NORWALK, Conn. – South Norwalk residents need to become vocal in the face of enormous change, activists said Monday.
“As folks who live in South Norwalk and travel the streets every day, it’s awful. It’s only going to get worse as the development continues,” Darlene Young said.
Zoning and Zoning enforcement topped the issues at the South Norwalk Community Conversation, part of an outreach effort funded by a $156,400 Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant, with Ernie Dumas of the South Norwalk Citizens for Justice complaining about rats running down Chestnut Street.
Part of the grant’s objective is to galvanize the community, so organizers thought community members needed to talk to their elected officials, she said, explaining the presence of Common Council members Doug Stern (D-At Large), Greg Burnett(D-At Large), Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), Faye Bowman (D-District B) and Travis Simms (D-District B).
More than 20 people attended the Byrne community conversation, which are held monthly. Deputy Norwalk Police Chief Ashley Gonzalez said he was excited about the turnout.
“We know that Zoning is a real issue in our neighborhoods,” Young said. “…We voice our concerns and then it kind of stops because I don’t think we know the next steps to take or the right steps to take, or we’re always two or three steps behind the process.”
There was talk of the need for job training, with Open Door Shelter Board President Curt Stewart explaining that a training program is expected to open in three months at the Smilow Center.
Rick Reardon asserted that there are broken fire hydrants and questioned the Ryan Park remediation, saying, “Nothing has transpired. Cold weather is a good time to move that much dirt. We are talking about 100,000 cubic yards of soil.”
Council members promised to get back to activists with answers, and there was talk of community activism.
“I think one of the most important things is a strong presence. There is power in numbers,” Smyth said. “… People have to take on responsibility to communicate to the people who can make a difference rather than this tendency to get together to complain about this or complain about that, but the only way to meet these challenges is to do it head on.”
“How do we turn open ended issues into protocols and solutions?” Sherelle Harris asked, bringing up the plight of the South Norwalk resident Luigi DiMeglio and his family, who live next to Premier Firewood.
DiMeglio has complained about fumes, noise and smoke from the business, which expanded recently with an over-the-counter permit.
“I hear them when they go to certain meetings at City Hall, where they are told this is not the meeting for that,” Harris said. “So, they are given the runaround. They own property in South Norwalk …. How do we turn those into protocols and solutions, one good protocol for people to follow so they don’t have to go here, there and everywhere. and not get any satisfaction?”
“I can completely imagine someone being given the runaround because they asked a complicated question that someone doesn’t feel like taking the time to answer. That makes me upset,” Stern said.
Dumas and neighbors of the then-proposed AMEC contractor yard had made a big impression last year when they attended a Zoning Commission committee meeting and silently held up photos, said Stern, a former Zoning Commissioner.
The activism inspired him to visit the site, and “The only thing more astonishing than the amount of containers that stacked three up were the amount of people that were living right near them,” Stern said. “That gets something on the agenda. That in turn gets momentum. Then before you know it decisions start being made and I am not sure there are any containers there now.”
That type of “polite, focused, determined pushback” can greatly affect the decisions made by the Council, he said.
“I know everyone thinks we have so much power but we really don’t, to that degree,” Simms said, asking that citizens bring issues forward because, “It just doesn’t start with the Council it starts with you making sure that you follow the complaint to the appropriate departments and then it goes to the committees, then it comes to the Council and we can take action.”
People need to come to meetings, Bowman said, because, “I think sometimes people feel like (Travis and I) make stuff up. So when we have people in the audience coming to speak, that can back us up, that can make a big difference.”
“I don’t want people to think there are no protocols,” Diane Lauricella said. “I respectfully disagree that the Council would only act if citizens bring thing to you…. The Council has a lot of power if they have the political will to use it.”
Activists and residents “did everything textbook correctly” with the Premier Firewood issue but, “because of who represents the owner, happens to be a Redevelopment Agency attorney as well, because the staff of Zoning, before Mr. Kleppin was hired, did not take and look at the violation after violation… they still didn’t see satisfaction,” Lauricella said. “What I am saying is the protocol is there but it’s broken. I look forward to all of you helping us to do better.”
“There is one right now that is really bothering us. This is Chestnut Street,” Dumas said.
