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Lawsuit filed against P&Z turf approval

Updated 5:26 pm, Wednesday, April 30, 2014
  • The fields at Darien High School are a priority of the Darien Athletic Foundation. The fields in dark green have already been turfed. The DAF wants to start turfing the fields in the 2014 summer. Photo: Contributed Photo, Contributed / Darien News Contributed
    The fields at Darien High School are a priority of the Darien Athletic Foundation. The fields in dark green have already been turfed. The DAF wants to start turfing the fields in the 2014 summer. Photo: Contributed Photo, Contributed

 

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A resident is appealing the Planning and Zoning Commission's approval of new artificial turf fields at Darien High School.

"I am not about denying our kids adequate fields," Paul Michalski, who filed the appeal in the Stamford Superior Court on Tuesday, said in a statement. "This is about standing up against the view that the Golden Rule means `He who has the gold makes the rules.' That is not what we should be modeling for our kids."

In the complaint, which named the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Board of Education and the Town of Darien as defendants, Michalski asks the court to invalidate the April 8 approval. On April 2, the Environmental Protection Commission approved the fields, which were presented to the Board of Education as a gift from the Darien Athletic Foundation.

The DAF seeks to turf three fields at DHS and create a grass junior varsity softball stadium. Each field would cost an estimated $1 million. Next year, the DAF plans to turf two fields at Middlesex Middle School.

"It appears that a small group in town with big money is intent on pushing through its very big agenda for youth athletics without regard for neighbors or neighborhoods, even if it means improperly influencing the regulatory processes designed to protect us" Michalski said in his statement. "As long as there are fields and wealth, there will be parents with money who want to turf them and then eventually light them."

Michalski has publicly opposed the temporary stadium lights at the high school.

The complaint alleges that the DAF did not adhere to zoning regulations for a special permit.

Michalski, who lives on a Middlesex Avenue property about 100 feet from the back of the high school campus, was the only resident to speak out against Planning and Zoning Commissioner John Sini's involvement in the deliberations and approval of the fields during the application deliberations.

In the complaint, Michalski claims that Sini was a founding member of the DAF and mentioned his involvement with the Darien Junior Football League, which is expected to benefit from the "Sunny Day Plan."

Sini declined to comment on the suit and pointed to his statement from the March 25 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.

"As a former member of the Darien Junior Football League's board, in 2012, I was among a group of more than a dozen Darien youth sports leaders that were involved in the preliminary brainstorming sessions related to the creation of a not-for-profit that might work to benefit various youth and student sport infrastructure needs in our town," Sini said at the meeting. "During this time, I had several discussions with town officials and staff on how such an organization could work within our community and conveyed this input to the group of founders."

Sini said he never had a role on the DAF since it was formally incorporated in January 2013 and that he resigned from the DJFL board in November 2013 once he was appointed to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

He added that though he and his wife gave money to the DAF, it was a restricted donation and was to be used strictly for the scoreboard and concession stand, both of which the P&Z approved prior to his appointment to the commission.

"While I have three boys that currently participate in various youth sports, some of which I coach, I do not stand to personally benefit from this applicant's efforts any more than the thousands of other Darien families with children that play sports," Sini said at the March meeting.

In his complaint, Michalski outlines his concerns that Sini did not recuse himself from conversation about the fields. On Nov. 24, 2013, the complaint states, Michalski contacted Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Susan Cameron regarding Sini's potential conflict of interest in the discussion of field lighting.

"When and if there is an application before the commission, it would be up to Mr. Sini to decide if he can hear the matter in a fair and impartial manner," Cameron responded to Michalski via email the same day, according to the complaint. "At that time, should he decide to sit for the application, you will have the opportunity to raise your objections."

Cameron declined to comment on the appeal.

"I hope, presumably, that (the commission) would do it again with people who are not conflicted and would apply the zoning regulations appropriately and really look at the application," Michalski said.

Sini said he was "extremely confident" in his decision to participate in the deliberations of the application after discussing the situation with Town Attorney Wayne Fox, Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Ginsberg, Cameron and P&Z Vice Chairman Stephen Olvany.

"Only one Darien resident attended the P&Z meetings to oppose the turfing of the existing fields. He has decided to take action that could adversely impact 5,000 youth and 1,000 Darien High School registrants," said DAF President Peter Graham in an emailed statement. Graham said he was surprised and disappointed in the appeal.

The DAF intends to privately raise $7.5 million for the Sunny Day Project. The organization already has purchased and installed a $250,000 scoreboard at the high school stadium and is in the process of giving the school board a $500,000 concession stand, which will be built at the field entrance.

Additionally, on March 25, Sini said he was capable of being objective toward the DAF application for the turf fields and that his decision was final.

At the April 8 meeting, the commission asked Sini questions regarding the turf application "that gave the appearance the Commissioner viewed him as synonymous with the applicant," the complaint alleges.

"Mr. Sini responded to the questions with explanations and eventually responded, `I am not the applicant,' to laughter from some other members," Michalski's complaint states.

"As I understand it, Connecticut law prohibits a planning or zoning commission member from participating in a proceeding if he or she is directly or indirectly interested in a personal or financial sense, and this has been interpreted broadly to prohibit any interest that would give even the appearance of a conflict of interest," Michalski said in his statement.

Board of Education Chairman Betsy Hagarty-Ross had no comment on the complaint, but added that the board will follow the town's lead.

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said she was "a little surprised that there's a legal proceeding over the turf field."

"I have confidence in our zoning approval process that when approvals come through they happen as per prescribed regulation," Stevenson said.

"(The appeal) is so fresh," said Dave Keating, assistant planning and zoning director, on Tuesday afternoon. "No one has discussed it. We have no plan except to send it to the town attorney."

Fox could not be reached for comment.

Keating said he can't recall another instance that an approval was appealed because of a voting member.

"I think it is the job of our Planning and Zoning Commission to protect individuals, neighborhoods and the character of our town from those who believe money entitles them to advance their own agenda at the expense of other people's homes and backyards," Michalski said. "It is time for the silent majority in Darien to stand up against arrogant money and politics and for neighborhoods and the residential character of our town."

Michalski requested that the defendants appear in court on June 3 to answer to the complaint.

However, Ethan Brecher, a New York-based attorney representing a "growing" group of "concerned Darien landowners," told Michalski in an April 30 letter that he will do everything "within the bounds of law" to ensure that Michalski's appeal fails and requested that he withdraw his appeal. In an interview, Brecher declined to provide the number of landowners he is representing. The landowners, Brecher wrote, will support the Planning and Zoning Commission in the lawsuit and will seek to join as aggrieved parties in the event that the court rules in favor of Macholski's "anti-community actions."

"Your efforts to derail and delay the DAF's project, should they prove successful, would not only hurt the children of Darien who will be deprived of world-class athletic facilities, but also the property owners of Darien, whose property values will be depreciated by the obstructionist tactics that you are pursuing in support of your parochial interests in maintaining the status quo," Brecher wrote to Michalski.

Brecher told Michalski that should he prevail, he will "ensure Darien's natural development as a community will be stopped, as people will look to other family-friendly communities in which to buy homes and raise their children."

The improvements to the fields, Brecher said, would only serve to increase the value of homes in Darien.

"People are concerned," Brecher said in an interview. "They've put up a lot of money and spent a lot of time and there's a lot of excitement about the project."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews