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Norwalk Council approves 10-year plan meant to guide development

NORWALK, Conn. — The newly drafted plan to guide Norwalk development for a decade has jumped its latest hurdle and is headed for its last phase of approval.

The Common Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the drafted 10-year city-wide master plan, otherwise called a Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), sending it back to the Planning Commission for its final review. Two citizens spoke against the plan; Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) offered cautionary concerns but said “it’s certainly a better plan” than the 2008 version.

“I haven’t met a master plan I liked, and I haven’t met master plan I didn’t like because it’s trying to be a catch all for everything. And that’s always a problem,” the veteran politico said.

Republican Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton and former Council member Rich Bonenfant, who is running for an at large Council seat, voiced their long-standing objections to the plan.

Brinton said it doesn’t address “three fundamental goals”:

  1. “How large to you want to grow the population of Norwalk over the next 10 years?
  2. “Does the city have the infrastructure and space to support the increased population?
  3. “Due to our primary reliance on property taxes to fund city services: What percentage of single-family homeowners versus multi-unit rentals do you believe is a healthy balance to economically sus quality of life?”

 

“So, after two years of meetings and workshops, the answer is more apartments higher density, increased traffic and relaxed zoning rules,” Bonenfant protested. “It’s almost like the study results were written ahead of time and the exercises were just designed to validate the agenda.”

But Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C), who is seeking reelection, said, “I think in this day and age with social media, email, the internet, I have no doubt that this plan has reached more people and has had more public input than any other (Norwalk POCD). So that being said, I believe that we have well drafted plan, that sets a clear path for our city and the path that includes beyond goals, and all our diverse neighborhoods.”

It’s a “vast improvement” over the 2008 plan, Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E), who is also running, said. “I also like the fact that it’s very broad and detailed,” with action items, “but they’re only positive if we follow them… we all have … to make a commitment to do that.”

“There doesn’t seem to be a strategy to evaluate what’s presently happening to Norwalk, before we implement something,” Hempstead said, asserting that the City doesn’t know the impact of its current development, including the mall that’s about to open. “I think there needs to be some studies and evaluations done prior to implementation of some of the suggestions that are in this master plan, that I support it because at least for specificity, this plan is a heck of a lot more specific than our last plan.”

Bonenfant had criticized the plan to encourage accessory apartments, saying that he could label his daughter a caregiver, build an apartment on his single family home and then sell it as a non-conforming two family home.

Hempstead said his concern was someone dies or the house is sold and “Now what do you do? You can’t make them tear it down.”

Nevertheless, the plan is only “advisory,” he said.

Council member Colin Hosten (D-At Large) voiced support for the plan.

“I agree that I think the plan is not perfect,” he said. “And I think you know, compared to the (2008 plan), I find this to be very thorough, thoughtful, I think it would be useful guide to be, like you said, an advisory role to help us look at more specific policies.”

Mayor Harry Rilling echoed Kydes.

“This is probably one of the most widely publicized documents that I can remember,” he said. “It’s also a living and breathing document …. It’s a document that will be revisited over and over and over again, and will be changed as needed.”

Norwalk Fair Housing Officer Margaret Suib recently said the plan ignores fair housing needs by:

  1. “Only planning for multifamily housing in areas where it already exists, rather than opening opportunities to all in other areas of the city so as to do something about our historically segregated city”
  2. “Planning for ‘empty nesters’ and ‘young’ residents in the urban core (a potential fair housing violation)”

 

Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin in a Sept. 18 memo said Suib is “not correct.”

“Chapter 4 goes into detail regarding the demographics and data behind the housing challenges the City faces … the very first goal in Chapter 4 contains concrete policies and actions that further Fair Housing within the City,” Kleppin wrote. “This addresses providing housing choices throughout the City, which is consistent with the City’s existing policies. For example, over 70 permanently deed-restricted workforce housing units will be available at Glover Avenue (once complete), which is on the Wilton border. Group Homes, Congregate Housing and Conservation Developments are allowed in most single-family zones and accessory apartments are allowed in all single-family zones.”

He continued, “Recommending multi-family housing be allowed everywhere in the City goes against Smart Growth principles, since many of the suburban areas of the City lack infrastructure such as sewer, public water, sidewalks or mass transportation. More importantly, the Plan recognizes that while the City has made significant strides in many of these areas, there is still more work to be done and provides further recommendations on how to proceed.”

3 comments

Margaret K. Suib, Esq., Fair Housing Officer September 26, 2019 at 4:40 pm

Steve Kleppin’s Sept 18 memo, referenced above, which said I am “not correct” wasn’t shared with me, so I don’t know if there was a specific reference as to a mistake I made or if he is saying I am incorrect across the board. Mr. Kleppin is also quoted as saying the first goal and policy in Chapter 4 specifically addresses the Fair Housing I said is missing. Here’s his reference:

“Goals:Norwalk has a neighborhood and housing strategy that maintains a variety of neighborhood types and housing choices through a variety of mechanisms.”

