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Fieber defends White Barn proposal, promises to preserve historical artifacts if possible

Jim Fieber of Special Properties II speaks to opponents of his planned development at a recent Conservation Commission public hearing.

Jim Fieber of Special Properties II speaks to opponents of his planned development at a recent Conservation Commission public hearing.

Updated 11:10 p.m., comment from  Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene.

NORWALK, Conn. – Not only are drawings inside the White Barn Theatre not the work of the late Geoffrey Holder, according to a reliable source, but they would have been preserved no matter what, developer Jim Fieber said.

“I would never, ever destroy something that can be adaptively used or appreciated by members of the public if it’s possible and financially feasible to preserve it, Fieber said Wednesday, going on to express frustration about the “extraneous garbage” that has been spread about his planned 15-home conservation development on the estate of the late Lucille Lortel.

The Zoning Commission Plan Review Committee will consider Fieber’s application Thursday, after an extensive  public hearing that featured an organized assault on the plan for the Cranbury estate, on the Norwalk/Westport line.

“They are just averse to any sort of development whatsoever,” Fieber said. “I mean, here is a plot of land where you have 15 acres, and 10.2 acres are going to remain absolutely in its virginal state. How can you accomplish that with a subdivision or with a school plan? It’s the least intrusive development that can be contemplated for this property except for conserving the entire site, which would mean an additional gift on our part to the city.”

The Historical Commission voted recently to ask Zoning to include in its approval for Fieber’s plan, if that happens, a condition that the site be documented by a consultant qualified as an architectural historian by the Connecticut State Historic Preservation architect. It also asked for preservation of the drawings from Geoffrey Holder’s wedding on the dressing room walls of the theater, that they be conserved, removed and donated to the city’s museum collection.

The drawings might be from Holder’s wedding, but they weren’t done by the Tony-award winning actor and dancer, remembered by people who watched television in the ’70s and “the 7-Up guy.”

A reliable source said:

“The drawings are not by Geoffrey Holder, they were done by a young woman who for many years helped out as an usher during the summer productions at White Barn. The woman and her sister began as interns/volunteers when they were about 15 years old at the request of their grandmother, who was friends with Lucille Lortel. They kept coming back year after year by request of Lucille herself, who very much appreciated their help. One summer the sister who loved making visual art decided to decorate one of the hallways inside the White Barn Theatre, just outside of the dressing rooms, so she painted quick sketches of some of the guests and White Barn regulars, plus she depicted the wedding of Geoffrey Holder and Carmen De Lavellade (done with black paint onto white walls). These quick sketches were painted straight onto the thick plaster walls, so they are not easily moved.”

There are photographs of the drawings, the source said.

Fieber said he had been told by Lortel’s nephew that everything of value was removed from the property.

The Westport Library has a collection of White Barn memorabilia.

“I guarantee you if it is there, nothing is going to happen to it. I will take a picture if it is there and we will find out how to take it off the wall if it’s possible,” Fieber said.

He went on to criticize the opposition to his conservation development.

“This is one of the best applications, according to people on staff in town, that this town has ever received. Why people decided they just don’t want anything at all is beyond me,” he said.

“I don’t rate applications,” Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene said Thursday.

While some local pols have spoken against the project, including Republican mayoral candidate Kelly Straniti, other city officials have quietly offered support, he said.

“Cities are looking for revenue to support all the other important causes that a municipality supports,” Fieber said. “If this were going to be a school there would be no tax revenue. This is preserving more of the land than in the school application, which by the way, didn’t include their playing field, would means they would have used about 10 of the 15 acres.”

“People in this neighborhood have always come out and opposed everything,” but people from other parts of Norwalk are in favor of the development, Fieber said, describing letters that were sent to Zoning in support.

“People are seeing through the more affluent sections of town that just come out and oppose everything, vs the people in town who can really use revenue going into the city of Norwalk, because they are the ones who really benefit by the social programs that the revenue supports,” Fieber said. “It’s just unfair for people who are fortunate and live on their 1 acre in their $900,000 home not to realize they are sharing the benefits of the city with a lot of people who are very less fortunate.”

There is a rumor that members of the Al Madany Islamic Center are interested in the property. Fieber said those rumors have a foundation in truth.

“Is it true that our site is under consideration from the mosque? The answer is yes. It’s my property, I don’t have to do anything with them. Did they show interest? Yes, they did,” Fieber said. “I am also cognizant of what is appropriate for the neighborhood. My intention is to develop the site as will meet approval by the land use boards in Norwalk. But yes, there’s truth to that.”

“Our intention is if our application is approved we will develop the property pursuant to the application that has been submitted,” Fieber said.

Special Properties has donated land to preserve open space in other areas, Fieber said, mentioning a large tract of riverfront property in Suffield, where he could have built 280 homes.

The White Barn property is a “horse of a different color,” he said; it’s an infill site that the city would like to see developed, he said.

“I have a significant economic investment there,” Fieber said. “I sold it to the school, the school defaulted. I did not anticipate getting the property back, I got the property back. Now I have to monetize my investment just like anybody else would do.”

4 comments

Mike Mushak October 8, 2015 at 11:14 am

The promise of the preservation of the historic drawings regardless who drew them is commendable.

But the elephant in the room is still how a utility easement of unknown future size (according to the easement language, stating Eversource can take as much as land as they need at any time to maintain these lines that feed up to 15,000 homes, and can be expanded at any time) can also be part of any designated conservation easement.

Our regulation describes conservation easement as land that will “best maintain and enhance the appearance, character, and natural beauty of an area”, and to “protect streams, rivers, and ponds as natural resources and to avoid flooding, erosion, and water pollution”. There is no rational way for this clearcut land occasionally sprayed with herbicides and traversed by heavy vehicles at any time necessary, to be described as such “conservation easement” land.

The disturbing aspect of including this utility land in the conservation easement land is that it is literally in the backyard of several of the homes, and visible from the entire development including from the main entry once the driveway is expanded and the hundreds of trees are removed that are there now. (Notice that NO number of trees to be removed was offered on the record, which they could have easily counted but would have revealed the extent of clearing necessary). The property will look nothing like it does now by the time they are done with it, despite all of the hollow promises.

What happens in a few years after these homes are built, if they are approved, and Eversource shows up and has to replace the lines, expanding the clearcut area with major tree removals and herbicide spraying?

Or, what happens if Eversource just has to do a periodic maintenance of the 80 foot wide cleared easement (which we all know they do despite the preposterous statements by the developer’s lawyer that no one ever does), including driving large trucks over the “wildflower meadow” compacting the soil and destroying its appearance? Who will be responsible for keeping that “wildflower meadow” in pristine shape after heavy trucks drive on it and herbicides are sprayed on it? We know Eversource won’t, as they are not legally bound to do anything. The developer will be long gone once he sells off his homes. So it will be up to the homeowners to repair the damage, who will be getting pretty angry and rightly so by that point.

The truth is that no one, the developer, nor future owners of the homes, nor city taxpayers have any legal protection at all from Eversource doing whatever they want with this so-called “conservation” land.

Here’s the scenario: Norwalk gets sued for millions by the homeowners for depreciating their home values substantially, by deceiving them that this land in there backyards would be protected, once they wake up one day and see a fleet of heavy vehicles turning the easement into a temporary moonscape.

The judge looks at the record, where the developer’s witnesses stated that no one ever goes onto the utility land and in fact one of his witnesses actually said it is likely all equipment will be hand carried an no trucks would enter the land, with no evidence to back up that claim.

The judge will also see that Norwalk’s Conservation and Zoning Commissions approved the inclusion of this utility land in the conservation easement despite the evidence on the record that clear cutting and use of herbicides will occur, in order for the developer to manipulate the equation used in our regulations to squeeze a few more houses on the land to make more profit. The judge will also see from the evidence that no utility easement was in fact shown on the drawings presented in the application, except for a thin dashed line showing the actual wires.

The judge will also see from the record that the utility company has a right to clear as much land as they deem necessary, including if necessary beyond the existing 80 foot wide clear cut area. This could theoretically involve land right up to and around some of the homes.

The judge rules against the city for approving this application with no indemnity for the city included, and Norwalk taxpayers are holding the bill for millions in penalties. It is then up to the city to go after the developer, but at that point the developer has made all of their profits and had their slick lawyers insert clauses that indemnified them of all future lawsuits relating to the project.

At that point Planning and Zoning staff, who supposedly “praised” this application according to this article, get no performance reviews for ignoring their due diligence in following our regulations and ignoring their responsibilities to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare, and the rest of the city is screwed by this lack of due diligence on this application.

