NORWALK, Conn. — Mayor Harry Rilling has learned on the campaign trail that, “A thing that people seem to be most concerned with are the number of apartments being built and the effect on our infrastructure.”
That’s one comment from a far-ranging interview with Rilling conducted Saturday by Chapman Hyperlocal Media Inc. Board member Bob Welsh, an unaffiliated voter.
Rilling said he didn’t think he’d change his position on development, but, “I think we do everything we need to do when there’s a proposal before the various Boards and Commissions. We make sure that we evaluate the impact on our infrastructure. We make sure we look at the numbers … It’s not scientific, but you have to do your best job in trying to figure out if there’s an impact on our school system, if there’s an impact on our waste water treatment plant, if there’s an impact on our Police Department, Fire Department, and what that’s going to mean to the City, on our traffic.”
“It’s just, I hear people about the concern, and it’s created in me a mindset that, just, ‘Let’s make sure that we do it right,’” he said.
Rilling also mentioned that the Zoning Task Force may not have done the job “that might have been done” and said, “I think we need to take another look at our Zoning regulations and determine what other kinds of things we can do to protect the uniqueness of our neighborhoods, protect our community from overdevelopment.”
Rilling’s interview was videotaped by Harold Cobin; the video is posted at the bottom of this article.
Here is a partial transcript:
Welsh: What’s your proudest accomplishment from your time as Mayor?
Rilling: Oh boy. I think one of them, because I believe we’ve done a lot. My proudest accomplishment, I think, is bringing the Board of Education to the table and working closely with the City. Prior to that, it was an adversarial situation. We were not necessarily adversarial, but it was always maybe a lack of trust or a lack of confidence because they didn’t work closely together. We tried to change that. We tried to show them that we wanted to work with the Board of Education, we wanted to help them fund their school system. We wanted to make our school system the best that we possibly can. That is one thing that I think I was very proud of.
I’m a kind of a consensus building person … I don’t like divisiveness. I don’t like people not working together. I think we all have a purpose, we all have a team, and so building a team approach. Bringing people to the table, the Board of Education and the City working together. My department head meetings, going out into the community for my Mayor’s Night Out. Meeting people and listening to what they have to say, being accessible. Also, keeping taxes as low as we possibly can. We’ve tried to keep our tax mill rate low, and I believe historically, we’ve had the lowest mill rate increases in the last 10, 12, 15 years. I’m proud of that accomplishment.
Planning and Zoning
Welsh: In 2013, in your first campaign, you expressed concerns about Norwalk’s planning and zoning process. Briefly, how would you summarize the changes that you’ve made in the time that you’ve been Mayor?
Rilling: Well again, the biggest thing, every … Well, I’ve tried to make appointments of people that understand the Planning and Zoning process, people with experience. The other thing is that every Thursday afternoon, we used to … The Planning and Zoning Director is a staff person for Planning and Zoning, and the Redevelopment Agency works with Planning and Zoning and my Department of Public Works and my Corporation Council. Again, before I came into office, Planning and Zoning pretty much didn’t even speak to each other. They were, again, separate and nobody talked to each other. They didn’t talk about different projects, they didn’t go through a lot of processes.
Now, every Thursday afternoon at 3:00, I have a meeting with my Planning and Zoning Director, my Redevelopment Director, my Corporation Council, my Mayoral assistant, my DPW Director. We sit and we look at the projects that are on the board and, “What’s happening with this project? What’s happening with that project?” We’re in discussion, we’re talking. Also, again, we’re also, we’re going to be doing, we’re in a process of doing online permitting to make the process navigate easier.
Somebody wanting to do a project or putting on a deck on their house or putting in a new staircase or doing some minor things to their property can now apply right online and not have to go through this significant process. We’re doing the same thing with DPW permits and other kinds of things to make the permit process more seamless and easier to navigate for the average person. We’re trying to do a lot of those different things, and I’ve also hired a new Planning and Zoning Director who has a …
He’s a certified City Planner, and he’s only been onboard now for probably about, jeez, maybe under a year, maybe about a year, and so he’s in that learning curve. He used to work as the Assistant Director in Stamford, and then he was the Director in New Canaan. He came here, but we did go on a nationwide search. We focused more on people in the Northeast because the Northeast planning process is a little bit different. We have a lot of older infrastructures, and rather than someplace out in the Midwest, but we received applications from all over the United States.
