Updated 2:55 p.m. June 14: Copies of the injunction applications are now attached; Videos at bottom of story.
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk took steps Monday to toughen up its enforcement of a cease and desist order issued to AMEC Carting, which is attempting to legitimize its Chestnut Street-area operation with an application currently before Zoning.
The city filed an injunction in Stamford Superior Court, Assistant Corporation Council Brian McCann said. The goal is that the court will issue a cease and desist to AMEC, which is stronger than the city’s cease and desist, Mayor Harry Rilling said.
The legal brief cites AMEC for its “flagrant” violations of Norwalk’s building code and asks the state to fine AMEC a $250 a day if it does not comply with the cease and desist.
In another move, the Common Council plans to deny bids from companies that are not in compliance with Zoning regulations.
This comes as a group of neighbors is promising to fight what they say is injustice in their community, organizing for a Wednesday Zoning Commission public hearing on AMEC’s application – and beyond.
“I am going to be a voice for these people in this community, to rouse these people, to get them up to say things and stop accepting whatever is done in their community, because there is too much going on in this community right now,” South Norwalk activist Ernie Dumas said Saturday after a press conference called by his new group, South Norwalk Citizens for Justice.
Dumas stood at the intersection of Chestnut Street and Hemlock Place, in front of a hill that he said AMEC wants to shave by 30 feet.
That will involve blasting, he said.
“We have old homes in this area, 100 years old, some of them, that have lead pipes in the basement. That will destroy their basement,” Dumas said. “We are trying to keep that away from us.”
AMEC plans to create a steep cliff by removing up to 30 feet of bedrock, Matt Brown of Anchor Engineering explained at the May Zoning Commission Plan Review Committee meeting. AMEC owner Guy Mazzola acknowledged at a meeting one week ago that it would involve blasting.
“AMEC currently operates a permitted contractor’s yard at 12 Lubrano Place in Norwalk, CT. The current use allows for AMEC to park trucks and containers on the site,” a June 7 letter from AMEC to Zoning reads. “… AMEC is proposing to expand this use by combining the 12 Lubrano Place property with numerous adjacent I-1 (Industrial 1) properties that AMEC has acquired over the years. AMEC intends to use the new industrial property for its Central Truck & Equipment Storage & Maintenance Facility (i.e. a contractor yard) associated with AMEC’s Transfer Station at 1 Crescent Street.”
AMEC Carting has been in violation of a 2013 cease and desist order; Mazzola said in May that he had containers legally placed on his 12 Lubrano Place lot but also on all his other parcels, which was not permitted. The containers had been stacked, but that situation was remedied, and 90 percent of the containers were removed, he said.
The city plans to begin fining Zoning violators. Acting Planning and Zoning Director Mike Wrinn said in May that the process would begin this month, under an ordinance passed by the Common Council in February 2015.
The crux of the issue is the Industrial 1 zone for the neighborhood. Mazzola told the neighbors last week that he wanted to buy property on Martin Luther King Drive to create his yard, but was told that would not be approved because it’s zoned restricted industrial.
Former Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak has said that he tried to get the Martin Luther King Drive area zoned as Industrial 1, but was unsuccessful.
Former Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo said Monday he didn’t remember that.
Mushak’s comments go further. At the March meeting of the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA), Mushak said, “The zoning in South Norwalk is screwed up. There was gerrymandering that happened to do favors for some people over time, not recently but long ago. There is a legacy there that is sad.”
Norwalk Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland was also at the CNNA meeting. He said the Commission had gotten a $50,000 grant to study the Lexington Avenue area, and the work included a study of Zoning.
“If you had a certain last name, literally, your house, your neighbor’s house was rezoned overnight into industrial,” Westmoreland said in March. “If you can imagine that in Cranbury, that would be so highly unlikely, but that’s what happens in South Norwalk, that’s what happened here. We are going back and trying to look at those and see what we can do.”
Santo on Monday said that “sounds a little crazy to me.”
