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Penna’s fight continues in ‘unfair’ ConnDOT property taking for Norwalk railroad bridge construction

Vincent Penna of A.J. Penna and Son debates a point at Monday's meeting of the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) in City Hall.

Vincent Penna of A.J. Penna and Son debates a point at Monday’s meeting of the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) in City Hall.

Updated, 12 a.m., Aug. 27: Clarification from Robin Penna.

Update, 11:30 a.m. (Aug. 23), comment from Tony D’Andrea. Correction, 10 a.m.: Rally being organized by ENBA; Goldstein said “lock arms,” not “lock horns”

NORWALK, Conn. – The state should look at other options than to take property by eminent domain in the construction of a new railroad bridge over the Norwalk River, members of the East Norwalk Business Association (ENBA) said Monday at the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA) meeting.

ENBA plans to hold a rally in September in defense of A.J. Penna and Son, a Liberty Square contractor that does emergency utility work for the city, the First Taxing District and other local bodies, but comments also revolved around the community at large.

“They haven’t even touched on the fact that all of those people who just made substantial investments to those nice new apartment buildings, the SoNo Pearl and the rest of them, that were a such a wonderful thing for the community, they’re going to be dislocated too because cranes aren’t allowed to swing over occupied buildings,” Third Taxing District Commissioner Deb Goldstein said. “They are keeping that below the radar, too, until after they deal with this because as long as they can keep everybody separated, it’s divide and conquer. We all have to lock arms and say, ‘Not on our watch.’”

Vincent Penna has been fighting the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) for more than a year, speaking passionately this spring at public meetings, as has Tony D’Andrea of Select Plastics.

D’Andrea found out last week that he is off the eminent domain list; Penna described that as, “For now.”

D’Andrea on Tuesday declined to comment other than saying he is excited about being off the list.

“I’m waiting to see the environmental impact assessment that’s due in September,” he said.

Penna had a deal for a Muller Avenue property as a possible place to relocate his family’s business, but mentioned months ago that there were hazardous waste issues. The acquisition isn’t working out.

“They told me bluntly – which was very unfair, I felt – I said to him, ‘What do you do for a person when you can’t relocate them? What do you do with people?’ He said, ‘Well you go out of business.’ I said, ‘So you go home, you pop open a beer or a soda and say I put the Pennas out of business, or the Joneses out of business.’ He says, ‘When I do it I don’t carry it home. It’s just part of my job,’” Penna said.

Urban Mulvehill suggested that Penna would also get a $5 million check

“The state is NOT giving us 5 million dollars,” Robin Penna said in a Friday email. “The state has assigned a dollar value to our property but all the alternatives cost five times that much. We’d have to go into debt for five times more than what our mortgage is now and the state is not willing to compensate us to find something in kind. 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.”

“It’s not the money,” Vincent Penna said Monday. “I told them, pick me up in place, it’s two acres. I told (ConnDOT), ‘Put me somewhere in a two-mile radius of where I am. I told them I don’t want 10 cents, I just want in kind, what I have now. They said, ‘We’re not going to do it.”

A.J. Penna is in its third generation of his family, with 50 employees, Penna said. In addition to the city and the First Taxing District, Penna serves Connecticut Light and Power, Operations Management International (OMI) and Aquarion Water Company, he said.

“As a taxpayer, I feel I am being violated,” Penna said.

ConnDOT has admitted in the past that it has alternatives to properties being taken by eminent domain but chooses the most economical option, Diane Cece said.

The eminent domain takings will result in the loss of customers for the Third Taxing District, and that will affect everyone with an  06855 zip code, Goldstein said.

“Everybody who is a (TTD) customer might potentially have to be paying more down the line because they are taking those customers out of circulation, this is a whole community issue,” Goldstein said.

A common CNNA refrain is that if something happens in one Norwalk neighborhood it can happen in another.

“It’s like death by a thousand cuts when we do this to longstanding members of the community,” Goldstein said. “Anybody who blows in here afterwards has got their own priorities, like the mall is coming in, whatever. You are not going to have longstanding communities, family businesses with deep ties to the community roll in.”

“The bigger issue that is involved in this is that with Norwalk Zoning there are almost no places left where you can have a construction yard,” Mulvehill said. “… Throughout Norwalk they have to plan where the construction yards can go, for the guys that are cutting grass, for the guys who are doing landscaping, for the guys that are doing sewers. There are no places to go, the electrical contractors and so on.”

Norwalk chipped away at its industrial zones to put up apartments, Diane Lauricella said, lamenting that Norden Systems did not become a place for clean industry.

ENBA members called the taking of Penna’s property unfair; an hour-long rally is planned for 10 a.m. Sept. 7.

3 comments

EveT August 23, 2016 at 9:31 am

Has Veterans Park been considered as a staging area? Seems like if the construction were staged there, they would not have to move so many businesses and residents out of the way.

Piberman August 23, 2016 at 10:45 am

The Walk Bridge replacement is rapidly becoming the outstanding example in modern City history of City Hall’s inability to serve the interests of citizens and local businesses. The obvious question is why hasn’t City Hall issued or hired a consultant to identify the great dislocations to citizens and businesses from the most disruptive construction project in decades that will last a reported 3 years. Yet another is why City Hall, elected officials and Legislators haven’t questioned why Norwalk needs an opening rail bridge. The other shoreline CT major cities have fixed bridges. Only the Mystic and CT rivers have opening rail bridges but they have extensive maritime interests well up river. And reportedly most City fuel oil deliveries are obtained from CT’s major storage centers.

In former decades Norwalk’s Mayor, Council members, Legisaltors, business leaders and leading citizens would have converged at Harford meeting with the Governor and his senior staff. But nowadays that effort falls just to affected business owners. What a travesty of local governance indifference to basic community needs. Is Norwalk really captive of the developers ?

I get no pleasure from criticizing Mayor Rilling in public. But these are challenging times for both Norwalk and CT with its perpetual billion dollar deficits. The Walk Bridge replacement is thee challenge for City Hall in recent decades. And demands both basic management skills and leadership to make certain the Bridge replacement, if really necessary, ought be the least disruptive and damaging to our City. City officials did marshall constructively the community to discuss the Downtown Mall which promises major benefits to our City. Why can’t they Marshall the same interest and resources to the highly disruptive Walk Bridge project which provides no obvious benefits to our City. Just years of major disruption to our downtown and surrounding areas and local businesses.

Without a major turnabouts in City Hall efforts the Walk Bridge nemesis will be Mayor Rilling’s “legacy”. Why not devote the management energies and skills to make the replacement the least disruptive possible ? If City Hall doesn’t have the requisite resources and management skills why not hire them for this historically disruptive project ? Who would object ? That requires more than holding a few meetings with Sen. Duff and CT officials.

Piberman August 23, 2016 at 4:50 pm

It’s unclear whether the City of Norwalk, the State of CT or any “affected individuals” have formally petitioned the USCG to allow a fixed bridge over the river. A fixed bridge, whether achieved by modifying the existing bridge or a replacement, would dramatically reduce the disruption to Norwalk and economic dislocation. Let alone the cost of modification. Reportedly even petitioning the USCG for a change in status in the Walk Bridge’s opening requirements would delay for many years and with vigorous maritime legal efforts that status quo of a de facto fixed bridge could continue for quite some years. In which case the benefits to the City and especially for the well being of the Downtown Mall would be enormous. If the City and/or the State have indeed formally petitioned the USCG for a change in service modification that application ought be made public. Otherwise an inquiring public might well ask “why not” ?

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