NORWALK, Conn. – Horror stories were relayed and development decried as residents on Tuesday voiced their concerns about flooding.
“I, too, am in tears, constantly,” said Joann Sampson, a Deepwood Lane resident. “Last year, the fire department had to come to my house and turn off the electricity because the water was so high… Nobody would come to help me.”
“I feel terrible, but the first step is to get your property identified tonight,” Larry Murphy, Senior Director for Jacobs Engineering replied. “You’ll get on the list and you’ll be evaluated. I’m sure there’s something we can do to help.”
Video of entire meeting, by Harold Cobin, at end of story
Murphy led the forum, hosted by the Department of Public Works in the City Hall community room to gather information in advance of a thorough study in response to last year’s dramatic flooding events. The forum drew about 50 people, who listened to DPW leaders explain current plans and promise proactive measures down the road, perhaps working with Planning and Zoning to require more detailed stormwater analysis as part of the approvals for developments.
The Common Council in November appropriated $1 million, at Mayor Harry Rilling’s request, to begin working on flooding issues. Jacobs was hired as a consultant and to do dredging work and another consultant is being sought to do a comprehensive study; Norwalk Chief of Operations and Public Works Anthony Robert Carr predicted that the Council will choose the consultant in June and work will begin in July.
This will lead to recommendations by Dec. 1, so that DPW can make capital budget requests, he said.
Department of Public Works DPW Principal Engineer Lisa Burns used the Ponus Ridge Middle School project as an example of recent progress in improving the city’s infrastructure to prevent flooding.
Thorp Lane residents came to the Zoning Commission public hearing on the school plans and complained about flooding, and as a result, DPW found that roots were clogging drainage pipes that ran through backyards, she said. The pipes have been cleaned and will be lined, and DPW worked with the Board of Education to double the size of a planned retention pond, so it can accommodate a “25-year flood.”
“There is a holistic approach,” Burns said. “There may be things that are short- and long-term that need to be addressed, so we need to look at the entire watershed and then we have a pipe that’s clogged, you know, we have to do a lot investigations sometimes that takes time.”
Carr talked of work done on County Street, in response to vocal complaints at a City meeting, that made “astounding” improvements for residents “just by cleaning out what’s there.”
“Unfortunately, there’s only so much limited staff, so much limited funding and time that to get to all of these trouble spots – if the public doesn’t tell us about them, we don’t experience the issues ourselves, it’s, you’re almost, throwing darts on a board,” Carr said. “The first step of this meeting tonight is to collect all the information, compile it on a map, have customer service log all the complaints in.”
“We definitely hear you and we’re working on it as fast as we can,” said Carr, who was appointed to his job in March.
Barry Kasdan, one of the meeting’s vocal citizens, asked if recommendations will include regular evaluation of the systems.
Yes, and there will be public information sessions monthly, Carr replied.
“Storm sewers were meant to take the water out to the sound but now they bring the water in, when the tides are so high,” Kasdan said, complaining that he used to call the City only to be told it was an Army Corps of Engineers issue. He thanked Carr for being willing to look into it, and said Zoning used to allow waterfront-area basements, which have disturbed the natural flow of water.
A woman said she’s lived 18 years on June Avenue and she sometimes has to run home to make sure it’s not flooding.
“It’s so disheartening,” she said, describing pumps, sandbags and barricades, and, “I love where I live but how much can people take.”
June Avenue is on DPW’s short list for dredging work.
“Why does the city give permits out?” another woman said, complaining that houses were being built on County Street and, “Where’s that water going to go?”
She accused the City of not caring as long as money was coming in, but asked how long does it take to recoup the money from damages.
The City in 2017 updated its drainage requirements for the first time since 1983, Burns replied. The new regulations require every property owner to retain a 25-year storm on their property, and the three new homes on the corner of County Street and Strawberry Hill have underground retention systems, she said.
“You guys are too lenient to give out these permits,” the woman said, standing up and walking out, with the announcement that after 45 years she has had it. “You should take $2,000 or $3,000 off our taxes, all the homes that get flooded, that’s what you should do,” she said, as she left.
Residents can’t verify if there are catch basins below homes, and, “that’s a great idea but who’s to say if those basins are going to be maintained properly in the future either,” said Mary Calabrese, another June Avenue resident.
“We have pictures of a river flowing down the street,” she said. “…There’s definitely a problem with the development going on. Look at the stupid mall that they are building. It’s outrageous that they are building a mall that’s creating more water.”
Apartments are going up, while Avalon apartments aren’t full, and, “It’s all about the money coming into the city and that’s a problem,” Calabrese said. “I guarantee you this project, no way it will solve the problems.”
June Avenue problems are caused by neighbors blowing their leaves and other debris into the waterway, Department of Public Works Superintendent of Operations Chris Torre said.
“Honestly, some of the onus has to go on your neighbors because there’s only so much that we can do,” Torre said, advocating for an education campaign because, “that whole waterway that we are about to dredge, if people do this we’ll be having the same conversation five years from now.”
People shouldn’t hesitate to call the City when they see a neighbor dumping into the water, he said. Diane Lauricella suggested fines and asked how DPW would be able to coordinate with Zoning and the Redevelopment Agency.
It’s early for that, as the work is in a discovery phase, Carr said.
Olmstead Place residents have suffered 30-40 years of flooding and “whitecaps in the yard,” Diane Cece said, suggesting that perhaps Planning and Zoning should require peer reviews on drainage studies, as it does for traffic studies.
It’s not in the drainage manual, but DPW is moving in that direction for stormwater, Burns said.
“The analysis needs to be taken to the end of the pipe,” she said. “… It will be a more onerous hurdle to get over on the drainage side and we’ll probably take a look at that.”
Developers will of course push back and call it unfair, but the City needs to balance “as of right” needs versus a greater whole, Carr said.
“It would be great if could fix everything but the city doesn’t have the money right now, and try to be as efficient with their money, try to solve as many problems as can with as little money,” Murphy said, early in the session. “It’s a pretty big process to do it, it’s not easy.”
Consultants have already said there’s FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) money available, Carr commented.
David Davidson stood as a private citizen who is not personally affected by flooding, and told the crowd that two years ago, Norwalk “properly” allocated about $140 million for school construction. While that’s widely supported, it means that the Department of Public Works can only get about $10 million a year in capital budget funds for the next five years, and about 66% of that goes for paving and sidewalks, he explained.
“If you are going to get any improvement, improvement of our maintenance and infrastructure, you’re going to have to fight very hard at every capital budget hearing from now to the next five years to get this department more funds,” he said. “…Even the positive things that they have explained tonight, there won’t be enough money unless you mobilize just as the school people mobilized to get money for their projects.”
“A large-scale drainage project, I can tell you for one area, having done it, it took maybe a few million dollars,” Carr said. “You can do small things for maybe $500,000 and $1.5 million, but if you want those big fixes where you look out the window and you don’t see flooding anymore for the less intense storm… that’s multi-million.”