NORWALK, Conn. – The state is stiff-arming Norwalk, according to a “very vocal” group who turned out in force Tuesday to protest the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s plans for East Avenue.
Protesting East Norwalkers didn’t quite get what they wanted from the Common Council Public Works Committee, but Council members threw them a bone, delaying their vote on work preliminary to the East Avenue widening to a yet-to-be-arranged special meeting later this month, to give the public a chance to hear the latest plans.
There hasn’t been a public hearing on the topic since 2009, and the state is steamrolling ahead, protesters said.
“If you, our elected officials, won’t stand up for us when the state is coming down here to bully us, who will?” Deb Goldstein asked the Council members.
The state has connected the long-discussed East Avenue widening project with the rebuilding of the railroad bridge over the Norwalk River, and is expediting the work on a schedule that has been described as “aggressive.” The “scope of services” memo from A. DiCesare Associates, P.C., outlining the proposed $359,000 contract under consideration by the committee, said the state has declared a state of emergency regarding the Walk Bridge. This gives the state the right to ignore the city, Norwalk Center Task Force Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield said.
“There is a group trying to stop the project, period,” Department of Public Works Director Bruce Chimento said to the Norwalk Center Task Force, before the Council members came in to use the room. “… They are very vocal.”
About 35 people came into the room after that meeting to attend the Public Works meeting. First up to speak was Diane Cece, who asked for a show of hands, of people against the project. At least 20 hands raised.
No comments over three minutes, Public Works Committee Chairman John Igneri (D-District E) said.
First, Cece gave an historic overview, saying that the East Avenue work had first been talked about 20 years ago. The Council in 2011 mandated that public comment be involved in any work, but “significant changes” have been made “made in a vacuum,” she said.
The committee tabled a $30,000 East Avenue traffic study last month because there hadn’t been any public input, Cece said. Yet the committee was now considering a much larger contract, one that would ultimately include design plans, without public input, she said.
“Vote no or at least table this unless there is communication with the public on the scope of the changes,” she said.
Igneri cut her off after five minutes – two over the limit.
“I am not privy to the details of what is going on with this, but from what I hear, what I read in NancyOnNorwalk and other places, I smell the state DOT doing their stiff-arm act,” Gordon Tully said.
For perspective, read a “little book that is out there” about the building of the Merritt Parkway, he said.
“The DOT is designed to build; that’s what they do for a living,” Tully said. “They really don’t understand. I know they presumably reformed to some extent, but they don’t understand some really basic things about urban design. IIn the background I hear them saying, ‘OK, I am are going to stuff this down your throat because the Walk Bridge has to be done and we have to move ahead.’ This is something that just has to be resisted, and if we don’t resist, the DOT is going to be all over us and we don’t have a leg to stand on.”
The Council in 2011 voted down the rights of way that permit the property easements involved in the work, Goldstein said. Yet land is being taken.
She theatrically shredded the plans that were last shown to the public, five years ago, saying that a third of them have since changed.
There was a meeting Dec. 7 in which Mayor Harry Rilling said the project should be delayed to give the community time to think about it, Sarah Hunter said.
The project is “not well thought out,” said a woman who identified herself as a professional engineer.
The existing bridge is made of brownstone and an effort should be made to salvage that historic material and reuse it in the new bridge, Todd Bryant said.
Jim Anderson said he hadn’t planned to speak up, but “some really good points” had been made and, “I really would recommend that you delay this.” Surely the lowering of the roadway would bring more trucks down Van Zant Street, he said.
Cece and Goldstein both attempted to chime in during the ensuing Council Committee discussion. Igneri would not allow it.
Chimento said there are really two projects involved: the state’s rebuilding of the railroad bridge and the city’s desire for street-scaping. The state will do the bridge no matter what, he said. The proposed lowering of the road beneath the bridge provides less clearance than what the federal government requires, but the 14.2-foot clearance is the maximum that can be done because of drainage concerns, he said.
If a truck hits that bridge it puts the railroad tracks out of commission, as inspectors must examine the structure for potential damage, Chimento said.
The bridge work is going to be done no matter what, he said. “Anything you do tonight is not going to have any impact on that project,” he said.
The city is trying to change the plans to create three lanes under the bridge across the 58-foot width so there will be room for bike lanes, he said.
“We don’t know if that’s possible. … We need to do a traffic study for that entire area,” Chimento said.
“We are hearing it’s a done deal, we’re going to have trucks getting off 16, going under the railroad, up Winfield to beat one exit,” Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said.
No, Chimento said. “They won’t be able to get under it.”
Rilling did say, “Let’s put the brakes on” the project recently, Councilwoman Michelle Maggio (R-District C) said.
“Everyone at that table agreed that public input was essential before the plan went any further,” Maggio said. “That came out of the mayor’s mouth. So when I read this agenda I felt foolish. I am on the Common Council and I didn’t know myself this stuff was happening. Last I knew we were going to wait.”
Bonenfant and Maggio asked for a public presentation. Chimento said the contract with DiCesare would make that possible. Arthur DiCesare said the plans he would submit at the end of January are the existing plans. The work would go from there.
Igneri said that “not too long ago” he felt bullied when the state insisted that the Rowayton railroad bridge be done to its specifications. Still, he and other people were able to tweak the work to make it more aesthetically pleasing, he said. “It’s not as bad as I thought it was going to turn out.”
It’s possible the East Norwalk folks will have the same success, he said.
But, he cautioned, the city would miss an April deadline tied to the project if the contract isn’t approved in January.
“A month ago, we tabled a $39,000 traffic study; tonight we’re looking at 10 times it,” Bonenfant said, asking why didn’t they just authorize the previous idea.
What changed, according to DiCesare, was a decision made in mid-December to combine all the projects – the Osborne Avenue Bridge, the East Avenue work, the Fort Point Street bridge and the Walk Bridge. ConnDOT, at that meeting, laid out a time schedule. The scope of the work expanded exponentially.
“Are you saying that in December the state dictated what this timetable was?” Councilman Michael Corsello (D-At Large) asked.
“It’s not so much dictating; they said what the timetable was,” DiCesare said.
That prompted laughter.
The meeting did not include the city, Lisa Burns said.
Rilling has asked the state to come down and do a public hearing on just East Avenue, Chimento said. Chimento asked in person, and was told no, he said. Rilling asked Chimento to ask again, and DPW staff at a meeting pulled aside a state official and asked if a public hearing could be had. That official emailed higher ups; Chimento emailed them and has not heard anything back, he said.
“The state has refused me twice. They don’t feel that there is any other public input required on their part,” Chimento said.
Council members voted to recess and asked the public to leave the room so they could discuss it. Not an executive session, they said. Most people left the room.
When the meeting resumed, Igneri apologized for the recess and said the Council would table the item, have a meeting with an information session.
“We will look at where we are, how we got here and where we are going to go … and we will try to get the state here at the same time,” he said.
That was approved unanimously.
“It gives us time for the public to figure out what they want to do,” Goldstein said on her way out the door. “… The state has already declined to give us any public hearing, so I am not sure the Common Council can compel them.”