Updated, 2 p.m.: comments from Jason Milligan; 8:42 a.m.: Additional quote from Laoise King.
NORWALK, Conn. – Workers scattered and fled last week when Norwalk officials began asking about the demolition work they were doing for Jason Milligan.
The Norwalk Fire Department was called Friday to 31-39 Wall St, a Milligan property, because the unauthorized demolition severed a sprinkler line and the first-floor stores underneath were flooded, officials said. Norwalk Chief Building Official Bill Ireland said he subsequently found cut electrical wires throughout the second floor, some of which were live, and conditions that were unsafe for workers. The flooded stores remain closed.
Ireland issued a stop work order Wednesday, and said it was the third time Milligan has recently flouted building regulations. The State Department of Public Health, the Department of Consumer Protection, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were all alerted due to what officials said were lead paint dust and workers who were likely unlicensed.
Ireland and Chief of Staff Laoise King said the workers had no protection against the health hazard.
“The workers were not only breathing the dust, but the dust was all over the site and essentially everywhere,” King said, expressing concern for neighbors.
Ireland said he was easy on Milligan for the first two offenses, instructing him on proper procedures, but the continued disregard for regulations was “totally ridiculous,” and made it necessary to issue violations.
“It’s not new,” Ireland said Wednesday evening. “What really upset me was they went through it, then, and they have done it again. And God knows what other properties (Milligan might be having work done on without a permit). There’s no consideration for the town, there’s no consideration for neighbors, there’s no consideration for anybody.”
Ireland said the fire marshal received an anonymous tip Wednesday about 4 Berkeley St. and he’d been called to inspect. The door was locked so officials couldn’t get in, but could see through windows that demolition was being done inside without a permit. That building also belongs to Milligan, under another LLC. A violation notice is being written up, he said.
Milligan at odds with City
Milligan, a real estate broker who has bought at least 19 properties in the Wall Street area, is involved in a prolonged legal battle with the City. He is being sued for the unauthorized purchase of properties — including two former municipal parking lots — that were slated to be used in the Wall Street Place development, and is suing the City to challenge the Wall Street-West Avenue Neighborhood Plan, which specifies how the area will develop.
Milligan was cited for Zoning violations on another property in September, and claimed he was “being treated differently than everybody else.” In October, former Zoning Commission Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield filed a Zoning complaint on Milligan for a mural he’d had painted, covering the side of one of his newly-acquired buildings. Fines were issued as more Milligan murals appeared, as the real estate “activist” garnered community support. With the Zoning Commission working on changing mural regulations, Milligan had two new murals painted in June before new rules were finalized, then claimed it was just a mix-up, according to The Hour.
An LLC here, an LLC there.
The property at 31-39 Wall Street was bought for $1.2 million in June by HM 39 Wall LLC, which lists Milligan as member and Attorney Candace Fay as agent. The LLC was registered in February.
The property at 4 Berkeley St. was acquired in April by 4 Berkeley LLC which lists Milligan and a member and Attorney Marc Grenier as agent. Grenier is also the Redevelopment Agency’s attorney. The LLC was registered in March 2018. The property was sold for $0, according to the City’s website; the prior owner was FM Investments LLC, which lists Milligan as managing member. The agent is Paul R. Karl Jr. and the LLC was registered in August 2011.
‘I tried to get away with it’
Milligan is on vacation in Sweden, with limited internet access. Contacted Wednesday afternoon by NancyOnNorwalk, Milligan said he’d had a Zoning permit pending for two months to build apartments at 31-39 Wall St. and charged the Zoning department with dragging out the process. He said Zoning had approved a permit and “that day” work began.
He then clarified his explanation to say that the work was definitely done before the permit was issued.
“That’s how it happens all the time, usually you can get away with a little bit here and there and it’s OK,” but the City won’t give him any latitude because of his ongoing conflict with them, he claimed.
His guys had gone to Zoning to get the permit, but it wasn’t given to them, he said. “Did I scream, blast them, for not giving me a permit? No, I want to build stuff…. I shouldn’t have done some of the work. I tried to get away with it. I was pissed that they weren’t giving (the permit) to me.”
Work occurred “a little bit ahead of schedule,” it was supposed to be minor, but the workers “got carried away, started knocking stuff down,” he said.
Told the workers scattered and fled, he said, “I don’t blame them, because who the hell wants to be treated like me?”
“I’ll handle it, I’ll deal with it,” he said.
Unsafe conditions, fire could have destroyed entire block
Ireland said the work performed required a demolition permit from the Building Department, and he didn’t know about any Zoning permit.
Pymander, The Center for Natural Healing, a barber shop and a beauty parlor are all closed indefinitely due to the flooding from the sprinkler system, Ireland said. It also appeared that there was demolition going on in another store space, without a permit.
Officials don’t know for sure that the workers don’t have licenses, because they ran without providing information, King and Ireland said.
“The quality of the work was not done up to any type of standard that a licensed professional would employ,” King said.
Milligan’s project manager said testing had been done and the plaster on site was clean but there was lead paint, Ireland said. The Norwalk Health Department was called and took samples of the dust and sent them to the State. It will take two weeks to get the results back.
Milligan’s electrician came and said he hadn’t been involved in the project, according to Ireland. The electrician tested the wires and found some that were energized. With the water, this was a fire hazard, Ireland said. Had there been a fire, the wood lath would have lit right up, and “the whole block would have gone.”
