Gov. Ned Lamont signs the state budget document June 12. Mark Pazniokas / CT Mirror

A first-term House Republican’s success in placing a single sentence in the 832-page state budget, thereby blocking a warehouse distribution project near his neighborhood in Middlebury, has cast a bright light on the dark art of making law and doing favors in Connecticut.

Consent by the governor’s office and the leaders of the four legislative caucuses was required to insert a 136-word sentence that was crafted to override home-rule zoning authority over the scope of a major distribution facility proposed for a site one mile off I-84. 

In legislative parlance, such favors are called “rats.” They tend to be pieces of laws narrowly tailored for a small constituency, typically without public notice and unable to win passage as a stand-alone bill. Sprawling budget bills are their favorite hiding places.

Two lobbyists who live in Middlebury and serve on its Economic Development Commission, Nicole Griffin and Armando P. Paolino, advocated for the legislative intervention in concert with the town’s sole state representative, Republican William Pizzuto, and against the wishes of its Republican first selectman, Edward B. St. John.

St. John said he was furious at Pizzuto and the two economic development commissioners for working secretly to keep a major development site off limits to one of the growth areas in real estate — warehouse distribution facilities.

“Out of a clear blue sky, this bill gets passed,” St. John said.

Neither Griffin nor Paolino, both well-established lobbyists at the Capitol, would discuss the issue or their actions on the record. House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said Griffin twice spoke to him about the project’s unsuitability for Middlebury.

By his own admission, Pizzuto needed help to insert the provision, which exposes Republicans to accusations of hypocrisy by undercutting a GOP brand: defending home-rule control over zoning. Pizzuto acknowledged seeking and obtaining the assistance of Candelora, who was engaged with Democrats in finalizing a bipartisan budget.

“I’m little more than a freshman legislator,” Pizzuto said.

The episode exposes the lack of transparency and the ad hoc nature of what goes into closing a budget deal. It also underscores that home rule is entirely subject to the discretion of the General Assembly under the Connecticut Constitution.

It’s not the only provision addressing land-use in a budget bill, though the other one was drawn to preserve the current zoning process in the state’s second-largest city, Stamford.

One section of the bond package passed on the session’s last day bars a narrow portion of a proposed charter revision in Stamford that Mayor Caroline Simmons opposed as anti-growth. It would have greatly eased the city’s process for overturning zoning approvals by petitioning.

“We advocated for legislation to preserve existing municipal practices and tools to help us grow our city in an inclusive way and to make critical infrastructure improvements, support schools, and expand smart growth in our city to help reduce taxes and grow our grand list,” Simmons said.

Simmons, a former state representative, called the legislative involvement another tool in the political toolbox.

Part of the bigger deal

The Middlebury provision largely was seen as a modest building block to a bipartisan budget deal, one of several items the legislative caucuses floated in negotiations primarily conducted by senior staff, said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. Sought by Republicans to address an issue in a Republican town, it was accepted by Democrats. 

“I have to be pragmatic in my job,” Ritter said.

It was one of many requests tracked on a spreadsheet circulated among the players. Some, like a proposal to require VIN numbers be etched on automotive glass and other parts — a potential profit center for car dealers or a vendor — were added and then eliminated.

The Middlebury favor made the spreadsheet on June 1, according to the governor’s office. That was a Thursday. The item survived the final weekend of wrangling before the negotiators declared “pencils down,” clearing the way for the House to open the budget debate on the evening of June 5, two days before the midnight adjournment deadline on June 7.

“We signed off on it,” said Jonathan Dach, chief of staff to Gov. Ned Lamont. “In a pure world, nothing would be in there that’s not required to implement the budget. Whether this stands out amongst all of the other issues that are important to members and get added to the document over the course of the final couple of days, I don’t know. It doesn’t stick out to me like a sore thumb.”

After signing the budget at a public ceremony, Lamont said the provision never was flagged for him.

“I wasn’t aware of that provision, but what are you going to do? Veto the budget over this?” Lamont told reporters. “You might be shocked to hear this. I found out that it was in the budget probably the same time a lot of you guys did. There’s a lot of stuff that goes in at the last minute.”

“I’ll be truthful,” Ritter said, recalling the negotiations. “I mean, my chief of staff will call me on the weekend and say, ‘These are the six things that have come up.’ And I said that ‘This is all part of the package. I’m OK with it.”

That was good enough for the Senate Democratic majority, whose leaders dealt with Ritter, not Candelora. And certainly not Pizzuto.

“It came to us through the House Democratic leadership on their behalf,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, one of the two longest-serving members of the General Assembly. Of Pizzuto, he said, “If the request had come directly from him, it would have been rejected.”

Looney said the Middlebury language “did raise eyebrows,” but his caucus did not want to sour negotiations by objecting.

“We thought that maybe the administration would, and they didn’t, either,” Looney said.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said he was uncomfortable with the proposal but not enough to vote against a budget that cut taxes and increased local aid for education.

“It was buried in an implementer, part of a larger budget that had some very important Republican salt in the pot,” Kelly said.

Focusing on Middlebury

As originally written and accepted, the provision would have barred towns with a population of fewer than 8,000 from approving the construction “or use of a warehousing or distribution facility” exceeding 100,000 square feet on any site of less than 150 acres, that contains more than 5 acres of wetlands and is not more than two miles from an elementary school.

