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Norwalk rejecting Veteran’s Park ‘alternative’ to eminent domain in Walk Bridge project

Robin Penna, left, and Vincent Penna, center, speak with

Robin Penna, left, and Vincent Penna, center, plead their case to Norwalk Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae, right, Tuesday in City Hall.

Updated, 1:15 a.m., Aug. 26, story was edited.

NORWALK, Conn. — The saga of a Norwalk business on the ropes continued Tuesday with an explanation of why the city is rejecting an alternative thought feasible by activists.

The Veteran’s Park parking lot is already committed to the SoNo Ice House and cannot be used for a contractor’s yard, Norwalk Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae said to Vincent and Robin Penna of A.J. Penna and Son.

The Penna’s Liberty Square business being taken by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) as part of the rebuilding of the Walk Bridge. The property, next to the railroad tracks and across the street from Veteran’s Park, is slated to be used as a staging area for equipment and materials.

“I think there’s a bigger agenda here in the long run. Nobody wants to admit it, everybody’s kind of got their head in the sand. There’s a bigger agenda for that property area behind Liberty Square,” Vincent Penna said.

Mocciae and the Pennas were speaking outside the Council chambers, after the Common Council approved a $2.19 million contract with L Holzner Electric Company to rebuild the Veteran’s Park launch ramps and visitor’s docks, as well as a $200,000 capital appropriation to help fund the project.

Penna told the Council, as part of the public speaking portion of the meeting, that it could save $2 million if it made a deal with the state, a trade for the use of the area as a staging ground for the Walk Bridge project.

“I want to know why you haven’t entertained the idea… I just don’t understand the reasoning,” Penna said, requesting a public hearing on the concept and on alternatives to the state’s plan.

“I am really concerned on this, to spend $2-plus million on something that we might be able to barter on is not a wise way to spend taxpayer money,” Penna said.

Mayor Harry Rilling said Mocciae would step outside and explain the reasons why the city was not pursuing it.

“I feel for you,” Rilling said.

Mocciae first mentioned the deal the city recently made with the SoNo Ice House to put an ice rink in the parking area near the boat ramp during the winter.

“First it’s not the most appropriate place for storage for this project, to be honest with you,” Mocciae said. “Number one, it’s the only access point to the water; number two, we have a signed lease, they’re not going to be too happy if we put storage there.”

There are also kids playing sports.

“With that amount of activity going in and out of the park, it would be tough for us to condone that (construction) activity,” Mocciae said.

The city is looking to get another $2 million from the state for floating docks and steel piles to finish the dock project, Mocciae said.

Robin Penna countered that the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) will bring materials to the Walk Bridge project by barge anyway, disrupting boating or the ice rink, depending on the time of year.

There are other ways to access the park, she said.

“There’s no question that whole area is going to be affected but we want to minimize the impact on the park,” Mocciae said.

While Mocciae said the area in question is not that big, Vincent Penna said it’s “bigger square” than his property. Robin Penna said jersey barriers would isolate the construction area.

“Think about the amount of traffic coming out of that area with no light, right at that spot, and the amount of kids and adults. Add to that the amount of work that is going to be going on the bridge,” Mocciae said.

The state will spend a lot of money to take property and take people off the tax role, Vincent Penna said, questioning again why the city wouldn’t consider this.

The idea was a topic of discussion at Monday’s Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) meeting.

“We think they stepped in immediately to take these properties without investigating any alternatives, the biggest of which is, if you think where Liberty Square is in relationship to that bridge – Veterans’ Park across the street. … It’s the one thing, in the absence of taking 18 privately held properties, that people would have supported and they didn’t consider it,” Diane Cece said.

“The parks are important; they should not be used as sites for construction staging,” said Urban Mulvehill, a former Zoning Board of Appeals member who was attending the meeting due to an issue that is important to his neighborhood.

Vet’s Park was used as staging when the Stroffolino Bridge was painted, he said.