It’s always been industrial, Santo said, guessing that it goes back at least to the ’50s and ’60s. Look around, he said – there are old buildings that were factories, and JL Seaman LLC operates a transfer station a 3 Merrit St., he said.
“Since I’ve been on the Commission, we never changed anything. What’s he talking about?” Santo said.
Westmoreland sent the Zoning Commission an email Monday, specifying that he was doing so as a private citizen, not as a member of a Board or Commission:
“Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend Wednesday night’s public hearing regarding AMEC Carting’s application regarding their illegal use of the property located in South Norwalk. I am opposed to this application and urge you to turn it down in its entirety. City of Norwalk Zoning has failed South Norwalk for so many years, resulting in this situation, with a use that is completely incompatible with the existing historic neighborhoods surrounding this site. Poor zoning codes and regulations and weak to non-existent enforcement mechanisms by the city have resulted in a situation that is intolerable for the surrounding neighbors. Adding insult to injury, AMEC’s application even asks the city to give them a portion of a city street so that their application meets size requirements for special permits. Another city street giveaway, which no doubt would be bungled and mishandled like every other street giveaway by the city in the past decade, because we lack the legal expertise to protect taxpayer’s interests.
“I also urge the Zoning Commission to review and revise all of the zoning codes and regulations that pertain to South Norwalk, with input from the citizens who actually live in South Norwalk, without the petty politics that have driven the Zoning Commission and staff in the past. No doubt AMEC Carting provides a business function that is needed in the area, it just needs to be located in an area that does not directly impact residential neighborhoods and so-called ‘neighborhood business’ zones.”
AMEC’s trucks come and go. Neighbors say that the vehicles cannot make the turn, and that the noise is disturbing their lives, as the trucks back up to make the cut.
“The people in this community have to wait for them to back up their truck onto their yard,” Dumas said Saturday.
NancyOnNorwalk observed this Saturday, as a large truck could not make the turn from Hemlock onto Chestnut with a car legally parked on Chestnut. Its driver had to back up to make the swing.
Neighbors also say AMEC moves its containers at 4 a.m. Edgar Hendrickson said his sick wife could not get rest and was hospitalized because of the noise. When the breeze is blowing in a certain direction it smells, he said.
James Bullock said he lives across the street.
“At times, even in the day and the morning, it sounds like bombs are going off, or an earthquake. That’s how things are being moved around up there. … I think it’s high time that they do something about this in this particular community, which I live in. Enough is enough,” Bullock said.
Dumas said he feels let down by Rilling.
“He has not addressed us, period, as a community,” Dumas said. “The things that are happening here in our community is that people here that live in this community have been promised things so many times, so long. They just sit back and relax now, they just don’t say anything.”
Dumas on Monday made it clear to NancyOnNorwalk that he did not mean that Rilling had not kept promises. That was previous administrations, he said.
“With this situation at hand, the mayor should have come out and spoke to the people,” Dumas said.
“I spoke with him – their leader – and told him I would meet with the neighbors. I asked him to schedule a meeting and he never did,” Rilling said in an early Tuesday email.
“I’ve been working on the AMEC issue and following the legal process with my staff. He needs to understand things have to progress through the legal system,” Rilling said in a weekend email. “I’ve always met with Ernie and have always tried to address whatever issues he has brought to my attention. While I understand his frustration, he needs to let us do our job according to law.”
On Monday night, Rilling elaborated. “I gave instructions to the law department that I wanted to do everything possible to hold AMEC accountable. The issue was an injunction with the courts,” Rilling said.
An injunction gives the city more leverage, but of course it can be appealed, Rilling said.
Some have complained that District B Council members have not done enough to help the neighbors.
Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B) introduced a resolution, inspired by AMEC, at the June Land Use Committee meeting.
“It basically calls them out on things we already know that some of them are violating,” she said.
The resolution will be voted on by the Council Tuesday night.