The only way to prevent this scenario is to include a condition that indemnifies the city of all future responsibilities relating to the approval of this project , which I believe is impossible in a land use decision, leaving the best and only alternative which is to flat out reject this entire application, and go back to the drawing board without the utility easement included in the total conservation land that is used in the formula to determine the number of houses allowed.

If the Zoning Commission does what I think they will do, which is just randomly reduce the number of houses by two for purely political purposes, especially for the Republicans so they can appear as if they really care, this will do nothing to solve the long term liability that the city will have from the underlying fundamental weakness of this application that our P and Z staff should have never accepted, which is the inclusion of a large utility easement that bisects the property into the conservation easement.

There is no legal requirement that the city has to allow utility easement as conservation easements based on all of the evidence and our own regulations that are written to actually prevent that, and the owner was fully aware of its existence of tis utility when he bought the property.

If he paid too much for the property and needs to recoup his costs, as he declares in the last line of the article, it is not up to Norwalk taxpayers to help subsidize him for that error in judgement, by exposing the entire city to future liability, which I can guarantee will come once Eversource gets in there and starts upgrades or periodic maintenance with heavy equipment in the backyards of million dollar plus homes, that were sold under the guise of being surrounded by over 10 acres of “virginal conservation easement.” Yeah, right, and I’m the Queen of Bulgaria.

Bottom line: If clearcut land sprayed with herbicides and traversed by heavy vehicles can be considered “virginal” by our staff and land use commissions, then we have surely reached a point in Norwalk where our land use system has been completely corrupted by the developers and lawyers, at the expense of our existing communities and quality of life, and future generations.

Remember that in the next election, and support those who support zoning reform. Hint: it isn’t the Republicans, that’s for sure. Just look at the public lynching Republican Dave McCarthy gave to Nora King to kill her nomination. Nora is of the most dedicated zoning commissioners we ever had to reforming our broken system, and is held in high regard by folks around the city for working so hard on their behalf.

It was also reported that prominent land use lawyers with business before the city allegedly had influence in this opposition to Ms. King, a violation of ethical standards and a serious conflict of interest, only confirming to many of us close observers of city business who always suspected the system in Norwalk was rigged.

Of course, without true community watchdogs on our commissions like Nora King, our staff is free to declare utility easements as conservation easements, and Norwalk taxpayers are hit with the potential huge costs of subsidizing developers for their greed and fo a lack of good planning. The $80 million taxpayers are spending on CT Ave for improvements to handle all of the poorly planned big box traffic over the last three decades is exhibit number one.

I would recommend that the city take the developer’s advice to heart, that he gives in the last line of the article above. “Now I have to monetize my investment just like anyone else would do.”

It is time that all of Norwalk rise up and “monetize our investment” in our communities and protect them from overscale projects that are all currently allowed by our broken and obsolete zoning regulations that Republicans protect with a vengeance, no matter what aspect of our zoning code that allowed (and continues to allow) such overscale projects on small or inappropriate sites such as the mosque, BJ’s, Farm Creek, and now White Barn.

Please help reform Planning and Zoning by voting for Democrats who are committed to that crucial effort, on November 3rd.

The Norwalker October 8, 2015 at 6:31 pm

What will this development do to the communities “downstream from the White Barn Plot?

There is a lot of watershed on both sides of Newtown Ave/Turnpike and Chestnut Hill Ave. The intersection of Newtown Ave and Murray St regularly floods. The Mallard Pond Condo Complex is built on what use be open water. Add the fact that Fairweather Dr and 3 Season Ln area was also once swampland means that a lot of watershed has been taken from the area.

If you go to Google maps you will see that a lot of water moves from above and thru the White Barn Plot finally to the stream near Knight St that feeds into the Norwalk river.

Diane Lauricella October 9, 2015 at 1:03 am

FYI
Flooding downstream is a concern, but the White Barn site is part of the Saugatuck River watershed, not the Norwalk River.

It is part of a large area where private drinking water wells must include land use that preserves both quantity and quality.

The flooding you mentioned further south is part of the Betts Brook system, which flows to Norwalk River at Wall Street.

The Norwalker October 9, 2015 at 3:48 am

According to maps the Stony Brook separates at the White Barn Lot and part of it continues down to Nash Pond in Westport and part of the Stony Brook travels down by the Cranberry Market. From there to Cannon St there are streams and wetlands all over the place. At Cannon St the water becomes the Betts Pond Brook.

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