“They had equipment there all around the park that looked unattractive, that detracted from the park usage and they were there for two to three years — on a small budget. I personally, my own input, I don’t think it’s an appropriate suggestion to make to the city,” Mulvehill said.

“It’s OK to put someone out of business and take away 50 jobs?” Vincent Penna asked.

“No, I just don’t think one is an alternative to the other,” Mulvehill said.

The Pennas had lined up a Muller Avenue property to relocate their business to.

“The property is so contaminated that first of all the people that are selling it can’t sell it. It’s more in remediation than they would have to put up in escrow,” Vincent Penna said Tuesday.

“The cost of cleaning up is more than they would pay for it and they still can’t find where the contamination is coming from,” Robin Penna said.

“We are kind of running out of options,” Vincent Penna said. “… They really don’t care where we go. If we go out of business, so be it. They really don’t care.”

“(ConnDOT officials) were so crude, they said, ‘We put people out of business all the time,’” Robin Penna said.

The state has assigned a dollar value to the Penna’s property but all the alternatives cost five times that much, she said.

“We’d have to go into debt for five times more than what our mortgage is now and they aren’t willing to compensate us to find something in kind,” Robin Penna said. “… They are either going to put us out of business by not finding us a place or put us out of business by putting us in debt with another property.”

 

Original story:

NORWALK, Conn. — The tale of a Norwalk business on the ropes continued Tuesday with an explanation of why the city is rejecting an alternative thought feasible by activists.

The Veteran’s Park parking lot is already committed to the SoNo Ice House and cannot be used for a contractor’s yard, Norwalk Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae said to Vincent and Robin Penna of A.J. Penna and Son.

The Penna’s Liberty Square business being taken by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) as part of the rebuilding of the Walk Bridge. The property, next to the railroad tracks and across the street from Veteran’s Park, is slated to be used as a staging area for equipment and materials.

“I think there’s a bigger agenda here in the long run. Nobody wants to admit it, everybody’s kind of got their head in the sand. There’s a bigger agenda for that property area behind Liberty Square,” Vincent Penna said.

Mocciae and the Pennas were speaking outside the Council chambers, after the Common Council approved a $2.19 million contract with L Holzner Electric Company to rebuild the Veteran’s Park launch ramps and visitor’s docks, as well as a $200,000 capital appropriation to help fund the project.

Penna told the Council, as part of the public speaking portion of the meeting, that it could save $2 million if it made a deal with the state, a trade for the use of the area as a staging ground for the Walk Bridge project.

“I want to know why you haven’t entertained the idea… I just don’t understand the reasoning,” Penna said, requesting a public hearing on the concept and on alternatives to the state’s plan.

“I am really concerned on this, to spend $2-plus million on something that we might be able to barter on is not a wise way to spend taxpayer money,” Penna said.

Mayor Harry Rilling said Mocciae would step outside and explain the reasons why the city was not pursuing it.

“I feel for you,” Rilling said.

Mocciae first mentioned the deal the city recently made with the SoNo Ice House to put an ice rink in the parking area near the boat ramp during the winter.

“First it’s not the most appropriate place for storage for this project, to be honest with you,” Mocciae said. “Number one, it’s the only access point to the water; number two, we have a signed lease, they’re not going to be too happy if we put storage there.”

There are also kids playing sports.

“With that amount of activity going in and out of the park, it would be tough for us to condone that (construction) activity,” Mocciae said.

The city is looking to get another $2 million from the state for floating docks and steel piles to finish the dock project, Mocciae said.

Robin Penna countered that the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) will bring materials to the Walk Bridge project by barge anyway, disrupting boating or the ice rink, depending on the time of year.

There are other ways to access the park, she said.

“There’s no question that whole area is going to be affected but we want to minimize the impact on the park,” Mocciae said.

While Mocciae said the area in question is not that big, Vincent Penna said it’s “bigger square” than his property. Robin Penna said jersey barriers would isolate the construction area.

