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Senior living center approved for Norwalk Sons of Italy property

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A model of the proposed Brightview at Norwalk assisted living center sits in the packed Common Council chambers at City Hall Wednesday evening for a meeting of the Norwalk Zoning Commission.

NORWALK, Conn. – Members of a Norwalk neighborhood sat in the packed council chambers for five hours Wednesday night, there to argue against a plan to put a “gargantuan” assisted living center in their midst on New Canaan Avenue. About 10 minutes after they left, Zoning Commissioner Joe Santo  helped to inform the surprised developers of the plan of the results with a quip: “OK, go build it, guys.”

The decision to approve the plans for Brightview at Norwalk was unanimous.

Brightview at Norwalk Zoning hearing 051613 008

The aerial view of the plan shows the Woodacre property at right. The overall size of the two properties together is 4.25 acres, The Shelter Group said. The 1.25 acres on Woodacre have been offered to the Norwalk Land Trust.

The Brightview at Norwalk assisted living center plan calls for 90 living units in a building that is built into a hill, it’s 2½ stories visible from the front, but only 1½ stories visible in the back. It will exist primarily at 162 New Canaan Ave., the Sons of Italy property, with a sliver of the property on land currently occupied by a home at 9 Woodacre Road. Developer The Shelter Group, which has built 27 assisted living centers in nine states, intends to deed the rest of the Woodacre Road property to conservation.

The winning sales pitch for the development, led by Attorney Steven Grushkin, included this thought: Approve the plan and you have control over what happens to the property.

A further advantage – the development, though commercial, would be residential. At night, the lights would go off and the noise level would be less, because, hey, people live there.

Those thoughts were echoed by Howard Kesten, whose bedroom at 46 Birchside Drive is “really close to the catering hall” at the Sons of Italy, and who has been disturbed by drunken voices on occasion.

“I would say there must have been a few dozen times when we thought someone was in our back yard. It’s pretty freaky,” he said. “… If  they (the troubled Sons of Italy) go out of business and their property goes up for auction, we’re sure that somebody else that runs a catering business will buy the place and they’ll probably know what they’re doing. At that point, we will have to move. Because we can’t live like that seven days a week.”

Kesten was in the minority. While neighbor Ashley McCormack agreed that Brightview was better than possible alternatives, 11 other neighbors spoke against it. And they waited through a nearly two hour-long presentation that one called “a filibuster” to do it.

Patricia Conlin, a 70-year resident of Glen Avenue, wins the NancyOnNorwalk colorful language prize for the evening.

“Brightview’s size can best be described as a monstrosity of sorts, only suited to a business zone, not a double a residential zone,” she said. “It is hideous both in bulk and use. … We are not speaking here of a pimple on an elephant’s derriere, but rather an elephant’s derriere on a pimple.”

The senior living center is planned for a 28,000 square foot footprint.

The senior living center is planned for a 28,000 square foot footprint.

Kathryn Petroccione, a New Canaan Avenue resident, kept it short.

“This thing is gargantuan and I really don’t want it by my home,” she said.

Jacqueline Cook said she and her husband bought their first home, on Birchside Drive, in January 2011 because they liked the “feeling of the natural landscape,” as opposed to Stamford homes they looked at. Brightview would not be just a residence, but a business, she said.

As a commercial photographer, she photographs special events at long-term assisted living facilities and she sees what happens, she said, calling the planned 45 parking spaces inadequate.

“All of the facilities I work for have significant parking issues even with double the available parking that is proposed for Brightview,” she said.

An artist’s rendering shows the back of the planned facility.

Virginia Awn, a Woodacre Road resident, doubted that Norwalk needs an assisted living facility.

The new Maplewood at Strawberry Hill senior living facility is “presently at 40 percent occupancy,” she said. The Village at Waveny in New Canaan has 10 vacancies with no waiting list, she said. Brookdale in Wilton has a 90 to 95 percent occupancy rate, and Maplewood at Darien is at 35 percent occupancy, according to Awn.

Broad River Homes, a low-income facility, is doing well in terms of occupancy, she said.

Units at Brightview will go for $3,000 to $6,000 a month, Andrew Teeters of The Shelter Group said.

