Updated, 11:59 p.m.: Photos added; 9:05 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – The Norwalk Zoning Commission is “not really pleased with” the way the former Loehman’s Plaza looks from West Avenue, Commission Chairman Nate Sumpter said last week.
Sumpter and Vice Chairman Lou Schulman raked Belpointe Managing Director Paxton Kinol and others over the coals Wednesday, demanding to know why dirt from The SoNo Collection was being stored on the site, where Belpointe is planning to build Pinnacle at Waypointe. Kinol said he didn’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but “every major group” in City government had been aware of the plan to put the mall’s dirt on West Avenue.
Belpointe was “being good neighbors,” allowing Brookfield’s contractor, VCC/KBE, to store the mall site’s fill on a nearby location rather than truck it all over Norwalk, and the Department of Public Works said no permit was necessary, Kinol said.
“This is all very troubling to me. No authorization came from me or my office,” Mayor Harry Rilling wrote to NancyOnNorwalk on Monday after being asked if the City authorized AMEC Carting and Kinol to put dirt on the Pinnacle site, without the knowledge of Planning and Zoning.
“I was never in a discussion with anyone prior to the piles of dirt appearing on the property,” Rilling wrote. “Also, if you will recall, when it was brought to my attention the piles were there in violation, I emphatically stated the property would be issued a notice of violation. If that has not occurred, I will find out why and I will also find out who, if anyone, authorized it to begin with.”
Belpointe was cited for a Zoning violation on May 11, for allegedly operating a contractor’s yard within a Central Business District. Deputy Zoning Inspector John Hayducky gave the company 15 days to correct the violation and said there would be a $150 a day fine if the violations were not corrected.
Hayducky on June 13 said P&Z is watching the property and everything seemed to be in compliance. As long as the property remains in compliance, there would be no fines, he said.
“If you want to take a hard bottom line, the site is not zoned as a contractor’s storage yard,” Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said at last week’s Zoning Commission meeting. “I understand that there is a demolition permit associated with the building and the site but then the material in question is not related to this site, so he’s in a violation, probably technically. Just from my perspective, once we were aware that there was material from the mall, I don’t want to say looking the other way but at the same time we were realistic, saying, ‘OK, look at the site. There is nowhere to put it, this is probably the best option.’”
“The soils under the blue tarps near West Avenue are materials excavated from the Mall site. While the Pinnacle site has a demolition permit for their site, the storage of any materials from another site was not permitted,” Kleppin explained in a Monday email to NancyOnNorwalk.
Zoning Commission meeting
Belpointe was at Zoning to issue a status report on the Pinnacle project as part of the process to get an extension of its approval to build Pinnacle.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” Kinol said at the outset of the conversation, after Sumpter complained about the view from West Avenue.
“We are not trying to punish you. What we are trying to do is to move the city forward,” Sumpter replied. “The only way we are going to do that is by eliminating piles (that people see when they’re heading for other areas) … We would like to see Pinnacle.”
AMEC needed to remove 15,000 yards of material off the mall site, as part of the process of building foundations and retaining walls that are 13- to 14-feet tall. AMEC knew that the dirt would have to come back, AMEC Senior Project Contractor for the SoNo Collection Jason Schuler said to the Commission.
It could go down West Avenue or Crescent Street, “the back door,” depending on where it was going, Schuler said. He explained that all the dirt is weighed at AMEC’s transfer station and that taking it to Pinnacle minimized truck traffic going through neighborhoods.
There’s 11,000 yards of dirt left, 733 truck loads that still have to come back to the mall site, and if it needed to be moved off of the Pinnacle site that would mean 1,466 truck trips, he said.
“I think that’s absolutely irrelevant,” Schulman replied. “That fill was brought here in effect illegally because there was no permit… Trying to convince us that you are saving truck traffic by breaking the law, really is not an acceptable argument.”
“When the Pinnacle was approved, it wasn’t approved for having those piles brought in,” Sumpter said.
The dirt could have gone to Meadow Street or O&G, on the other side of the Norwalk River, and moving it now would add six weeks of truck traffic to the process, Schuler replied.
“I don’t see how we can let this continue without penalty. I don’t understand why staff has not yet cited whoever is responsible for this,” Schulman said.
AMEC and VCC discussed it with the City, and in January, Belpointe applied for a permit to store the mall’s dirt on its Pinnacle property but was told a permit wasn’t needed, Kinol said.