The South Norwalk Citizens for Justice contacted the city in November to complain about the falling down building at 15 Chestnut St. but it’s “30 days, 30 days, then another 30 days” and “last week they just pulled the back part of that building took it down,” Dumas said.
The roof is caving in and the partial demolition led to “rats running up and down the street,” going into neighbor’s basements and eating the sides of houses, he said.
The family who lives next to the falling down barn is being forced out “so they can build another high rise building or something on that corner right here,” Dumas said, adding, “We understand about change and everything but we just can’t take people’s lives and tear them all apart, just like that.”
Mayor Harry Rilling had asked for a list of five South Norwalk issues in 2016 and, “this letter has been put on the Mayor’s desk two or three times” but nothing has been done, Dumas said.
Reardon reported that Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said he doesn’t have enough people to enforce the Zoning regulations.
“Do we have enough people right now taking care of the city before the mall opens?” Reardon asked. “These are big questions because if we can’t take care of what we have right now, we are not going to be able to take care of anything else down the road. If Steve keeps telling me he doesn’t have money for enforcement… when do we address those issues? Where are we going to come up with the money to enforce some of the things we want to enforce now?”
Stern explained that Finance Director Bob Barron has recommended funding for an additional P&Z staff member, who would do administrative work so that existing staff could focus on their jobs.
“We are drowning in South Norwalk and we are not getting the support from City Hall because they don’t have it,” Reardon said.
Kleppin “inherited quite a bit. I personally liked him,” Harris said, asking people to come to the Plan of Conservation and Development outreach meeting on March 27.
“Mr. Kleppin was pressured, my understanding is, to hire someone to welcome people at the entrance desk. That person is not a Zoning enforcement officer,” Lauricella said.
“Darlene hit the nail on the head when she mentioned lack of communication,” said Maria Salkie, who lives next to the building renovated by Firetree LTD with the intention of opening a federal prisoner halfway house there.
Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said recently that Firetree has put in an application to open a sober house at 17 Quintard Ave., which would be a continuation of the prior use, a drug rehabilitation facility known as Pivot House.
“They are settling because it’s too expensive because we didn’t know what the heck was going on next door,” Salkie said. “The city is like ‘$1.5 million, we don’t have that, we’ll just take a sober house.’ I am very upset about the whole situation and I don’t want this to happen to anybody else.”
“I am going to just make a promise to you all, I am going to stay on top of the mayor and his legal team in terms of the deal they are making that have not yet hit the Council,” Bowman said. “Because things have started to, and I don’t think it’s any fault or anything that he is doing on purpose, but things are going from him and his legal team, to people who are informing us and they have not reached us as far as to talk about it.
“Let’s do what we have to do, buy the property back and pay them $1 million as well,” Simms said. “In the long run that protects our neighborhoods and that keeps them happy and also it doesn’t put the city in the position where we are vulnerable because decisions were made without a lot of the Council’s approval or the Council’s input.”
Residents were told there’s no money to study South Norwalk traffic, Dumas said, inspiring Young to mention “18 wheeler trucks” with “huge logs” coming down Chestnut Street on their way to Premier Firewood, where children are expected to walk to the school once it’s renovated and made a destination for the neighborhood.
“That’s dangerous to me, that’s a dangerous situation. I stop and I look at this and I go, ‘Oh my God.’ … everybody is going to be walking,” she said.
Zoning Commission Chairman Nate Sumpter said he loves his community.
“I believe that we are on the move and I see better things happening in this community. I understand that … It’s hard to have growth without traffic. I do believe that some studies will help,” Sumpter said, predicting that the mall will raise property values.
“One of the things that I think is so important is that we don’t have a doomsday thought mentality. Because nobody likes change but change happens. … as we grow, that we realize that there are going to be some traffic studies that’s needed and that we don’t get into a logjam situation,” he said.
“We know the city is changing,” Young said. “It’s about communication. We learn about things once that train has left the station. … We get it, Norwalk is growing. We want to be a part of that change.”
After the meeting, Harris said, “I think this was a good start. Like somebody said something about Steve Kleppin but I think Steve Kleppin inherited all of this. So he is still learning but the thing is I think he’s sincere and he listens. He’s going out into the community … so even though he doesn’t have that second person he is trying to get out into the community.”