Attorney Peter Olson was hired by neighbors to attack the proposal. He presented a petition with 138 signatures against the center and said it was five times the median bulk of the surrounding buildings.

He threw an ace, comparing the application to the proposal for a mosque at 127 Fillow St., which was denied.

“We’re asking you to apply the same criteria,” he said.

Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-District D) also was among those who compared the senior living center to the mosque. Councilman Fred Bondi (R-At Large), on the other hand, said that the traffic at the center would be much lower than that of the Sons of Italy, of which he is a past president.

Teeters said The Shelter Group has plenty of experience dealing with traffic. A shuttle bus would take people back and forth from a church for special occasions, he said, although he hadn’t reached out to any churches yet.

Grushkin said he understood the neighbor’s feelings, but the mosque issue is “totally irrelevant.”

“Fillow Street is not (Route) 123, it’s a neighborhood road,” he said. “Type of parking that may or may not be required, entirely, totally different type. What was existing there prior to the application is entirely different from what was existing on ours. We have a commercial use on ours, and a really intense use.”

After the unanimous vote in favor, Zoning Commission Chairwoman Emily Wilson said she understood the neighbors’ concerns but the proposal fit within the regulations and is a “good project.”

“I think its a great use for the piece of property and it’s one of the things the city needs more than anything else. We’ve got a real lack of assisted living in this city,” she said.

What of the statistics cited by Awn?

“I happen to know that Maplewood, they went up about 20 percent in the last month and a half,” she said. “They are anticipating full occupation for Norwalk the end of this year and they’re anticipating full occupation for Darien at the end of next year. So there really is a lack and a need for it, and it’s going to be an improvement on the property, so all good.”

Correction made, 10:38 a.m.: “Go build it” comment had been attributed to Mike Mushak, but Joe Santo said it. 9:16 p.m., “Less than 20 minutes” changed to “about 10 minutes.”

Brightview at Norwalk Zoning hearing 051613 021

The planned view from New Canaan Avenue: a Victorian style building is visible from the road.

19 comments

KBartron May 16, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Thank you for this article. As one of the neighbors who had the chance to speak (after 2-1/2 hours) I would not have known that the commission decided to vote on this matter. Ms. Wilson said (about 12:30, I think) “if anyone wants to leave, now would be a good time..we have another hearing after this…” my neighbors and I expected that our opinions would be considered and a vote would not take place that evening. Although I am disappointed not to have won our position of opposing this facility (based on size, density and scale), I am more than disturbed by the timing and nature of the vote that was taken.

Nancy Chapman May 16, 2013 at 9:15 pm

The “hearing” was very quick — there was no one left to offer comment. So Mr. Wrinn read the information pertaining to the matter at hand (FEMA maps) and then Ms Wilson asked if anyone wanted to speak. No one did, of course.
They then went through the rest of the agenda, which included “action on Items III a and b,” the first two hearings. Action turned out to be voting on the topics.
The public hearing on the senior center ended at 12:20. The meeting ended at about 12:35.

Peter I Berman May 16, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Local government at it’s finest. How would candidates propose to do better and do they approve of the new facility ? We’d like to know their thoughts.

dc2 May 16, 2013 at 10:08 pm

Unanimous vote in favor? Unbelievable. Completely unbelievable. And probably without one single meaningful ‘condition’ that would mitigate the quality of ife issues neighbors will potentially have….

JG May 17, 2013 at 8:27 am

This zoning commission is a farce. Public hearing my ass, they didn’t “hear” anything. As a previous commenter mentioned, since not a single condition was even considered, it’s clear the commission could care less about the neighbors concerns. Some of the commission members themselves even mentioned in last week’s meeting they had the right to impose conditions on the property that would help alleviate the concerns of the HUNDREDS of neighbors who objected to the project. If that were the case, they should have taken the 60 days they are allowed to take to make a careful, well thought out decision. Clearly, the money and influence from this out of state developer was more important than listening to the city’s residents.