Asked if the demolition was unusual, Ireland said, “This isn’t a standard practice. You might see a homeowner trying to do something like this… I have not seen one in this condition on any (commercial) sites in Norwalk,” especially in light of health protections for workers. “I am not comparing apples to apples but almost a comparison to the World Trade Center.” Workers at Milligan’s properties breathed potentially hazardous dust without any protection. “These poor guys had nothing on,” Ireland said.
Ireland has been Norwalk’s Chief Building Official since 1994 and was Acting Chief Building Official for two years before that.
He said there had also been demolition issues at the Fairfield County Bank buildings, which Milligan acquired in December under IJ Group LLC. “I get a call from the superintendent, saying, ‘Hey, we’re coming in, we’re finding wires pulled, work is being done but not us,” he said. “I gave him the benefit of the doubt, I told him you don’t do it this way, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.”
Milligan also did demolition without a permit at 83 Main St., Ireland said.
“This is consistent with the pattern that we have seen from the way that Milligan has operated in this and other scenarios,” King said. “It’s similar to the mural situation. He’s aware of the regulations, he violates them and then he apologizes later.”
“Permitting and licensing is in place to ensure the health and safety of the residents and the businesses and the workers that are on the sites,” Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Casey said. “This type of behavior doesn’t just impact the local residents, it impacts the city of Norwalk as a whole. There’s a reason we permit in order to ensure the health and safety of folks, so we are grateful for those businesses and those property owners that go through the proper pathways for ensuring that their work is safe.”
The property at 83 Main St. was bought for $270,000 in June 2018 by SJ REI LLC, which lists Milligan as managing member and Karl as agent. The LLC was registered in October 2010.
Milligan isn’t likely to get fined, because under state statute there’s no fine unless the work resumes, Ireland said. However, given the history and the repeated nature of the offenses, he said he would see if a fine could be issued because Milligan knew the rules but did not follow them.
NancyOnNorwalk could not reach Milligan late Wednesday for follow-up questions.
So is Milligan being unfairly targeted?
“I’m sure Milligan will claim we are exaggerating and/or unfairly targeting him but I can assure you we are not,” King wrote in a midnight email. “First – we had no way of knowing about this until the downstairs tenants called because of the water pouring down from their ceiling. When Bill arrived at the location he didn’t even know the building was owned by Milligan – so the inference that we are unfairly targeting him is ridiculous.”
Ireland was “completely shaken when he came back from that site – and as he said, it’s the worst situation he’s ever seen. Between the lead paint, dust, fire and electrical hazards he was very worried about the health and safety of all involved,” she said.
“I was honestly upset for the workers, because they had no idea what they were involved with or into. There was absolutely no supervision. What made me even more upset was the store owners,” Ireland said Wednesday afternoon.
“The poor lady with the beauty parlor was almost in tears. That affected me. I might be a gruff kind of guy, but there was nothing I could do for them, not a darn thing. Even the superintendent came over, he seemed befuddled by what was going on there…. he didn’t know what was going on. I don’t know what the purpose is for doing everything illegally and jeopardizing people.”
King called Ireland “one of the nicest, most genuine and apolitical people in City Hall.”
“He has no agenda and applies the rules equally to everyone. … This is the third and now fourth time the building department has been called to the scene of un-permitted demolition/work at a Milligan property. Bill worked with Milligan to get the permits in order and to get work started again as soon as possible the first two times because the safety risks weren’t as imminent and also giving him the benefit of the doubt that it was unintentional. At this point it is obviously not a mistake – it is a blatant disregard for the health and safety of his tenants, neighbors and employees – and completely irresponsible,” King said.
Ireland said he is a lifelong Norwalker who remembers the flood that devastated Wall Street in 1955, and the work and time required to recover. “To see something like this, a total disregard for how to do it and do it right is really upsetting… This is totally ridiculous.”
‘I did try to pull the permit’
Milligan on Thursday said he loves Ireland, a no-nonsense guy, but the City is conflating two issues. The permit has nothing to do with it, the businesses would have flooded anyway.
“Obviously, something went horribly wrong,” he said, talking to NancyOnNorwalk from Sweden and asserting that he is trying to fix it and help the businesses. The wires weren’t “live,” but there was electricity in the walls, traveling from the floor below to the floor above, and it was picked up on a meter, according to Milligan. There’s a “minor amount” of lead paint involved and he always has his guys wear respirators.
“They were hacking wires and not getting electrocuted?” he said.
It is necessary to go through Zoning to get the permit and he’s been waiting two months, “following every rule,” biting his lip and not sharing his frustrations with the press as Zoning gave him a hard time about stupid things like an air conditioner, delaying him from building affordable apartments, he said. The City has “thrown every roadblock” in his way. There are too many rules so they can enforce them haphazardly.
There’s nothing going on at 4 Berkeley St., he said, asking how you could see demolition through a window. When the City wants to get you, they say they got an “anonymous tip.”
He prefers as-of-right developments because he doesn’t do well with Committees, and this is an as-of-right project but it’s being delayed, he said, arguing that 95% of the work being done in the City doesn’t go through the permitting system.
“I want to build on Wall Street,” he said. “I don’t want to do it the big, heavy-handed, government way. It shouldn’t be this hard to do the small construction over the counter…. I did try to pull the permit. Then I was away, I got a call, ‘Zoning approved the permit,’ then they called me immediately and said there’s a flood.”