NORWALK, Conn. – Possible flooding and the potential expense of millions of dollars were the concerns expressed by members of the public who stayed late enough Wednesday to address the Norwalk Zoning Commission about an application to build a $105 million development in South Norwalk.
The commission made no decision regarding the Norwalk Housing Authority’s and Trinity Financial’s plans to rebuild Washington Village and the surrounding area into a mixed use development, although several commissioners said they were expecting to vote on it after the public hearing. Senior Planner Dori Wilson said she needed time to do her due diligence on recent information submitted with the application. She said the vote will happen at the commission’s Jan. 15 meeting.
Diane Cece weighed in with many objections to the plan.
“Perhaps like me, you, too, have serious reservations about approving a major development that is slated to use public tax dollars to build within a FEMA flood zone, especially when other viable alternative sites were not given serious consideration, including just inland from the current proposed site,” she said. “Even if we expend millions in Norwalk tax dollars to raise the intersection, I ask that you consider the likelihood of residents’ cars being submerged under water during flooding events, and possibly even during routine rain events.”
Like others, Cece said the plan is in direct conflict with Norwalk’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).
“Please also note that the document is really called the Plan of Conservation and Development, not the Guidelines or Wish List of Conservation and Development,” she said. “After all, what is the sense of dozens of people working for years to finalize the plan, only to have it be tossed aside when it suits other agendas?”
The POCD had already been a topic.
New Commissioner Nora King questioned the planned removal of on-street parking on Water Street, and was told that the POCD actually called for taking out that parking to make room for bike lanes.
One Norwalk Planning Commissioner said recently that the project should not be approved because it was in violation of a POCD recommendation to put a parking garage in the area.
The Planning Commission approved a regulation change Tuesday evening allowing the Trinity Financial plan to put parking under the building. The Zoning Commission must also approve the regulation change, without which the plan cannot be approved.
Attorney Chris Smith of Shipman and Goodwin, representing the applicant, said the proposal is in line with part of the POCD, which calls for putting public housing on public property in the area.
The city has approved a transfer to the Norwalk Housing Authority of property at 13 and 20 Day Streets if funding is lined up for the proposed development. NHA will lease it to Trinity. Eva Ehrlich, project manager for Trinity, said that lease would be for at least 75 years.
Ganga Duleep also spoke against the proposal, expressing her opinion and that of Chris Potts, who left before the public was allowed to weigh in at 10 p.m.
The plan includes raising the intersection of Day and Raymond Streets to provide a dry area during a flood. Duleep said both she and Potts are concerned about potential flooding stemming from that plan.
“We don’t have to wait for Sandy or Irene; any time there is rainfall water will be diverted to the surrounding neighborhood,” she said. “Chris Potts thinks because the city has agreed to be responsible there will be a lot of lawsuits. … We want you to protect Norwalk taxpayers.”
Planners hope to pay for the project in part with a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant from the Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Cece said the promise to move all of the current Washington Village residents into bigger apartments in the new development should be looked at with skepticism, because that grant may not come and planners are looking for other funding.
“One could assume that, if the Housing Authority is not awarded the Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grant, then Trinity Financial could still proceed with private funding and would have no reason and no requirement to include public housing units in their mix,” she said. “And, in the same way another developer committed to onsite workforce on Water Street and then moved it, there is nothing to stop Trinity Financial and the NHA from doing the same if they don’t receive the HUD Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grant next year. And worse, the number of required affordable units could go from the 137 Washington Village replacement units down to the zoning regulated minimum of 10 percent, meaning only 27 of the 273 units would accommodate workforce residents, and likely none would be allocated to any of the public housing residents.”
Zoning commissioners should also take into account the cost of raising the intersection, she said.
“Estimates of these costs have been as high as $10 million,” she said.
Washington Village resident Raymond Dunlap spoke in favor of the plan very briefly, handing the commission a petition signed by about 50 residents.
Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo said some of the comments were not relevant to the commission.
“Financial matters are important, but they’re not in our purview,” he said.
Ehrlich said Trinity has a history of building affordable housing development, with eight projects in New England. If the Choice Neighborhoods grant does not come through, the other funding sources would have requirements for public housing. That would be enforced by regulatory agencies, she said.
“It’s very much our goal and intention to do the plan as we proposed,” she said.
Smith addressed the flooding concerns, referring to the FEMA designation AE zone for high risk flooding areas.
“If there was a prohibition against building in an AE zone, you wouldn’t have any building occurring along the Connecticut coastline or our major rivers in this state,” he said. “Your regulations do not prohibit building within the AE zone, and the federal government doesn’t either.”