“Think about the amount of traffic coming out of that area with no light, right at that spot, and the amount of kids and adults. Add to that the amount of work that is going to be going on the bridge,” Mocciae said.

The state will spend a lot of money to take property and take people off the tax role, Vincent Penna said, questioning again why the city wouldn’t consider this.

The idea was a topic of discussion at Monday’s Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) meeting.

“We think they stepped in immediately to take these properties without investigating any alternatives, the biggest of which is, if you think where Liberty Square is in relationship to that bridge – Veterans’ park across the street. … It’s the one thing, in the absence of taking 18 privately held properties, that people would have supported and they didn’t consider it,” Diane Cece said.

“The parks are important; they should not be used as sites for construction staging,” Urban Mulvehill said.

Vet’s Park was used as staging when the Stroffolino Bridge was painted, he said.

“They had equipment there all around the park that looked unattractive, that detracted from the park usage and they were there for two to three years on small budget. I personally, my own input, I don’t think it’s an appropriate suggestion to make to the city,” Mulvehill said.

“It’s OK to put someone out of business and take away 50 jobs?” Vincent Penna asked.

“No, I just don’t think one is an alternative to the other,” Mulvehill said.

The Pennas had lined up a Muller Avenue property to relocate their business to.

“The property is so contaminated that first of all the people that are selling it can’t sell it. It’s more in remediation they would have to put up in escrow,” Vincent Penna said Tuesday.

“The cost of cleaning up is more than they would pay for it and they still can’t find where the contamination is coming from,” Robin Penna said.

“We are kind of running out of options,” Vincent Penna said. “… They really don’t care where we go. If we go out of business, so be it. They really don’t care.”

“(ConnDOT officials) were so crude, they said, ‘We put people out of business all the time,’” Robin Penna said.

The state has assigned a dollar value to the Penna’s property but all the alternatives cost five times that much, she said.

“We’d have to go into debt for five times more than what our mortgage is now and they aren’t willing to compensate us to find something in kind,” Robin Penna said. “… They are either going to put us out of business by not finding us a place or put us out of business by putting us in debt with another property.”

10 comments

EveT August 24, 2016 at 10:10 am

Why couldn’t the public have an open discussion about the pros and cons of using Veterans Park as the staging area instead of putting businesses out of business?
I for one wouldn’t mind waiting a few years to have an ice rink or improved boat ramps. Wait until the bridge is done, then put in the ice rink and boat ramps. Meanwhile Norwalk’s family businesses can remain viable.

Debora August 24, 2016 at 11:02 am

So, let’s be clear about the choice the city is making here. A. Permanently disrupt a long-standing business that contributes to the City’s operations 365 days a year. Do so at significant expense (to purchase the land), and at the expense of the future of the neighborhood, because there are no plans to restore that level of economic activity after construction is over and no mechanism for restoring the lost economic activity in the area while construction is going on; or B. Disrupt a lease for a TEMPORARY business arrangement with an out-of-district business, putting commercial activity in a public park, foregoing potentially higher revenue from a barter with the state, and whose lease was agreed-upon well AFTER the City had reason to know that land would be needed for staging in the area.

Thank you Mayor, and city staff. East Norwalk hears you loud and clear.

Andrew August 24, 2016 at 1:31 pm

I think the key to this use of the land that is being taken, is what happens once the state has completed the bridge.
My guess would be many parties interested in building one of these “mixed use” building with nice restaurants and apartments/:condos above. All facing the river and paying a premium for them.

Does the city or the state get to control that sale?

Piberman August 24, 2016 at 5:39 pm

Let’s ask the Common Council to hold public hearings on how City residents feel about shuttering long established local businesses who pay substantial taxes, hire local residents and provide much appreciated services versus making some temporary access adjustments to a City Park. City Halls’ actions here just confirm our long Norwalk tradition of being unfriendly to local business. Replacing the bridge is likely the greatest disruption to our City in recent decades with huge economic costs and brings no economic benefits.