Everyone agreed that moving the fill to the West Avenue/Orchard Street/Butler Street Pinnacle site because it’s in the best interest of the city, and, “We absolutely talked to the city constantly about this,” Kinol said. “We can give you the emails to prove it.”
Attorney William Hennessey explained that an application for a fill and excavation permit was filed Jan. 19 with DPW, showing that the dirt was from The SoNo Collection, and Kinol said the City waived the permit so as not to charge Belpointe a fee for being a good citizen.
The dirt will be gone by the end of June, Kinol said; Belpointe saved Brookfield $600,000 by storing the dirt, according to Hennessey.
Commissioners Galen Wells and Kelly Straniti said they did not agree that the piles of dirt are a major issue.
“We have to build the mall, and do something with the fill,” Wells said. “I don’t get it. It seems to me, in my opinion, that this is what happens when you are doing a construction project.”
“I want to set an example that Norwalk is a nice place to do business,” Straniti said. “That you’re not caught in the red tape and bureaucracy and everything, trying to figure out everything that is going on. … we all know the mall is going to be a wonderful project, I don’t see the sense in going back and forth.”
Wells is a Democrat and Straniti is a Republican and former Mayoral candidate.
Belpointe is being paid $6,000 a month to store the dirt, Kinol said, in response to a question from Schulman. He added that Belpointe hasn’t been paid in six months but that GGP, the mall builder recently bought by Brookfield, had been very good to Belpointe when it was building Waypointe, the Berkeley and Quincy Lofts, allowing lumber and 18-wheel trucks to sit on the mall site for $5,000 a month, with the materials traveling on Crescent Street instead of West Avenue.
“They were good to us, we were good back to them. It’s not about money,” Kinol said. “The insurance on my site costs more than that.”
Storing fill on other sites is routine during construction projects, Hennessey said.
There’s no mechanism to issue a temporary permit, as there is in other municipalities, Kleppin said, explaining that enforcement is therefore “discretionary on behalf of the staff.”
“As with other contested issues, I am still very concerned with the precedent,” Schulman said.
“Even if you were to consider this a zoning violation, I have never stood before a Commission and say in complete confidence that the activity was done with pervasive knowledge of many people in the city,” Hennessey said, suggesting that he make a formal request for an extension of Belpointe’s approval, that would include a schedule for removing the soil.
“We like the progress going on with the mall,” Sumpter said. “We needed some clarity.”
Schulman at the end of the meeting apologized for “his passion.”
“He’s been dishonest with us in the past,” he said, of Kinol.
“He got a permit to demo the building but he excavated out a portion of the building, he had no permits to do that,” Kleppin said. “But DPW said he didn’t need an excavation permit. He may have gotten permission to put the dirt there from another person but the permit that he brought with the paperwork was related to the excavation that he did without any permits.”
NancyOnNorwalk emailed Kinol and Hennessey on Monday to request the emails that were mentioned.
“I have been trying to stay out of the middle of this.
“I believe the zoning board was just not kept in the loop with the working agreement between the mall contractor and city agencies. I believe they made the decision that was best for the city and I believe the zoning board agrees.
“What we heard the other night was that the mall contractor and the city agencies meet every week. It was clear from that fact that the city is fully aware of each issue and each step the mall contractor makes.
“This issue really has nothing to do with us. We were just trying to be good corporate citizens.”
It’s not uncommon for one site to be used as a temporary staging area for another project, Kleppin wrote, explaining that if the materials are removed then the number of truck trips would double.
“At this stage it doesn’t make sense to move the materials twice, burdening the city streets with the additional truck trips,” he wrote. “In addition, the proximity of the Pinnacle site to the Mall makes it the least impactful location. Considering the scope of the Mall project, we are trying to be flexible. Unfortunately, the regulations don’t have a temporary permit process in place that could address these kinds of requests.”
Belpointe in May was also cited for rock crushing activities on the site.
“There were two issues regarding the processing operation at the Pinnacle site. One, there were materials brought onto the site and processed and delivered to other locations; and second, the east end of the Pinnacle site was completely excavated which goes well beyond the demolition permit that was issued. Aside from one asphalt dumping incident a couple of weeks ago, all processing on the site stopped over the summer, so there is no violation related to those issues.”
NancyOnNorwalk was not at the Zoning Commission meeting but obtained a recording.