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Norwalk organizes for ConnDOT Walk Bridge hearing

Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola speaks to about 40 members of Norwalk Board and Commissions Wednesday in City Hall, as Mayor Harry Rilling watches.

Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola speaks to about 40 members of Norwalk Board and Commissions Wednesday in City Hall, as Mayor Harry Rilling watches.

NORWALK, Conn. —  An effort to rally the troops Wednesday garnered preliminary remarks on the potential effects of the state coming in to rebuild the Walk Bridge.

Norwalk’s volunteer leaders, at a meeting organized by the city’s legal department, voiced concerns about the design selected by the Connecticut Department of Transportation – movable, not fixed – as well as the health of the river while construction is underway and the eventual development upon the waterfront.

Norwalk is consulting with New Haven on handling the “daunting” task of responding to the state’s voluminous Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Assessment, Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said, crediting former New Haven Deputy Chief of Staff Laoise King, a Board of Estimate and Taxation member, for that development.  

“I understand the frustration that a lot of people are going to have, with where we are at in the process, how it works,” Coppola said. “We are trying our best as a city to try to figure out what issues need to be addressed immediately, what is the best way for us to advocate for the protection of property owners, the city resources, etc. It’s a balancing act, quite frankly. There’s no guidance for how to deal with these projects when the DOT and the FTA (Federal Transportation Administration) provide this to you. There’s not a memorandum of law or understanding telling you how the process works, and how you are supposed to participate. So it’s a tough act we all have to follow.”

King spoke about the process New Haven used when ConnDOT presented similar paperwork regarding the replacement of the Q Bridge. City Plan Department Executive Director Karyn Gilvarg was very involved, King said.

Norwalk Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin is reviewing the documents and has been in touch with Gilvarg, Coppola said, explaining that there will be a meeting in the next few weeks.

The representatives from Norwalk’s various Commissions and Boards were asked for their input, in what Mayor Harry Rilling described as an update for Coppola and the consultant hired by the city, Attorney Ann Catino of Halloran and Sage, in advance of next week’s ConnDOT public hearing. The phrase, “FONSI,” was tossed around, an acronym for “Finding of No Significant Impact.”

That’s what you don’t want ConnDOT to come up with as a result of the hearing. It would mean that the project would move ahead without further ado.

It’s surprising and “kind of weird” that ConnDOT found no historical impact to demolishing the existing Walk Bridge given that the state’s Historic Preservation Office did find an adverse impact, Norwalk Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland said.

Catino smiled, but Coppola said responses from his direction would be guarded, given that ConnDOT will be reading news articles.

Westmoreland said the finding “shows a certain disrespect” and said the Commission would be asking about the decision not to save the current bridge, although it does recognize the need to keep the railway functional.

“It’s not clear that the options of keeping the bridge, whether open or fixed, whatever, were actually evaluated by experts in the field,” Westmoreland said.

“I would be very surprised if they changed their minds after the extensive research and analysis that they have done,” Coppola said.

Parsons Brinckerhoff Senior Supervising Engineer Christopher MacDonnell, Manager of Design and Construction Walk Bridge Replacement, was present.

There was “a lot of discussion about the fixed bridge option,” MacDonnell said.

“Certainly, there’s a lot more issues involved, with the rights of property owners upstream,” he said, explaining that it really wasn’t the engineering team’s purview.

“There was a lot of study done to determine the cost to upgrade the bridge. … Rehabilitation costs quickly approached the cost of replacing it without achieving the 100-year design life,” he said.

“It’s probably the most complex project I have worked on and I worked on the Triboro Bridge replacement, in New York City, eastside access in Manhattan, very, very complex job; and this (Walk Bridge) is about as complex as it gets,” MacDonnell said.

At one point, the engineering team favored a bascule bridge, a bridge that would lift at one end, but issues with the western approach inspired the team to switch to the 250-foot vertical lift truss design, which would go straight up in the air.

“The footprint of this bridge is completely outside the existing swing bridge,” MacDonnell said. “So we can build those towers and maintain the swing bridge in operation longer than we could with any other operation and have less impact on marine traffic.”

Joe Schnierlein identified himself as a biologist – there not as a Board or Commission member but as a citizen who has sent a letter to ConnDOT.

“They talk very frequently about what should be in harbor but not always what is in the harbor,” Schnierlein said, of ConnDOT’s analysis and assessment. “I don’t know if anybody has ever seen an Atlantic Sturgeon in the harbor or pollock in the harbor, they just don’t come in. They are in other locations, but not the Norwalk Harbor.”

Oxygen levels in the river crash at night in the summer and with the hammering from the construction and the silt that will be brought up, the levels will drop nearly to zero, he said.

There are “huge levels” of Menhaden, commonly referred to as bunker, in the river now, he said.

“I know some of you were around when we had that huge die-off before the oyster festival one year and how bad that affected all the businesses in South Norwalk. It’s a huge concern because these are not small schools of Menhaden that have come in the last four years, and they have been getting bigger and bigger every year,” Schnierlein said.

Common Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) asked if ConnDOT is legally required to respond to comments made at the hearing.

Hempstead knows about public comment from his years on the Council, Coppola said.

“If you had 300 people coming up at one of your public comment sessions I am sure all of you do something about it,” Coppola said. “… It is so important that we do a good job of coordinating our efforts to make sure we have a really good presentation on Nov. 17th and do our best to provide as much information, insight, analysis, research, etc. in our written submission on Dec. 5th.”

The conversation worked its way back to a fixed bridge and the Norwalk River’s status as navigable.

The Harbor Management Commission has said that Norwalk would lose its federal funding for dredging if the river lost that status. Mike Mushak explained Wednesday that the river would eventually “silt up,” and the result would be flooding.

“It’s akin, as far as I am concerned, to a property owner saying they want their street privatized,” Harbor Management Commission Chairman Tony Mobilia said. “What that does is put the maintenance on the homeowner. In our case, it would put the maintenance of the harbor, the upper harbor, on the city, which means the Coast Guard would not cover it and neither would the Army Corps of Engineers be obligated to cover it.”

Coppola worked to marshal the volunteers to arrange a presentation that would make an impact with the state next week.

“I think it’s clear from all the questions, comments and looks that I have gotten this evening that we would agree that there is (significant impact) and therefore we don’t feel that after the public hearing that they should make a finding of no significant impact and go to the EIA EA process,” he said.

After the meeting, in a small group of concerned citizens, unofficial information was spread.

There’s talk of power lines going in under Veterans Park, Council member Steve Serasis (D-District A) said, attributing that information to Norwalk Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae.

Although it’s been common knowledge that the destruction of the Maritime Aquarium’s IMAX theater would mean that a new IMAX would be built, that’s changed, a citizen said.

If the state takes down IMAX there won’t be a new theater built, he said.

“There are many discussions taking place and nothing of that nature has been confirmed,” Mayor Harry Rilling said in a late-night text to NancyOnNorwalk. “We will be continuing discussions and keeping the public informed. I would caution about subscribing to rumors since many I’ve heard have no factual basis.”

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