Suzanne May 17, 2013 at 1:21 pm

The Zoning Commission makes up their minds prior to hearing a single public voice. I have had this experience and know that, by the time the project reaches them for approval, the “horse has left the barn.” They act like listening to public opinion, read those that are affected the most by the project and have the guts to show up at a public meeting to speak, is very tiring for them, that they are deigning to listen in spite of their needs to get through the proposal and vote “Yes” just as they had planned all along: show them a developer with pretty pictures and a modicum of spin and the Zoning Commission falls all over itself to approve. What about a less dense development, that is, fewer units, more parking, a bigger buffer from the residential neighbors? All ideals the Zoning Commission cannot hear because they already have the “Yes” ear worm running through their heads. There is no discussion and the constituency? Oh well. Welcome to the real politic of government in Norwalk in 2013.

Nancy Chapman May 17, 2013 at 10:14 pm

I have checked my recording. Although a commissioner said during the senior center hearing that the commission had another hearing to go through after that, Ms Wilson didn’t make that announcement to ask people to leave. She said, “Please take your conversations outside.”
The noise at that point was loud, and it was difficult to hear.

Curious May 18, 2013 at 12:23 pm

What a farce. That building plan is so huge….I hope Mike Mushak at least asked them to paint “Welcome to Norwalk” on the front of it since it will be more visible than his silly water tower. And who was that tiny man who claimed he didn’t know the Italian Center was next to his house until he smelled italian food coming over his fence? What kind of person buys a house without knowing what is next door?

angry May 18, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Dear Curious,

Yep, Yep and Yep.

I can’t wait for mayoral runs. I know how I won’t be voting for x2.

What a bunch of corrupt weasels.

This is a “Hearing” but they did not “hear” the neighbors.

I am “Angry”

More to follow.

Curious May 19, 2013 at 12:30 pm

And don’t get me started on Fred Bondi….gets up there to give testimony on how well these places have been received in other parts of town like he’s some sort of disinterested party….never mentioning to the room his personal stake in seeing this sale go through. Same kind of conflict of interest as his sitting on Parks and Rec committee while he peddles his overpriced uniforms and trophies to Norwalk’s sports leagues….pullleeeze!

Joe Espo May 19, 2013 at 6:11 pm

You can’t blame republicans vs. democrats on this one. Five of the seven unanimous votes are democrats. The commissioners did their job: they filtered out the din from the paroxysmic nimby-noisy few and made judgments in the best interests of Norwalk. If I lived in the neighborhood, I’d rather have a sedate environment for a few dozen seniors than have a launching pad for a few dozen DUI’s.

angry May 19, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Dear Curious,

Fred Bondi? What about Jerry Efrein—who will be the builder—got up in support. CONFLICT OF INTEREST!

All the Abutters—paid off!!

The Devine Guy—Oil for the Site.

The Chamber of Commerce guy? Oh OK!

Telling the neighbors—a full room to leave-telling the neighbors lawyer-we won’t be voting tonite and than we all leave and they vote with us gone in front of Brightview—disgusting and just corrupt?

Disgusted with the Commission!

Matt Lechner October 22, 2014 at 3:40 am

the comment was deleted because it detailed how poorly the Norwalk Police treat senior citizens

there are no words that can describe the how the Norwalk Police strip the dignity from our senior citizens by turning a blind eye to crime against seniors. They literally do not care.

Matt Lechner October 22, 2014 at 3:47 am

why are the Norwalk Police so rotten toward seniors ? well, in the case I saw, it involved law enforcement follow-up on a sexual assault on a very elder-age senior, and they literally did not care

Lieutenant Gonzalez, Detective Paulino, Detective Klapak, Officer Jaeger, and Chief Kluholic —- all worked together to kick the senior around after they had been victimized, just to shut them up so their complaint against the locao nursing home would be silenced

that’s the Norwalk Police in action. That’s the Norwalk Police.

Matt Lechner October 22, 2014 at 9:06 am

While they did not physically kick the senior, in some ways it was worse. They kicked them around in regard to their rights, or more accurately, abridging the senior’s rights to have the matter pursued in a timely and vigorous manner. Instead, what they presented was sarcasm and obstinence with regard to the police function. Which in a way was worse than the actual assault. They basically just sneered and made things as bad as they could for the victim and the victim’s family. They did not physically kick the victim, but their sarcasm and obstruction of justice, and their sneering approach to it, basically trampled the victim’s rights and dignity. Hopefully we will never have to return to Norwalk for senior services. “Trampled” is probably a better choice of words: they trampled the victim and victim’s family with regard to their rights and dignity.

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