To the editor:
In May of 2016, NancyOnNorwalk ran a couple of articles on Seaside Place and a Revolutionary War monument that was thought to be put out of reach due to a Common Council and DPW decision the previous year.
I am a 23-year resident of Cove Avenue, and I happened to attend the Common Council DPW meeting on May 3rd 2016 where the post-agenda topic of the monument had been added by Councilman Bonenfant. At that meeting, area residents with interest were urged by the Council to do their own land records research, and having now done that to a fairly extensive degree, I thought it might be good to share what I learned.
First I want to say that I ended up looking at probably over 100 deeds and a half dozen or so maps, starting with all of the current Seaside Avenue residences, and in some cases going back to the archives. There are some things you don’t see without looking at a lot of deeds. I also looked at city indexes and death records, trying to figure out where key people lived and when.
My research began with a vague goal of finding out which owners also own a parcel on “the other side” of Seaside Avenue. The reason that phrase is in quotes is because early on in my research I discovered something unexpected: there is no “other side.” All of the maps of Fitch Point clearly show that Seaside Avenue runs flush with the seawall that separates land from harbor water. In addition, all original deeds in the area refer to Seaside Avenue as a “fifty-foot private unimproved roadway” (note the width). The only land on “the other side” can be measured in inches. Its presence is due only to coastal irregularity, and the rights over that tiny strip of land is nothing more than riparian rights, a fact somewhat obscured in recent deeds, but clearly spelled out in the originals.
The name “Seaside Avenue” in the paragraph above may puzzle some readers, who are used to thinking of that road under the name “Seaside Place.” The confusion is understandable, but the way it sorts out is this. In the subdivision and re-naming of Fitch’s Point to Seaside Place (see Map 84 of J. Clarence Hawkins, recorded by Town Clerk in 1891), the entire 12.5 acre area is given the name “Seaside Place,” while the avenue along the water is given the name “Seaside Avenue.” However, even in some very old deeds where J. Clarence Hawkins in the grantor, “Seaside Place” has been used as the name of the avenue. Hence this ambiguity goes way back.
Seaside Place proper (Map 84) includes all of the following: (1) all properties abutting the southern side of Fifth Street from Gregory Boulevard to the Harbor going west; (2) all properties on Hawkins Avenue, which was originally named Prospect Street when the Map was filed; (3) all properties on the southernmost segment of Cove Avenue, which was Cove Street originally; (4) all properties on Seaside Avenue; (5) certain interior plots surrounded by the properties above. Interested parties can obtain a printout of Map 84 from the Town Clerk for $6.
So, if you live at any of the places listed above and were not aware, Welcome to Seaside Place!
Back to the Revolutionary War monument and Mr. Bonenfant’s concern back in May. If you got what I wrote above about the layout and width of Seaside Avenue, then you will now understand that the monument is situated on Seaside Avenue itself. It appears to have been placed there in 1899 by the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), ostensibly with the permission of the avenue’s owner, which would have been J. Clarence Hawkins. There were no other residential buildings on the waterfront at the time.
Hawkins still owned several parcels – (1) The residence at 6 Seaside Place (the point); (2) Seaside Avenue; (3) The “15-foot driveway”, a/k/a service road; and (4) an unbuildable strip of land adjacent to the driveway and behind Cove Avenue properties — until 1921 when he sold them, with a mortgage, to Harvey T. White (Vol. 171/Page 315-6). White defaulted within the decade, causing all four properties to go to foreclosure auction. The buyers (joint) were Samuel Kelley and Edith Blascer (207/329), next door neighbors. The items (1) and (4) above were sold to Edith Sturges in 1931 (237/595). Kelley died in 1941 his wife in 1945. Blascer died in 1958. No deeds conveying either Seaside Avenue land or fifteen foot driveway land have been found, and none seems to exist in the Norwalk land records. It also appears that no heirs of Kelley or Blascer have claimed these. Hence, Avenue ownership would seem to be in limbo.
Opinion varies on whether Seaside Avenue is public or private, and in fact those terms are a little ambiguous. When the DPW says “not public,” they mean that the city does not pave or sweep or otherwise maintain the road. When the residents post a sign on a gate that says “private property, no trespassing,” they are referring to criminal trespass law, a different concern. In order to enforce criminal trespass, one has to be the owner, and as we see above, there is no owner present to do that.
Concerning the risk of arrest for trespass, I have a written statement by the Chief of Police, backed by the Prosecutor, which states that given the current ownership status of Seaside Avenue, no enforcement for trespassing would be appropriate. This can change if the ownership status changes.
With the aid of the Tax Assessor, I’ve learned that at no time in the office’s records, going back to 1929, have taxes been assessed or paid on Avenue or service road property. The tax assessor’s clerk who helped me was not aware of any private land in Norwalk without a tax lot number.
While the moving of a street sign (i.e., what the Council approved) would not appear, by itself, to make a monument inaccessible to the public, the placement by the Seaside Resident’s Association of gates at both ends of the avenue do seem to have that effect. I have personally paid for a surveyor to “boundary stake” the ends of Cove Avenue and Fifth Street. As a result we can see that these gates are on City property, something I have yet to confront the City about.
In summary, I think the Council’s recommendation to research land records has been good advice, as a number of misconceptions can now be put to rest. Hopefully also the intricacy of the “public or private” question can be well appreciated. I understand that the waterfront residents don’t want their privacy trampled, and I side with them on that point. However, is shutting out the rest of the community the only way? My wish is that, as a community, we might be able to agree on a stable and mutually satisfying solution, but it will take work. Barring that, the wealth of a few will prevail, and an important piece of waterfront and history will slip away from public appreciation forever.