Welsh: You summarized the changes that you’ve made. What changes, if any, do you believe still need to be implemented?
Rilling: I think we need to take a look at our Zoning regulations again. I know I did have a Zoning Task Force that made some good recommendations on how we can make zoning more inclusive, how we can tighten up some of the things that were maybe a little bit loose. I think we need to take another look at our Zoning regulations and determine what other kinds of things we can do to protect the uniqueness of our neighborhoods, protect our community from overdevelopment. Making sure that the Plan of Conservation and Development that we’re doing right now, making sure that we kind of tighten that up and see where we want Norwalk to go in the next 5, 10, 15 or 20 years. I think that’s going to be a process that’s really going to help us identify who we are, and what we want to be.
I put together a team of approximately 35 people, some elected officials, some appointed officials, some City staff, and other people. The Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhoods has two representatives on it. We’re going to be holding a lot of public meetings, going into the neighborhoods, bringing people together and saying to them, “What would you like to see in our Plan of Conservation and Development?”
One of the things I think that we’ve been really remiss on is moving into a green community kind of environment. How we can be, find alternative energies, how we can become a greener community, more sustainable energies. Those are one of the, that’s one of the things that I think is really lacking. Also, looking at maybe focusing more on our urban core and the POCD, and then on the neighborhoods, how we can allow neighborhoods to maintain their character and quality of life.
Welsh: Around several controversial development proposals, we have heard opponents say that this proposal is not consistent with the Plan of Conservation and Development, and developers have responded that the Plan of Conservation and Development is advisory only. In other words, it doesn’t have the power to stop a development proposal that neighbors don’t like. What’s your view of that?
Rilling: When I first got into office and I looked at the POCD, it is obvious that it is advisory, but it should be followed. I know that the Planning Commission would look at any project coming up and seeing if it’s a capital project. I’m not so sure they were as diligent at looking at any private projects that were being built, but any capital project from the City, we would try to identify. In fact, we’ve implemented that, putting it right onto the capital request. “Where in the POCD does this fit?” I think the last POCD, they did, I think they did all they could possibly do, I just don’t think it was as effective and as guiding as it could be.
I think the important thing is to make sure that in the new POCD that we have priorities, accountabilities, timeframes, and monitor on a … We should be picking that POCD up no less than every six months and sitting down and saying, “Okay, what are we doing, what have we done?” It needs to be a living, breathing document. It can’t be something that we do and say, “Okay, that’s it.” We have to revisit it all the time because times change. We have to make sure that we’re still going in the right direction, that the direction in which we’re moving is the way that we should be going. I think we just need to visit that like every six months or so.
Now, we talk about, let’s talk about the POKO development. That was put forth through the LDA back in 2003 or 2004. I know a lot of people now have come forward and say, “It was a bad project from the beginning.” My answer to that is back in 2003 or 2004, it passed the money test. Citibank and other investors, with their risk managers, looked at that as a good, viable project that was going to breathe new life into the Wall Street area.
Now that there was a problem with the owner being ill, other things that had taken place, now everybody comes out of the woodwork criticizing the project. Back then, the risk managers for Citibank and others, and quite frankly, we’re still in discussion with Citibank and a potential developer. There’s still interest in moving that forward and still interested in perhaps putting more money into it.
It’s a project that is going to breathe new life into the Wall Street area. For the critics, I would say to them, “What would you do? Would you simply throw up your hands and walk away or would you roll up your sleeves and try to salvage this?” My position is, we sit down, we do everything possible to salvage the project until we realize that it might not be, and then we determine what has to be done. To throw up your hands and walk away right now, I think would be irresponsible.
