NORWALK, Conn. — The city is planning to take South Norwalk’s open space and send it to another district, Common Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B) said, producing evidence to prove it.
A June letter from Mayor Harry Rilling to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) asked that the open space dedication agreements, or covenants, for 50 Washington St. and for Nathaniel Ely/Springwood Ely Park be shifted to 10 acres at 194 Richards Ave. and 1.6 acres at 127 Fillow St.
“We’ll be 10-15 years done the line we’ll be out this space, someone will forget about it. …. Meanwhile over in West Norwalk they will be enjoying open space,” Bowman said at during Planning Committee’s discussion on the 2017-18 capital budget. “Nobody answered my question, is somebody going to be funding a bus so our kids can, whenever they feel like it, go over to Richards Avenue and go over to Fillow Street and play? And enjoy these recreational neighborhoods?”
The capital budget the Council is voting on Tuesday includes requests for $500,000 for the 50 Washington St. plaza and funding to construct two new schools. Rilling has recommended $41,912,000 for the Nathaniel Ely school, to which Bowman was objecting.
BoE Facilities Committee Chairman Mike Barbis told her that the playground space at Ely would triple, from 19,000 square feet to 66,000 square feet.
But the conversation about the Washington Street plaza came first.
“We were not aware that our open space was being offered up,” Bowman said. “We would like to see our open space improved, not sold off. In any other district the open space is not sold off. As a matter of fact, when Habitat for Humanity wanted to build homes behind NCC this town rejected it because they valued their open space. … I was wondering if you were aware that they were trying to get rid of that.”
Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said he was not aware that the city was looking to change the designation of 50 Washington away from being a park.
“We certainly want the 50 Washington St. plaza to remain an open park,” Sheehan said. “…I am completely unaware of them looking to swap out the space.”
Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) commented that Bowman’s news was “troubling,” and Norwalk Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae explained that there is a covenant on 50 Washington because the city took grant funding to which there were strings attached.
“All this says is we are going to switch that covenant that restricted us from doing things in that park,” Mocciae said, explaining that the state would not allow public dining in the plaza, so restaurants cannot set up tables outside their establishments, and bicycle rentals are not allowed.
“There are some things that we can’t do on that parcel which if the state and the National Park Service agree to swap that covenant over to that parcel in West Norwalk then the city is free to do other programming in that park, which they can’t do now,” Mocciae said.
“It’s been appraised which would lead me to believe you’re getting ready to sell it,” Bowman said.
“That is formality the state asks you to do, to make sure that when they make the swap that the property is valued the same or more than the property is going to put the covenant on,” Mocciae said.
“Well we want our public space so we do not want our public space used for things where we would not be welcome, including putting tables on them, whatever,” Bowman said.
“My understanding from months back… It is a park, it will remain a park. It is open space, it will remain open space. It will be much more attractive than it is now,” Council member Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said. “…This would free us up as a city to go any which way we want.”
Any changes would go through the Council, Mocciae said.
The Ely discussion came up as part of the BoE’s side of the capital budget.
“I believe we have two issues in one. The open space and two, I believe there was an issue of it not being ready for this year,” Bowman said.
She read an email sent Thursday from DEEP Environmental Analyst David Stygar to Council member Travis Simms (D-District B):
“The conversion process has been initiated because the City of Norwalk has notified the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) that it wants to change the use of land it agreed to keep in open space, open to the public and in compliance with grant conditions. Conversion is a long process involving numerous steps, each taking time, funding and resources. Ultimately, DEEP and the Department of the Interior, National Park Service must approve that the conditions of conversion have been met.
“The City is aware of the steps involved in the conversion process and with guidance from the DEEP to fulfill the necessary documentation requirement to complete an official review. To date DEEP has not received this documentation, no official review has been undertaken and no approval has been granted to the City either by DEEP or the Department of the Interior, National Park Service.”