Debora August 25, 2016 at 7:27 am

Andrew,

I believe the state would. And that it intends to return these properties “to inventory” after a couple of years.

But, taking of private property under eminent domain is supposed to be done for the benefit of the public (such as for laying highway). I believe that the takings for “staging” the construction of a transportation project is a stretch to begin with.

The end use of the property should not be a consideration in the decision to take a property under eminent domain, and doubly so if the intent is to transfer the benefit to another private owner.

The fact that the city didn’t even explore alternatives like vets park for a temporary use of public land, after which it gets returned to public use is just disappointing. Private property owners are compensated all the time for temporary staging rights in connection with DOT projects.

Some of our elected officials went berserk when the Governor proposed a bill allowing the state to take all property within a certain radius of train stations. But there are crickets now that it is happening to Norwalk in piecemeal fashion.

Claire schoen August 26, 2016 at 8:49 am

We should all be asking what the state plans to do with this property – both short- and long- term. The bridge design is still not complete, the project is behind schedule, yet the state is taking property now. According to one DOT rep, they will likely use it for staging other projects. Think about how this will impact South Norwalk. A huge construction site will replace a boatyard and small commercial for an undetermined period of time.
When the bridge is finished (in our lifetime?), the state has first rights to it, not the City.

Nancy, thank you for continue this coverage during such a difficult personal time. Norwalkers need to be aware of what’s potenially coming – it isn’t pretty.

Piberman August 29, 2016 at 5:51 pm

In a State facing billion dollar perpetual deficits we have a billion dollar railroad bridge replacement benefiting the depressed construction industry and idled construction workers. No other shore City requires an opening railroad. Nor should Norwalk which has no significant maritime interests. Then we have City officials declaring a Park off limits preferring destroying dozens of local long time businesses and displacing tenants in newly built rental housing. No doubt City developers will eventually have new opportunities for highly profitable rentals once the land secured by eminent domain comes back on the market. And late last week we learned the Aquariums I-Max theatre will be destroyed to build the new bridge. With 500,000 visitors yearly that closure substantially negatively impacts our struggling downtown area and requires staff reductions. Looks like the replacement bridge will be the City’s most disrupting project in its modern history and continue for 3 years. Together with the 30 month Mall construction and an expected National and State Recession during that period the effects on Norwalk will be astonishing. Major league lost tax revenues will require even more punitive homeowner taxes further accelerating the Exodus of long time residents fleeing the City.

It’s not surprising the Mayor’s office hasn’t released an economic impact study of the Walk Bridge project. Nor that City Hall, the Council and State Legislators remain silent over the extraordinary economic and tax negative impacts of replacing the bridge that bridges no benefits to the City. After all the efforts made to come together to welcome the Downtown Mall with its expected positive impact on our City here’s a project for the benefit of the State’s Construction industry that yields no benefits to our City. And our politicians can’t find their voice. Let’s hope residents who cherish their City find their voice and demand our elected leaders take a real interest in demanding a fixed bridge repair, not a billion dollar bonanza opening bridge serving only the State’s construction industry.

Our Aquarium is our most valuable and widely used “cultural icon”. Why severely restrict its access for several years ? It was built with both City funds and large contributions of donors outside the City. Imagine the depressing effects of our local businesses from restricting Aquarium access. No wonder Norwalk is known up and down the coast as thee City that is truly hostile to small business. If ever there was an opportunity for our elected leaders to demonstrate they truly care for our City now is the time.

Debora August 30, 2016 at 11:48 pm

Yes Nancy…might! But once again the state is doing the dance of the seven veils by not including that item in any of the public information meetings to get the public’s feedback on it. And once the design is complete, and all of the “communicating” with the public is completed, with the public participation box well and truly checked, will the possibility become real. And the answer to the howls of protest will be that its too late to change the plans and they never heard any objections during all those public meetings.

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