The “BJ’s site’
Welsh: Back to that first Mayoral campaign that you ran, you spoke then of the BJ’s proposal for Main Avenue, and you talked about how it was emblematic of the problems that Norwalk has with respect to land use. Give or take four years later, that project was approved on Main Avenue. Your opponent, one of your opponents has alleged that that means your Administration has fallen short on reforms to the land use process. How would you respond to that?
Rilling: First of all, it’s not even a guarantee that this a BJ’s. I mean, I’ve asked … The application does not specify any store whatsoever.
Rilling: My Economic Development Director is still working to try to find other interests for that property. It’s a very challenging property, it’s a super fund property that needs a lot of remediation. The original property proposal was for 110,000 square feet of retail space right on Main Avenue. Do I think that that is a good use for that piece of property? No, I don’t. I think there’s traffic problems and so forth. The bottom line is that right now, the project that is being proposed has been approved by the Zoning Commission.
I’m in a difficult situation because when I was on Zoning, I was told that a Mayor cannot speak out against an application that is already in place, although when there was a request coming before the Zoning Commission and I was on it, I was approached by the Mayor and asked to vote a certain way, which I thought was wrong.
Zoning Commissions are there to take the politics out of zoning issues, and that’s why we have them. Right now, the project, I would say if there was any failure whatsoever, I’d know that our Zoning Taskforce looked at that possible property and thought about how things might change and what they could do to perhaps preclude that from happening. I’m not sure they did the job that might have been done.
The Mall ‘flip flop’
Welsh: Okay. Back to that first race again. At the time, you opposed construction of the mall in 95/7. What information was it that changed your mind, and from whom did you hear it?
Rilling: I heard it from a variety of sources, not one specific person.
The property there remained vacant, in my recollection, probably 25 to 30 years. When the property was sold to GGP, GGP builds malls, that’s all they build, so we had two choices. We could work with them to try to change the LDA or we could refuse to change the LDA, at which point, I believe the only thing that would happen would be that no one else would buy that property because the original LDA of class-A office space and some retail and residential, it wasn’t viable any longer and no investor was going to try and pick that up and do that project.
We had two choices, we could work with GGP and change the LDA and try get the best product that we can, or we could sit back and wait for that property to come around again, which might have been another 10 or 15 years. Moreover, I heard from a lot of the community that they thought that this was an opportunity to bring people into Norwalk.
It’s a class-A mall with two really very strong anchors, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, and it would bring jobs into town, not only during construction, but it would bring jobs into town, 2,500 retail jobs, some higher level, some lower level jobs. Nevertheless, it would bring jobs into our community, it would bring tax revenue into our community, which would also help to lower, to increase our grand list and hopefully lower the tax burden of our citizens.
Considering all those things, I always say when they say, “Well, so-and-so flip flopped,” what would you say about a person who had an opinion, got information that would suggest it was maybe a different approach, and refused to change their mind? It’s not called flip flopping, it’s taking more information and coming up with a second type of thought and saying, “Well, wait a minute. Okay, it looks like now this is the best way to proceed.”
Welsh: Several years ago Firetree sent a certified letter detailing their plans to you for a federal halfway house on Quintard Avenue. Some have said that by not taking immediate action immediately after receiving that, that the City missed an opportunity to stop the project before it began. Is that a fair criticism?
Rilling: No, not really. You don’t send a letter to the Mayor of a community and expect that if you don’t hear back from the Mayor that it’s okay to move forward. There’s a process you follow. You have to go through a permitting process. The proper way to do this would be to come into the Planning and Zoning Department, bring your plans, say, “Here’s what we wish to do,” and determine whether or not this is a conforming use, nonconforming use, an expansion of a use that might need a special permit. When I got that letter, I sent a copy to my Corporation Council and I sent a copy to my Planning and Zoning. I get letters all the time. It’s not up to the Mayor to write back and say, “Oh no, we can’t do this.” It’s my Planning Director. That’s why I have a Planning and Zoning Director, that’s why I have a Corporation Council, to look at this and wait for the Firetree or whomever to come in and say, “Okay, here’s what we want to do, here’s our plans.”
The letter was very vague. The letter just said they wanted to run a halfway house. Then later on, when I questioned them on it, because a halfway house in that area is not permitted, when I questioned them on it they said, “We’re not a halfway house.” One of the things they, one of the forms they put in said, “Firetree Pivot House. Firetree, slant, Pivot House.” They put a lot of misinformation forward. The process that we have in place worked. They were denied at Planning and Zoning, they were denied by ZBA. That’s the process that we use, and it worked. Nothing would have … Now, if they wanted to come in and start working on that, and trying to get all kinds of things to … That’s up to them, but they took the chance by putting this forward. I really … It’s difficult for me to say anymore right now because there’s a lawsuit.
Rilling: I’m probably going to be a witness, but we are going to defend this vigorously. I believe the Planning, the Zoning Commission and the ZBA made the proper decision.
Welsh: If in the future a certified letter arrives in your office talking about some other project, would you handle it a bit differently or pretty much the same?
Rilling: Depending on the content of the letter. If I got a letter saying that they wanted to build a 20-story skyscraper, that would set off alarms. When they say they want to … At 17 Quintard there was a Pivot Ministries and they made it sound like they weren’t going to expand the usage of it, it was going to be pretty much the same.
Welsh: During this campaign, we’ve heard a lot about campaign contributions that you’ve received from developers, including developers of the BJ’s site. Your supporters say that these donations represent confidence in your leadership and support for the City’s current direction. Your opponents say that the contributions represent a conflict of interest and possibly an attempt to buy influence. What do you say to undecided voters who wonder whether these donations somehow create a potential conflict of interest?
Mayor Rilling: I think it’s really offensive that people would suggest that I would give preferential treatment to anybody. I would challenge anybody to find any developer anywhere that I have given preferential treatment to. I treat our investors or potential investors in our community with respect, but they have to follow a process just like anybody else. It’s offensive to me that they would question my integrity and my ethics. I don’t think you’re going to find, and this may be self-serving, I don’t think you’re going to find anybody more ethical than I am.
Fix it First
Welsh: Turning to schools, some school board members expressed surprise at your support for the Fix it First plan, which they felt ignored the results of an expensive and lengthy study which indicated that new construction would be the way to go to address the school infrastructure’s challenges. What were your reasons for supporting Fix it First over the board of ed’s plan?
Rilling: That I heard from a lot of people who work in the schools about how poor the schools were, how the infrastructure on the schools were deteriorating. Our schools had been left neglected for years and year and years. I think the only thing that most schools had done were roof repairs. In some schools, if you plugged in a computer, it would blow the circuit. Paint was falling off the walls and windows needed to be replaced, more energy efficient windows. There were so many things that need to be done that it made sense that rather than looking at new schools, maybe we should be looking at the Fix it First.
What I did was immediately after we started talking about Fix it First, I said, “Why does it have to be an either/or? Let’s put together a hybrid plan where we can build the schools we need to build and also fix the priority ones, twos, threes, and fours of all the other schools.” Even some of the board of ed members were saying, “Don’t do that. Let’s just go and build new schools.” What happened was we started looking at the plans that were put forth, and we found that we could save money on the new schools by looking at different things. The estimate was very high on the new schools per square foot. Then we said, “Okay.”
We sat down with the Board of Ed and let’s sit down and do a hybrid plan, and plan where we build a new school, we build a new addition, then we take two of the other schools and renovate them, and then for the other, I think there’s 14 other schools, what we do is we fix the priorities ones, twos, threes, and fours on six of them. I’m sorry, yeah, on six of them, and priorities one and two on eight of them. We put together a hybrid plan. Again, when you get new information, if you don’t change your mind when the new information suggests you should, then I don’t know what that says. You change your mind based on circumstance.
You have to be willing to be flexible, and be able to take new information, and put that into a new decision.
Welsh: At the League of Women Voters forum at city hall, you stated that the lack of library parking didn’t occur under your administration, but it will be solved under your administration.
Rilling: That’s correct.
Welsh: How will you fix it?
Rilling: We are still in discussions with the property owner.
Welsh: Jason Milligan?
Rilling: Yes. We had the most recent discussion yesterday. We’re still working towards a plan. I think everybody wants to get it done, and there are other options available to us that we are exploring, as well. That property is very important, and I believe my predecessor, and I know I did, reached out to the owner of that property and asked if they would be willing to consider selling it to the city.
Welsh: This was before Jason Milligan?
Rilling: Before Jason Milligan bought it. We were told, “No, we’re not going to sell the property.” I think I might have reached out two or three times. I’m not even sure, but I know I did reach out at least once or twice. Then Jason Milligan, being in real estate, I don’t know whether he reached out to the owner of the property, and the owner might not have wanted to sell it to the city for whatever reason, and he ended up purchasing it, but he has an inside track. He’s in real estate. He knows perhaps when these things, if this thing came on the market within … There’s no filing ready necessary to put it with the city, the city might not necessarily know that it’s on the market, but Jason Milligan found that it was on the market and he purchased it.
We will keep working, and I have all the confidence in the world that, as I said, this problem did not occur in a Rilling administration, but it will be fixed in a Rilling administration.
Welsh: I see. The property came on the market, and Milligan bought it, but the city wasn’t aware that it was on the market.
Rilling: If it did come up on the market. He might have negotiated director with the owner. I don’t know. I don’t know if it was listed, or whether he just contacted the owner and negotiated something. I don’t know.
Welsh: I see. One of your opponents has claimed that the city was asleep at the switch here, which is what allowed him to buy it. Is that fair, in your view?
Rilling: No. Unfortunately, an opponent can say anything without really having the requisite knowledge to make some of the comments. This is an election year. You can expect criticism on every front. I seem to be the focus from all three of the opponents, and I expected that. We expected that, but to say the city was asleep at the switch when they don’t even know how this happened … If this had been advertised in the paper that, “Hey, this property is for sale.” It appears in the real estate, sometimes in the business section of the hour or something, that would be different, but I would like them, the critics, to tell me how they know the city was asleep at the switch?
How did they know that this property was on the market and the city didn’t? All I know is that I did reach out to the owner, we wanted to buy that piece of property. We negotiated with the first district on that property next to the library to get more parking there. This is an issue that we’ve been working on trying to resolve, so it seems rather silly that if we knew the property was for sale, that we didn’t jump on it, or if we didn’t at least reach out to the owner, which we did.
Welsh: Is there a plan B if you’re unable to come to agreement with the developer?
Rilling: Yep, we’re working on that.
Wrapping it up
Welsh: What is your greatest strength as mayor, in your opinion?
Rilling: I think my greatest strength is I’m a consensus builder. I bring people to the table. I work long hours, and I think that I have the ability to listen to everybody’s proposal, everybody’s thoughts, and develop a consensus so we can come up with the best product. I think I’m a conciliator. I think I like to get people at the table. I know that no one can do everything, but everybody can do something. You have to rely on the talent of your people, the experts. Again, if I say I know more than the generals, I’d be a fool. I don’t know more than a lot of the people that work for me. That’s their area. My job is to bring them all together and make it all work, and I think that’s where my strength is.
Welsh: Right. Before we finish, is there anything else you’d like the voters to hear before election day?
Rilling: Four years ago, I was honored and privileged to have been elected. I love Norwalk. I was proud to serve on the police department for many years. 17 years as chief. I know the community, I respect the community. Four years ago, as I mentioned, I was honored and privileged to be elected. Two years anything that, I was honored to be reelected. I think we have a lot of good things happening in Norwalk. I think we’ve navigated some very difficult waters. We’ve overcome some difficult challenges. We are poised with all the things that are going on in Norwalk to carry it to the next level. We need that continuity, that stability that the people are happy about, and we need Norwalk to keep moving forward in the right direction. I believe firmly that me and my team are the people to do it.
We have a proven track record. We’re proud of our accomplishments, but there’s more to do, and we want to be there to do that. On November 7th, certainly I’m asking for the public’s support, and it would be an honor and a privilege to serve two more years. I don’t believe I’m entitled to their vote if they don’t believe in me. I believe that we have to earn a person’s vote, and I’m asking the people, did we earn your vote? If we did, please vote for them and my team on November 7th.