P&Z Watch: Neighbors Oppose Basement Bedroom on Prospect Drive

An application from a resident at 16 Prospect Drive, located in the R7 zone off Lake Avenue (behind Greenwich Hospital), seeks a final site plan to add a bedroom in the basement of what the applicant said was a legally non-conforming two-family residence came before the P&Z commission Tuesday night.

The applicant has been excavating the floor of the basement to create more headroom and has received two stop work orders.

The permit history from the Building Dept notes that no work is allowed in the basement until approval from Zoning is obtained.

16 Prospect Drive. Dec 16, 2020
Diagram shows five required parking spaces for two family home.

The discussion touched on a complicated legal issue of whether the addition of the bedroom, which is already included in the property’s FAR, would “intensify” or “expand” use of the property.

The commission requested additional information from the applicant, Catherine “Cassy” Palmer, including a certificate of occupancy and history of permits to verify the house is a legal nonconforming two-family. She also has to demonstrate there is sufficient parking.

Applicant Catherine “Cassie” Palmer, owner of 16 Prospect Drive off Lake Ave. Photo: Zoom

The applicant currently has permits to work on the first and second floors of 16 Prospect Drive, but not the basement.

Ms Palmer told the commission she had been living in the home for almost two years since purchasing it.

She said she was looking to add a bedroom in the basement for her high school age son, who is tall, and that she had had a series of contractors working to excavate the basement floor, which was solid rock.

She acknowledged she had been told by the town to stop work, but was unaware that her permits did not allow the work she was doing.

“I did not know this, but essentially if you finish a basement, it is considered adding another bedroom,” she said.

“By expanding the headroom and creating new headroom in the basement, our interpretation is that you have expanded the area,” P&Z chair Margarita Alban said.

Ms Palmer said she purchased the property on the basis of it being a legally non-confirming two-family home, grandfathered prior to existing zoning.

“It’s an old grandfather,” she said, adding she believed it had been approved as a two-family as early as the 1970s or 1980s.

The commission is also charged with determining whether that additional bedroom would increase the degree of nonconformity in a way that is detrimental to the neighborhood.

Ms Palmer who represented herself, while others typically hire a land use attorney, was asked how the parking works.

“Right now there’s barely anybody at the property because we’ve finished demolition and it’s really not habitable at this point,” she replied. “But there’s three cars in the driveway and one in front of the residence. That is how we’ve seen it work.”

Neighbor at 18 Prospect Drive (left) installed a fence on his portion of a shared driveway after he said residents of 16 Prospect were parking on his driveway. Dec 16, 2020

Several neighbors said the parking plan for five spots was unworkable.

“I’ve spoken to DPW on a number of occasions. They can’t stand coming to our street because we already have too many cars on our street and too much traffic, said Erin Nova, a resident of Farley Street, who said it would be detrimental to the “homey, peaceful” neighborhood.

“More cars are clearly not going to fit in the driveway and will end up being on the street,” he said. “There are transient folks in and out all the time.”

Though Ms Palmer said the additional bedroom in the basement was intended for one of her sons, neighbors testified none of the Palmers live in the house.

Ms DeLuca said whether Ms Palmer or her two sons resided in the house was not relevant because the approvals run with the land, and are not specific to the current owner.

Sisters, Michelle and Victoria Fu, who live directly across the street from 16 Prospect, said the road was narrow and that Ms Palmer’s tenants tend to park along the road.

“Sometimes we can’t even turn out of (our) driveway,” Michelle Fu said. “Though Mrs. Palmer has declared there are five parking spaces, we have not seen it.”

Victoria Fu said she’d already scraped her car because the parking situation left little room to maneuver.

“When you add more cars that aren’t parking in the driveway, it is dangerous,” Michelle said. “It’s detrimental to the neighborhood and poses a safety concern.”

John Repik, of 18 Prospect Drive, said he’d lived next door to 16 Prospect Drive for 42 years, and shared a common driveway.

“Ever since Ms Palmer bought this house it’s been a nightmare. Everything she’s told the board so far has been a lie,” he said. “A person lived there for a year in the basement with no toilet and now the person lives in the garage. He’s been here for one year and lived pretty much like a homeless person. The house already exceeds the FAR over 200 ft. The police have been here at least four times – a couple times because her basement dweller was blocking our driveway.”

“There are many issues here, but she does not live here and never has,” Mr. Repik added.

Though P&Z Chair Margarita Alban said due to the way the regulations were written, the basement is already included in the FAR, Mr. Repik said he believed the parking was insufficient for an additional bedroom.

Mr. Repik said the parking layout, as proposed, required multiple cars be moved in order for one car to exit.

The commissioners had difficulty understanding the applicant’s hand drawn plans, and were confused about the layout of the basement in connection with the rest of the house.

Mr. Repik said previously a married couple had owned the house at 16 Prospect Drive, with a mother in law in the downstairs unit.

He too complained about the parking, saying that with so many cars parked along the narrow street, it was difficult for emergency vehicles to maneuver.

“There’s parking only allowed on one side of the street, and when she has people coming and going all hours of the night and we don’t know who they are and where they’re coming from, they park all up and down Prospect Drive.”

Mr. Repik said when Ms Palmer first bought the house a year and a half earlier he installed a fence down the shared driveway because Ms Palmer’s tenants were blocking his portion of the driveway.

He said a section of the fence had already been knocked down by Ms Palmer’s contractors and that her two tandem parking spots were right along his fence.

“It’s pretty much a nightmare,” he said.

Ms Palmer said no one was living in the garage, and that she uses it to store her own belongings.

Commissioner Nick Macri said he reviewed the permit history and found an annotation from inspectors on June 22 noting that someone was living in the garage.

“I’ve never authorized anyone to live in the garage. I know that’s not allowed,” Ms Palmer said, adding that there had been contractors on site and small projects that did not require a permit.

“When you asked us to stop we really did stop,” Ms Palmer said.

Mary Jenkins of 28 Prospect Drive asked the commission to deny the application.

She said the non conforming two-family home had already had a significant impact on the entire neighborhood, though the street was invisible to most residents as it is a dead end, as are Cassidy and Farley.

“Although the owner has expressed her intent to use the unit on her property, and I am retired and in the house 24/7, and to my observation she has never resided on the property, and does not currently reside at the property,” she said, adding the property would resemble a used car lot with 5 cars parked there.

The dimension of the parking spaces on the plan Ms Palmer submitted were questioned.

The minimum dimensions of a non-transient parking space are 8 ½’ x 18’ per Sec. 6-185 of the BZR.

Ms Palmer said her intention with the renovation was to make it more of a family home because her sons wanted to live downtown. She said she had invested significant amounts of money to update the house, including $75,000 on HVAC.

“I am floored that my next door neighbor – after all the work I’ve done on the home – would lie and say I’d make it into a three family….I would never do that,” she said.

Parking along Prospect Drive. Photo from P&Z application.

Ms Palmer said the photo submitted by Ms Jenkins for the record showed other neighbors’ cars, not hers parked along Prospect Drive.

“I respectfully ask you just stick to the truth,” she said. “We worked very hard with SE Minor (on a parking plan) to ensure there are no cars on the street. Why is it I’m not allowed to have one car on the street? If we had just one on the street, this is a very easy situation.”

Both Ms DeLuca and the commissioners said they wanted to know whether the basement was considered habitable per building code prior to the excavation of the basement floor. That would be relevant to the question of expansion.

In the end, the application was left open. Ms Palmer was asked to submit more information including past permits to create a timeline of when the house became a two-family, and when the neighborhood was zoned R7, as well as better plans than the hand drawn ones.

See also:

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