Correction 1:12 p.m.: An outdated reference to funeral director Danny Amoruccio’s professional affiliation was removed; 5:41 p.m., part of a sentence removed, as it was inaccurate.
NORWALK, Conn. — The merits of digging up the remains of unknown people versus the idea of just continuing to drive over them were debated Monday in Norwalk City Hall.
“What part of ‘rest in peace’ aren’t we understanding here?” Diane Cece said to members of the Historical Commission.
The rhetorical question was spoken during a public information session on the proposal to excavate land on the edge of the Pine Island Cemetery in advance of making Crescent Street a two-lane road leading to The SoNo Collection, the mall that General Growth Properties (GGP) expects to build on the “95/7” site.
“Leave them the hell alone,” funeral director Danny Amoruccio said, offering an “undertaker’s point of view” and asserting that his phone has been ringing with calls from people who are concerned about the remains of family members buried in the Pine Island Cemetery.
The Commission should just pave over the graves because there could be other unmarked graves nearby and “you might be separating a family by moving some remains and not others,” Amoruccio said.
Al Raymond said his late wife had been appalled by the idea of moving graves, while Kay Anderson said excavating the graves would be respectful in its way, as the city would learn who the late Norwalkers were.
The Commission was also attacked, and motivations questioned.
“The city expects the Commission to preserve our history, not sell it off,” Common Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said. “That’s number one. Whatever deals you’ve got going, anything like that, we expect you to be on the front line preserving our history. If you are not going to fight for it then there’s no place else to turn.”
“Could you knock down the cemetery and build a mall?” Cece asked, after being told that the Commission has no obligation to hold a public hearing on the proposal, that it will decide what is done and then the Council will vote on the resultant contracts. “… I kind of get the sense that you guys have already made up your mind.”
“Honestly, there has been no decision made, contrary to comments,” Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland replied later.
“This is not about GGP. This is about a safety improvement that has been in the city plans for decades, and looked at by professionals, much better credentials than I have,” said Mike Mushak, a landscape architect and Westmoreland’s partner, stepping up to defend the Commission. “… For anyone to suggest that this Historical Commission is not a good steward for that cemetery by suggesting a solution here that would improve public safety, and doing all this hard work, and background, to me is not right. It’s just not right.”
Under the proposal, GGP would be allowed to dig up 11 possible graves and rebury whatever bodily remains are found, and would in turn pay for work on the Pine Island Cemetery and allow two-lane traffic on Crescent Street once its mall is built, providing an access road that residents would know about and an emergency access route, if West Avenue should be closed. Also, a part of the Norwalk River Valley Trail, which goes through the cemetery, would be moved away from the playground there.
GGP paid for a study to be done using ground-penetrating radar and excavation to verify the results.
This study was explained Monday by Nicholas F. Bellantoni, Ph.D., emeritus state archaeologist (shown above), who described a “very meticulous process” that would be used to excavate graves and then learn as much as possible about the people who had been buried there by studying their remains.
It’s personal, and reburial would proceed with whatever religious rites were appropriate given the research, he said.
GGP Senior Developer Doug Adams offered a brief presentation, starting with the explanation that the city had abandoned Crescent Street in 2006-2007, turning it over to the previous owner of the property, Spinnaker Real Estate Partners.
The plan that GGP has submitted to Zoning calls for Crescent Street to be one way and controlled by traffic signals, he said, and predicts that five to seven tractor trailers would use the route daily, along with 50 to 60 smaller box trucks.
Amoruccio said people have been calling him out of concern for their relatives in the Pine Island Cemetery. They have wondered what will happen to their loved ones – or themselves years from now – if a grave can be moved like that, he said.
“It’s causing some anxiety to some families,” he said.
“I 100 percent back the commission and the GGP for widening this road,” Amoruccio said. “I think we will thank you folks later when the shopping season rears its ugly head and we’re lucky to have a little back roadway from the front of the mall, where it’s going to be a complete disaster in my opinion.”
Bonenfant said he had made mistakes as a Council member and learned lessons.
“We used to fall for promises and paperwork and give away our city assets,” Bonenfant said, asserting that Spinnaker promised to leave Crescent Street open but then blocked it as soon as the transaction was complete.
“People have figured out that you don’t have to lift a shovel in the city of Norwalk; all you have to do is come up with a land attorney and a promise and road, utilities, sidewalks, electrical things, enterprise zones and they just flip it for $35 million and they never have to put a shovel in the ground,” Bonenfant said, urging the Commission to be careful with an arrangement with GGP.