Pizzuto acknowledged the language was intended to stop Drubner Equities LLC of Waterbury from developing a 720,000 square-foot distribution center on a 112-acre site that includes the soon-to-be vacated Timex headquarters and 7.55 acres of wetlands. 

And yes, it is no more than two miles from a school, Longwood Elementary.

But the language was not nearly as precise or limiting as intended. While squarely aimed at Middlebury, an upscale community of about 7,600 on the western border of Waterbury, the provision would have affected zoning in as many as 58 of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns.

“It’s a huge, huge concern,” said Michael D’Amato, a planning-and-zoning consultant who leads the Connecticut Association of Zoning Enforcement Officials.

If the staffs of the governor or the legislative caucuses did not fully appreciate the impact beyond Middlebury, another small-town lawmaker did.

Rep. Tami Zawistowski, R-East Granby, read it the day of the budget debate and instantly saw trouble for her hometown. East Granby borders Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, making its undeveloped land attractive for distribution facilities.

“I read the budget,” Zawistowski said. “That just jumped out at me. So I went to see Vinnie.”

In an amendment to the budget deal, the description was tweaked. Instead of towns 8,000 and under, it now would read “more than six thousand and less than eight thousand.” East Granby, population 5,215 in 2020, was out. So were dozens of others: The number of towns potentially covered dropped from 58 to 11.

What’s next?

The matter is hardly resolved and will continue to pose questions for Lamont, Candelora, Ritter, Looney and Kelly. Drubner Equities is expected to sue, seek the repeal of the measure, or do both.

“We’re going to investigate a variety of things,” said David Drubner, a principal in Drubner Equities. “One is obviously the constitutionality of legislating against an individual project, whether that’s constitutionally within the state or constitutionally federally. This clearly seems different than the way most zoning stuff works. I mean, obviously, the Republicans are big proponents of home rule, but they’re the ones who proposed this.”

Keith Ainsworth, a lawyer for the Middlebury Small Town Alliance formed to oppose the project, said he expects Drubner may be better off hiring lobbyists than lawyers, as the state constitution gives the legislature great latitude in overriding local zoning.

“We may be a home-rule state, but ultimately the sovereign is the legislature,” Ainsworth said. “We are ruled by the General Assembly. They make the law.”

One of the many sides posted on roadsides in Middlebury. This one is outside Pizzuto’s planned community of high-end homes near the development site. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

An early opponent of the project, Pizzuto said he had no confidence that the local administration, including its zoning authorities, would fairly assess the impact on surrounding residential neighborhoods of a massive distribution center with the potential to operate around the clock, sending tractor trailers up and down a hilly road connecting the site to I-84. 

Pizzuto said he felt desperate.

“I brought it up to Vin Candelora and the leadership: ‘My constituents are going crazy. They’re trying to get traction,’ ” he said.

Pizzuto said he found a sympathetic ear in Candelora.

“He said with that many constituents not feeling like anyone is listening to them, you know, he felt like it was time to put a pause” on the project, Pizzuto said. “And he’s in favor of home rule, as I am.”

Drubner has obtained a permit from the Conservation Commission to do site work. Its application did not identify an end user, but described the project as “720,000+/- sf of warehouse/distribution buildings with associated access, parking and loading areas.”

Curtis Bosco, a commission member and the town’s zoning enforcement officer, said the Conservation Commission had a narrow purview, and complaints of its seeming refusal to weigh concerns about potential traffic were misplaced. Those are relevant issues for the Planning and Zoning Commission, where Drubner must go for approval of a site plan and necessary amendments to zoning.

Bosco said the land has the appropriate zoning, but Drubner would need “text amendments” to clarify relevant definitions such as “warehousing,” explicitly allow a “distribution facility” as a permitted use and raise the allowable height to 50 feet, from the current 35.

Candelora said he is sympathetic to Pizzuto’s call for intervention because he sees the ability of zoning boards to change permitted uses, then approve them without input from the local legislative body, as a conflict.

“I hear over and over again, is this new method of using the text changes in zoning laws in order to avoid the Zoning Board of Appeals? And get projects pushed through that might be opposed under normal circumstances if residents knew what it was all about?” Candelora said.

John Pollard, a real-estate consultant who lives in Middlebury and opposes the Drubner project, said he hopes the controversy will prompt a wider review of how zoning is set in Connecticut.

“Maybe what it means is that the planning and zonings around the state are acting so independently of what the residents’ wishes are that they finally had an incident that forced somebody to say, ‘You know what? They aren’t dictators in these towns, and they’re not listening to their constituents,’ ” Pollard said.

Sen. Norm Needleman, a Democrat who also is the first selectman of Essex, said he has similar concerns about zoning text changes, but they do not justify passing what each of the legislative caucus leaders acknowledged was a rat, incapable of winning a vote by any of them as a stand-alone bill.

The day after reading the text of the Middlebury provision, which could limit development in Essex, Needleman said he had to listen to Republicans speak for nine hours decrying an affordable housing bill they see as an affront to home rule.

“I like the people I work with,” Needleman said. “I don’t like hypocrisy.”

St. John, the Republican first selectman of Middlebury, had a similar thought.

“The Republicans spent the entire day making sure that there was nothing in that bill that would push this affordable housing issue,” St. John said. “Well, it’s kind of interesting, that behind the back door, here are people coming through the back door to address a project in Middlebury, Conn.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.