My response: “Maintaining” existing neighborhoods is the opposite of working to undo the intentional governmental segregation which still largely exists. Having a “variety” of housing types using a “variety” of mechanisms is not specific.

“Policies: • Support housing policies that provide housing for Norwalk’s households across a range of preferences and all household incomes.
• Preserve and maintain the overall character of traditional single-family neighborhoods.
• Support housing policies that promote higher-density housing near existing and future employment centers and availability of public transportation.”

My response: I’m glad that the City’s stated policy will be to support housing at all income levels/needs. We need to adjust the zoning to allow this throughout the city or else we’ll be furthering historic segregation.

The intent to “preserve and maintain” single family home neighborhoods (which are predominantly higher income and white) and to limit higher density housing to our downtown areas, areas that are traditionally lower and moderate income areas, and predominantly neighborhoods of color, again, furthers rather than fixes, historic segregation.

When it’s said that the new POCD, as to housing, is consistent with existing city policies, that’s the problem: we are continuing the policies of yesteryear, the ones that created and perpetuate segregation.

Our segregated neighborhoods, still in existence today, were not created by anyone here today, and also didn’t happen by accident. If you aren’t aware of this history (I wasn’t), government plans, policies and programs intentionally created segregation. Read the book or watch the 17 minute video called “Segregated by Design” found here: https://www.segregatedbydesign.com/. When we act to undo this damaging social engineering of the past, we solve a lot of problems, including many related to schools.

As we can see, looking at Chapter 4 of the POCD proves my point: Fair Housing goals aren’t mentioned. The goal and policies to implement the goal that are set forth (maintaining the status quo) is contrary to Fair Housing goals.

Next: it is argued that we can’t build multifamily homes where there are no sewers, I’d challenge that. Not all multi-family housing has to be fortress-style apartment buildings. A two-family house, for example, let’s say with two elderly couples, could certainly exist even where there are no sewers, in places where we see large single-family homes that house families of 6-8 people.

But baby steps: It sounds like Mr. Kleppin supports small multi- family housing (and again, let’s think in terms of 2-4 families) anywhere there is adequate water and sewer infrastructure (which is most of our neighborhoods in Norwalk). That’s a great start!

Given that Norwalk is aging (and per this document 25% of our households today are age 65 or older, and with luck, we are all getting older) and given that not everyone has millions of dollars in retirement savings, our seniors will need less expensive dwellings, likely multi-family dwellings, and may well prefer the quieter (non-downtown) areas of Norwalk. Choices should be available, to them, and to families who are otherwise relegated to the downtown areas.

Let’s think outside the box and look to where we can add in-fill, smaller, multi-family options in Norwalk.
We have wonderful non-profit partners who have told the City they are interested in engaging in this type of small development.

As to Transportation Oriented Development (TOD) I spoke to federal officials about this. My question was, how do we put housing in areas near existing transit, and also desegregate our communities? The answer was simple: Transit can come to serve the development, development doesn’t have to be placed where there is already transit. We can, for example, extend bus routes to areas where we are adding multi-family housing. Bus routes are fluid, they are always changed as living patterns change.

Regarding the newer apartments on Glover Ave: this is an old office park area that is being transformed into a residential (apartment) area due to the lack of demand for office space. To call Glover Avenue “on the Wilton boarder” is a stretch and not quite accurate. The Wilton boarder is quite a ways further north on old Route 7/Main Ave. The Glover Avenue area is more accurately described as an office park being turned into an apartment complex alongside commercial retail strip malls.

Many people confuse the development of housing with Fair Housing. They are not the same. While you can’t have Fair Housing if you don’t have housing for a variety of income ranges, Fair Housing intends for that variety of housing to be available throughout the community, not just in segregated areas.

There is nothing in the POCD about desegregation, or the strategies I have mentioned here, to identify, quantify and redress it. Nor is there anything that I have found about the gentrifying effect of the new development in South Norwalk, e.g. what are we doing/planning to do to counter the displacement of existing residents?

As noted by others, this POCD is better than the last, but in my opinion, as to Fair Housing, not good enough.

In conclusion: Whether goals and strategies furthering Fair Housing are incorporated or not into the POCD, Fair Housing work is required by state and federal government. It’s clearer and less challenging when we bake it into our thinking and planning. Regardless, Fair Housing advances must be made, and Norwalk’s Fair Housing Advisory Commission and Fair Housing Officer will continue to advocate Fair Housing policies and implementation in Norwalk’s planning and development.

Rusty Guardrail September 26, 2019 at 7:58 pm

Irrespective of race, homeowners maintain their property to a much higher standard than do renters. Ms. Suib, Esq’s proposals would devalue whole neighborhoods, and should be ignored.

Jo September 29, 2019 at 10:44 am

Wilton residents would be insulted by Mr. Kleppin’s suggestion that Glover Avenue borders Wilton. It’s a commercial zone, and an unsafe one for pedestrians, as the Norwalk Bike/Walk Commission highlighted last summer during an enlightening stroll around that area. And with the compound that is being developed at the north end of that road, it’s going to get a lot, lot more worse.

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