“WHEREAS, AMEC Carting has been out of compliance with City Zoning regulations and, in light of this, the Common Council hereby expresses its concern about the need to ensure compliance with current City, State and Federal laws and regulations…. THEREFORE, be it further resolved that the Common Council recommends that any bidder who bids on a City contract while being out of compliance with any law and/or regulation be disqualified on the basis of being ‘not responsible’ until such time as the bidder remedies any violation in order to return to full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations,” the resolution reads.
It’s sponsored by all 15 Council members.
Diane Lauricella, at Saturday’s press conference, said that Wrinn’s comments about not being able to enforce the cease and desist order with fines before June were “a falsehood.”
“They chose not to install that ordinance for over a year and a half after the legislature allowed for the triple damages excuse to be no more,” Lauricella said. “Even before that was installed by the state, there were many good ways that people can enforce the law, by doing a good job inspecting and then going to court if possible, or using good old-fashioned good will, educating the owners to be better neighbors. All of that could have been instituted on this site, as well as others across the city.”
The Zoning ordinance first came to the Ordinance Committee in November, 2014, Council member Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D), who was committee chairperson at the time, said.
“The committee discussed it in November and December, it went to public hearing in January and was passed onto the full Council. On February 10, 2015 it was voted on and approved,” she said.
“I know that once the Ordinance was enacted Zoning needed to appoint a Zoning hearing officer so that may have taken some time, but based on my notes, the ordinance was being used by July 1, 2015. The committee did not take a year and a half to do anything with this item. I think having the item before the full Council for a vote three months after it first came before us is more than reasonable,” O’Toole Giandurco said.
Wrinn said in May that a hearing officer had been appointed in January but had to withdraw. A new hearing officer was set to begin in June.
Wrinn was not available Monday for comment.
The timing of Wednesday’s Zoning Commission public hearing has also been controversial to some, as it coincides with the Brien McMahon High School graduation.
Commission Chairman Adam Blank last week listed a number of reasons why he wouldn’t be changing the date, including the volunteer service of the Commissioners and the possible problems with getting a quorum in coming months.
The date wouldn’t be changed because of a Facebook post, he said, but on Saturday, Lauricella forwarded an email to show that Dumas had requested by email on June 2 that the hearing date be changed, on behalf of South Norwalk Citizens for Justice.
AMEC has modified its plans in response to the neighbor’s concerns. Mazzola, at last week’s Plan Review Committee meeting, said that he was looking into changing the planned 6-foot high chain link fence to a 10-foot high fence. There might be a wall built to block noise, he said.
The landscaping might be rearranged to put all the shrubs on the neighbors’ side of the property, he said.
AMEC is working hard to accommodate the neighbors without ruining its operation, he said.
AMEC’s letter to Zoning argues that its application is in line with the history of the area:
“AMEC has acquired pieces of property that were abandoned by the Railroad companies. These properties had been abandoned for so long that they had become crime ridden and a major safety concern to the neighborhood and families in the area. AMEC has worked hard to identify the proper owners and purchase these properties.
“AMEC’s application will improve this major neighborhood crime and safety concern. AMEC has actually received some calls of support and a few letters of support for our project by homeowner’s and business owner’s in the area who are looking to us to develop these properties, which would incorporate these abandoned properties into productive uses, and reduce this major neighborhood concern.”
Mazzola has said that AMEC is acquiring the Pac Kit building at 57 Chestnut St., and its large, usable building, which is near where the neighbors held their Saturday press conference.
“We are looking to try to park those trucks in the back of the Pac Kit building so that when the engine starts the building itself will block noise,” Mazzola said Thursday, referring to the early morning trucks that have so bothered Hendrickson.
Plus, the traffic pattern that would be created by the application would mean that trucks are heading straight out of the driveway, and would not have to back up, he said. AMEC is looking into a new type of backing up alarm, which would be white noise, he said, promising to play a sample at Wednesday’s public hearing.
Dumas also mentioned Pac Kit. On Saturday, he said it could be made into apartments or a place for veterans or maybe a playground for kids.
“We understand gentrification,” he said. “We want to do something about it.”