Dump trucks going over graves is not a great alternative to moving them, Bonenfant said.
“Don’t drive over them graves, please,” Raymond said. “… I just can’t believe that you are thinking about moving people’s final resting place. It’s supposed to be your final resting spot, not 200 years later you get moved somewhere else.”
Mark Walker said he has experience with radar going back to 1969 and it’s an inexact science, more “heart than anything else.”
“I am just not in favor of moving a grave to satisfy all of a sudden a commercial project that has come in here when it didn’t happen for anybody else. I am strongly opposed to moving the bodies,” Walker said.
Anderson said she’s a student of history but is encouraged by the growth that has finally come to Norwalk. She used to use Crescent Street, she said.
“I miss the convenience but adding the egress safety issue that has been identified by a number of residents over the last several months has really kind of impacted my thinking. I think it’s a really powerful incentive to explore reopening that road and I would make it two-way, frankly,” she said.
“I am moved by the passion of those of you who find it reprehensible to move these graves, but I don’t share it,” Anderson said. “I see a real opportunity to find out who these folks were, what their lives were and give us an opportunity as a city to commemorate their wonderful lives and enrich the history of our city.”
Cece asked about process.
The meeting was a public information session, Westmoreland said. No public hearings are planned because they are not required by city charter, but anyone can come to the Commission’s next regular meeting, where the proposal will be discussed, and speak, he said.
The charter states that sites that have been designated as historic by the city are “under the control and direction of the (Historic) Commission.”
“We thought it (getting public feedback) was a good thing to do and be transparent about our actions,” Westmoreland said.
If – if – the Commission decides to go forward with the plan, the city’s legal department will determine what contracts are required, he said.
“Depending on the nature of the contract it will have to go through a certain committee of the Common Council. The Common Council will then have to vote on it. At those steps there’s public participation,” Westmoreland said.
“I appreciate you saying you want to be very transparent now, but obviously there’s been many, many months of discussion, with GGP, with archaeologists, with funding for the radar project. This has been going on for a while,” Cece said.
Norwalk’s system of having “semi-autonomous bodies” as land stewards is troubling, Cece said, naming the Oak Hills Park Authority as an example.
“The city abdicates its authority over the ultimate use of the land. I am concerned with that. Does it mean you can do anything you want in the cemetery, because as an Historical Commission you have control over it? Could you knock down the cemetery and build a mall, for example?” Cece said.
The desire to move graves is not because the sites are in imminent danger, but rather to create a road for egress even though Connecticut Avenue is right there, an alternate bike lane, and a better deal for GGP, she said.
“No doubt that the money is a major factor,” Cece said. “It’s something that I wouldn’t expect you guys to turn away. But none of this has to do with the benefit of the people who are buried there and I don’t think they should be disturbed.”
She told the Commission to leave a record for the future: If someone moves her grave 100 years from now she said, she will haunt them.
Westmoreland responded to part of that, saying that the the archaeological study was done without fanfare so that there would be real information to provide the public when it came forward.
“I wanted to come as prepared as possible,” Westmoreland said. “… It is not a done deal.”
Graves are being driven over every day, Amoruccio said.
“For them to maintain the property and for them to dig new graves, for deaths, they are driving over your loved one,” he said.
Mushak got the last word at the 1½-hour meeting.
GGP is not getting land, he said.
“It is simply being transferred from the cemetery to a public road that I believe is a public safety improvement that will save lives in the long run. It would be a tribute to the people who are buried in this cemetery to know that they will be contributing to something that is happening now. … Norwalk is growing in leaps and bounds. This is our downtown core,” Mushak said.
And the plan has been vetted – by the $200,000 2012 Connectivity Study, he said, citing “dozens and dozens of meetings.”
“Everyone decided that widening Crescent Street at that time was the most important thing Norwalk could do to connect its downtown as an alternative to West Avenue, because if something happens on West Avenue – and it will – there will be no way out,” Mushak said.
The New Haven Green was created from a graveyard, and San Francisco moved thousands of graves out of town after the great fire, Mushak said.
“Final resting place does mean something different to a lot of people. … Back in the day, people just had a different attitude and they did just move cemeteries,” Mushak said. “… This isn’t just about getting out of a traffic jam, this is really about an ambulance that needs to get out of the mall if there is an emergency and there’s traffic stuck on West Avenue. … Every planner has said this should be a two-way street.”