“I am wondering what the rush is. I am wondering why we are funding it in this budget in the first place,” Bowman said.
There is a possibility that Ingalls Avenue will have to be widened and the residents have not been informed, she said, questioning if anyone had thought of emergency vehicles needing to get down the road.
South Norwalk residents asked for more time to develop the school plan, she said.
If Ingalls needs to be widened then property will have to be taken, and buses are expected to go down the narrow Ely Street, she said.
“Why are we rushing this?” she asked. “…Do we even have a realistic cost?”
there’s $1.2 million in the budget to acquire about a half acre of land, and 3.5 acres of open space will go to West Norwalk, she said.
The recreational space will be up 24 percent, from 109,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet, Barbis said, describing athletic fields.
A lot of the open space that is there now is unusable, he said.
“We can make our open space usable but it is still our open space,” Bowman said.
She asked if the BoE had knocked on people’s doors to tell them that their property might be taken; Barbis said, “We don’t have a final project there is nothing to talk to these people about.”
There are contingencies in the BoE’s request to cover traffic studies and rock removals, Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said.
“Those determinations cannot be made without any certainly until the actual design is in place,” Hamilton said.
“A lot of things are not in place,” Bowman said, going on to say that many things were not considered when the city converted space behind the Norwalk Senior Center into a preschool facility and calling it a “nightmare,” with cars parked along the road.
It’s a state process to build a school, Hamilton said.
The first step is a local appropriation, he explained. Designing a school is a year-long process, and it will go through all the approvals that any development would have, with traffic studies and input from the fire marshal, he said.
The BoE spent 18 months studying this, he said.
“We don’t think we can wait another year to get the ball rolling,” he said.
“What if these people don’t want to give up their property and you are in a legal battle for five years because you didn’t do your homework?” Bowman asked.
The state could change the school reimbursement program at any time, Hamilton said.
“We are not bonding for the money until we need it,” Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) said.
“In order for us to go forward we need the appropriation in place,” Hamilton said.
BoE Chairman Mike Lyons repeated that the application will go through all the approvals on the city-side, calling it a chicken and egg process as the appropriation is a “necessary prerequisite.”
“That’s the way the state wants it,” he said. “We didn’t write the rules, we just follow them.”
Hempstead asked about the footprints of the existing buildings and the planned new building, then said, “I do agree one thing with Councilwoman Bowman, if the city is required to replace any of this parkland, it needs to be in district it’s taken out of.”
“Before you making that pronouncement is You should go to that property and walk those backwoods and see if you really think that’s usable space,” Barbis said.
At that point, Diane Lauricella, sitting in the audience, handed NancyOnNorwalk a note.
“The Board of Ed Facilities Chairman needs to understand:
“There are many other functions that open space achieves:
- “Air quality filter
- “Wildlife homes
- “Noise attenuation
- “Water quality filtering
“And very valuable.”
“In many urban districts, big cities, I think there would be smiles that the debate was over unusable open space versus increasing recreational space,” Kimmel said. “Let’s get real here, that’s what we’re arguing about. If we can increase recreational space, ball fields and everything, usable space, that is a big, big plus. We can have a separate discussion about the amount of open space in different parts of town, but I am not sure pitting one against the other in this case is appropriate…. We are debating the merits of increasing recreational space for children versus finding some more wetlands.”
Bowman said she sent a letter to DEEP, announcing her official opposition to the proposed transfer of the covenants.
“The city is attempting to rob inner city families of open space and replace that space outside the district in an area that is not near those individuals or in walking distance, to an area where they will probably not be welcome by the neighbors,” Bowman said.
The Richards Avenue neighbors spoke out against the Habitat for Humanity plan because they prized the open space, as anyone would, and because they did not want low income people there, she said.
“On several levels this will be an awful disturbance and discrimination against low income families,” Bowman said. “DEEP will be sending a message if this swap is allowed that low income families do not deserve open space.”
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