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Following nearly three years of litigation, a judge in Middletown ruled against Clinton’s Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) for a failure of a former member to properly recuse himself during a public hearing in 2016. The result of the ruling invalidates two previously approved changes to zoning regulations.
The issue started after an August 2016 public hearing over proposed zoning amendments that would relax some of the setback and fencing requirements for contractors’ businesses and storage yards, and allow for expanded hours of operation.
A petition to amend the I-2 zoning district in regulations was brought by Kim Neri Simoncini, whose father is Carl Neri, who was then a PZC member. Simoncini was the owner of Hammonasset Construction while Neri was the president and owner of Neri Construction. Neri recused himself from that discussion, which was denied, but followed soon after by a similar, PZC-initiated application written by the town's planning consultant.
While Neri stated he recused himself at the meeting to discuss the PZC's proposed amendment, he remained seated at the table with his fellow PZC members and actively participated in the discussion of the issue.
The judge’s ruling states that, “Throughout the hearing, Neri continuously interrupted and badgered members of the public that spoke out against the proposal and his attendance at the public hearing,” also noting “that Simoncini also shouted at and about [a member of the public] during the debacle.”
Gary Bousquet, who was the PZC chairman at the time, also recused himself from the hearing because of a possible business connection he could have as an installer of fences; Bousquet removed himself from the table to sit in the audience.
At a September 2016 PZC meeting at which the proposed amendments to sections 10.52 and 26.1.4 were discussed, Bousquet once again recused himself. Neri, serving as an alternate, was not seated as a voting PZC member, but again remained at the table. The PZC voted along party lines to approve the amendments by a vote of 5 Republicans in favor to four Democrats opposed; both Neri and Bousquet are Republicans.
According to court documents, Neri pointed at the acting chairman, Mike Knudsen, who cast the deciding vote.
“It was only after Neri pointed his finger at Knudsen and the commission voted in favor of the proposal that he left the table at 9:00 p.m.” the document states.
In November 2016, MJM Self Storage of Clinton, LLC, Frank Natle, Beverley Natle, Phillip Stankiewicz, Pamela Fritz, Marion Buice-Hubert, Ellen Stankiewicz, and Lisa Mauzy all filed an appeal seeking in part to overturn the regulations. On May 10, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Matthew Frechette ruled in favor of the eight plaintiffs, and invalidated the amendments to the regulations the commission approved.
In his ruling, the judge wrote “it is important to highlight the fact that Chairman Bousquet recused himself from the proceedings merely because he sells fences for a living. While Bousquet’s potential bias is not at issue in this matter, it serves as an illustration of the even greater conflict that Neri had, both financial and familial, when he ignored the demands of the public to recuse himself, but instead actively participated and attended” the public hearing and later deliberations.
At the August 2016 meeting, Bousquet did briefly return to the table and make comments about the meeting, which the plaintiffs claimed was another reason to invalidate the PZC vote. The judge wrote that the court recognized the argument, but the court chose not to consider the claim in light of the conclusion that was reached.
At a PZC meeting on May 13, the first PZC meeting since the judge issued his ruling, the matter was briefly discussed.
Bousquet noted that the judge’s ruling was in reference to the recusal issue, and not against the actual text of the zoning amendments. Chairperson Mary Ellen Dahlgren suggested that the commission could have a regulations subcommittee look at the issue and then possibly resubmit any amendments for consideration of the full PZC. Dahlgren said that any new application would again require another public hearing.
The PZC in Clinton has often faced rebuke from citizens and town leaders in the press and in meetings for a perceived propensity toward poor behavior and dysfunctionality. Commission alternate member Bethany Knight, who was not a member of the PZC when the original offense took place, read a lengthy statement where she expressed her frustration with the way the PZC handled the matter.
“Over the past year and a half, I have spent more time being discouraged than encouraged, more time wondering who among us believes we are here for the public good, and not personal gain,” Knight said in part.
Knight also said, “I am pleased the court found former commissioner Carl Neri’s participation in the proceeding improper, and as a result invalidated the commission’s earlier decision to amend the contractors’ yard regulation and requires another public hearing and another vote on contractor’s yard regulations.”
She also encouraged her fellow commission members to earn back the public trust by following established bylaws and recusing themselves when appropriate.
Find the judge’s Memorandum of Decision as related content above.
Editor's note: An earlier version of the story erroneously stated that an amendment overturned by the court ruling was proposed by Kimberly Neri Simoncini; the overturned amendment was proposed by the PZC.
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