts Center, Oct. 7, 2015. Credit: Leslie Yager

Fast forward to Tuesday. Many of the same neighbors from the 2017 “What If” meeting and the July 2018 hearing on the text amendment were on Zoom, and they had hired attorneys.

Tara Resteiri said she fully supported the bleacher and accompanying upgrades but not the rezoning.

“This improvement would increase the value to our homes but we are asking this be held off,” Resteiri said.

Rich Stephenson said the rezoning was being rushed, and it was possible for the project to go forward without rezoning.

“There is very strong opposition to rezoning,” he said. “We are in general pro high school and for the bleachers. But it is taking the huge leap forward in packaging this quickly into rezoning from RA1 to R20.”  

Elizabeth Dempsey talked about the unpleasant history of living next to GHS including clear cutting trees, blasting of fields 3 and 4, and more recently the installation of a third lane of traffic on Hillside Road, which she described as unsafe.

“Don’t make a huge change like this,” she said. “Let’s get things right this time.”

Hugh Evans of Old Church Road agreed.

“GHS doesn’t always have a balance with interests of  neighbors,” he said describing Sunday mornings with outside organizations renting fields and bringing in loud speakers at 7:30am.

Larry Restieri said, “The problem is they rent out the fields. We don’t want men’s league soccer played behind us at all hours. We did not choose to live next to Chelsea fields. Rezoning opens up Pandora’s box.”

“The number of times the high school has sat down with us neighbors is zero. We demand to be heard.”

Larry Restieri, Old Church Road

Burke Dempsey of Hillside Road said he wondered about unintended consequences of rezoning, and the possibility that other neighbors would rezone to R20.

“We’ll be the only few houses with RA1,” he said. “Others houses will be worth millions and millions. It may lead to more affordable housing. They’ll try to put it in. It’s already happened with Pathways. There will be more density.”

Diana Delano, who said her property abuts fields 3 and 4, said the rezoning proposal was sprung on neighbors with short notice. She said a one page letter from Mr. Heagney invited them to peruse relevant documents at town hall. She said that wasn’t even possible since town hall is closed due to the pandemic.

Ms Alban said the rezone had been discussed since May, but that the commission appreciated the feedback.

“We never want to do something without a dialogue. We like to talk to people and get their input. That’s why we held it open,” Alban said.

“We are very scared,” Ms Delano said.

Several neighbors said they feared GHS having an additional 78,000 sq ft of FAR.

Attorney Heagney and BOE member Joe Kelly said the proposed rezoning did not signal plans for a building spree, but they did note that a new security vestibule outside the glass corridor was in the works.

BOE member Joe Kelly argued in favor of the rezoning so it wouldn’t be necessary to pursue so many variances.

“We don’t want to break rules, knowing we’re 75,000 sq ft over FAR,” he said. “The extra FAR does not give us the freedom to say let’s expand and grow.”

“Looking forward, to the (plans for a safety vestibule) entry area, it isn’t just to make it a little extra secure. It’s about school shootings,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s not easy for a shooter to come in and shoot people. On the school shooting issue we take very seriously.”

The commission and attorney Heagney tried to explain that if the rezone was approved any proposal requiring additional FAR would still have to go through an arduous process involving P&Z and public hearings.

In the stadium the bleachers and press box are outdated. The bleachers were condemned in April 2019 and are shored up by scaffolding that the GAF paid for for six months and now the BOE is paying for. There is a lack of handicapped accessibility and parking, lack of public toilet rooms, lack of team rooms, concession areas and outdated lighting.

P&Z chair Margarita Alban said, “It’s just the bleachers, the under structures, and the handicapped access, but a lot of people feel you’re doing a total rebuild.”

Noting the commission had been inundated in emails, Alban said, “We’ve struck terror in people’s hearts.”

“If you read the tone of the emails, we’ve scared people. People feel this means the high school is about to embark on construction. I don’t know how to put people’s concerns to rest right now. The intent is not to throw open the barn doors.”

The neighbors weren’t having it. They said they hadn’t even been aware of a 15 year plan.

(The $765,000,000 long term facilities plan was unveiled by architect Russell Davidson in May 2018 at a public hearing at the high schools.)

Attorneys Jonathan Martin and Gillian Ingraham said they were hired by “a substantial number of neighbors” who wanted a cohesive voice. The attorneys said the neighbors want a top notch facility but without rezoning. They noted the future plans for campus were unclear and they feared losing community character and a commercialization of the neighborhood.

“Why are people scared?” Mr. Martin asked. “It’ll diminish their setbacks.”

He said the school could then erect large sports shed very close to neighbors’ property lines.

“There was talk about wanting to be a good neighbor and abiding by the rules, but being a good neighbor would be not going over FAR,” he added. “If my house is out of compliance with FAR, if you change my zone, what precedent does this set?

Steven Miller, whose children attended GHS, said he supported improvements, but said there had been a lack of transparency and communication.

He said he encouraged the BOE to honor its existing MISA commitments.

“And I listen to Mr. Kelly and the idea that he brings up school shootings is appalling. What does it have to do with this hearing? The BOE shouldn’t be trusted with this level of power and authority,” Mr. Miller said.

After public comment, Ms. Alban said she was saddened by the feedback.

“I hear mistrust of us, the P&Z commission. I regret that. I’ve tried hard to do outreach. I hear mistrust of BOE, and I hear discomfort with the town in general in not being responsive. We have a big job to do.”

Commissioner Andy Fox said the pre application for the stadium project was back in March continued through May and June, and shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

“I am kind of taken aback that this rezoning came as a surprise because it was talked about back then,” he said. “I’m taken aback they feel we’re trying to pull a fast one on the zoning. We truly felt it was a good idea. We’re going around in circles on this application. I’m at a loss over what direction to give the application.”

“A variance is meant to be granting an exception. We are running the high school by exception. But people are used to that, and change is making them uneasy,” Alban said.

The application was left open.

See also:

GHS Neighbors Blast Schools Super During “What If” Presentation on Options for Lighting and Cardinal Field Upgrades

November 2017

Battle Brewing Between Private Schools and Neighbors on Proposed 30% FAR Increase for Schools

June 2018

Study Calls for Total Redesign of Hillside Road, Additional GHS Egress

The Campaign for Greenwich High School MISA Concludes Successful Public-Private Partnership

Playing Football in the Dark at GHS: Parents Not Happy as Daylight Savings Converges with Later Dismissal

Feedback Is Plentiful on Greenwich Schools Facilities 15-Year, $750,000,000 Plan