Two Derby residents — including a candidate for mayor’s cousin — are going to court to try to stop a company from converting a former nursing home into a dorm for foreign high school students.
The appeal asks a judge to set aside an Oct. 3 decision by the Planning and Zoning Commission that added “educational dormitory residence” as a special exception use within the city’s “R-3” residential zone.
The commission’s zoning tweak paved the way for Watertown-based APEX International Education Partners (AIEP) to file a formal application this week seeking to house up to 110 students and about 8 overnight staffers at the former Marshall Lane Manor at 101 Marshall Lane in east Derby.
The dorm is meant for high-achieving students from overseas who want to attend private school outside Derby.
The commissioners could still reject the application. The applicant has scheduled an informal meeting with neighbors to talk about his plans 6:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at 101 Marshall Lane.
A formal public hearing on the proposal is scheduled in Derby City Hall Nov. 21.
Neighbors have already come out in force against the idea, with some saying they rather see the property redeveloped as single-family houses, like the rest of the neighborhood.
The appeal, which is posted below, pointed to a number of alleged procedural problems with the way the commission made the initial zoning change.
The appeal was filed on behalf of Marshall Lane Manor resident Michael Burke, whose property sits across the street from Marshall Lane Manor, as well as Krakow Street resident Marlene Dziekan, a neighbor of one of the eight other Derby properties that could be affected by the commission’s decision.
Marlene Dziekan is the cousin of Rich Dziekan, the Republican candidate for Derby mayor in the Nov. 7 election.
Rich Dziekan is also connected to the lawsuit, listed as surety in the appeal.
The GOP candidate said he decided to oppose the dorm proposal after knocking on doors in the Marshall Lane area while campaigning.
“I was walking that neighborhood and a lot of people were really upset about what was going on because they didn’t have enough information about it,” he said.
Dziekan worried about the effect on the neighborhood of having more than 100 kids living on such a small property.
“What are they going to do on a long weekend? What are they going to do on winter vacation?” he said. “Are you telling me they’re not going to be outside having recreation, playing? I can’t see these kids being in their rooms 24/7.”
Dziekan also said the city didn’t do enough to inform residents of the neighborhood about the proposal.
His opponent, two-term incumbent Mayor Anita Dugatto, should have sent a robocall to residents that could have been affected by the change to keep them in the loop, he said.
As it happened, more than 100 people showed up to the Oct. 3 P&Z meeting where the commission approved the addition of the dorm language to the list of special exception uses after a flyer was distributed in the neighborhood decrying the change as “ILL-CONCEIVED.”
The commission’s chairman called the flyer “fake news on steroids.”
Dziekan — who went out of his way to say he didn’t have anything to do with the flyer — said if the city had been more open with residents, the flyer wouldn’t have had the effect it did.
“If you know back in January that (somebody is) trying to do something with Marshall Lane, put it out to the public,” he said. “What’s so bad about that? What are you afraid of?”
Dziekan previously questioned why neither chairman of the commission nor the commission’s lawyer would answer simple questions about the project in August.
In an email, the mayor said Dziekan’s complaints don’t wash.
“With respect to the claim that the process was closed off to the public, I can say that is simply not true,” Dugatto said. “The public meetings the Planning and Zoning Commission hosted regarding this proposal started over two months ago and have been very well attended. The input of the public has resulted in changes to the proposal which is transparency and democracy in action.”
In an email Dominick Thomas, the lawyer representing AIEP, said the application would still go forward despite the appeal.
“Nothing in the appeal is going to stop my client from proceeding with the pending Special Exception application,” Thomas said. “I am sure the Derby Planning and Zoning Commission will defend the appeal successfully.”
The commission’s chairman, Theodore Estwan Jr., and its lawyer, Marjorie Shansky, declined to comment.
The lawyer who filed the appeal, Richard Volo, said he hopes a judge will set aside the commission’s “special exception” change, which would stop the Marshall Lane Manor redevelopment.
But he said the appeal is about more than just Marshall Lane. There are eight other properties within R-3 zones in Derby that could someday be affected by the change whose neighbors weren’t notified of the potential change.
“I think that was an oversight . . . People didn’t know,” Volo said. “They still don’t know.”
The lawyer also questioned why the commission proposed the special exception — and hired an outside engineering firm to research and write the proposal.
And he said the reasons stated by Estwan for the change being in line with the city’s Plan of Conservation and Development don’t make sense.
“To me I can’t understand his reasoning,” Volo said.
Despite Dziekan’s name on the appeal, Volo said it wasn’t politically motivated. He said he’s friends with both Dziekan and Dugatto, as well as P&Z Chairman Theodore Estwan Jr.
“There’s nothing personal against anybody as far as I’m concerned,” Volo said. “It’s just a disagreement and I think it could have been handled differently.”