NORWALK, Conn. — The plan to build a new Cranbury Elementary School, desperately desired by many Norwalk families, hinges on a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals. But with nearby neighbors objecting, ZBA members have taken a hard tone against the proposal; the City’s legal department is working on a compromise, but time is short, as the City says it needs approval by Nov. 27 to move the process along in time to start construction next fall.
Given a directive to keep the existing school open during construction and in view of the wetlands and woods on the 33-acre Knowalot Lane lot, Antinozzi Associates, the winner of a $1.8 million contract to design the school, has positioned the new building about 68 feet away from the edge of the property at the closest point. That’s more than the 30 feet required for a house but less than the 223-foot setback required for a school building seeking a special permit in a residence zone, a setback derived through a complicated formula that includes the length of the proposed building, according to Kent Gannon of Stantec.
“I’ve been here since 1986. And I have always loved the school. And, you know, I enjoy the sounds of the school and what’s going on. But I’m really a little disturbed at the fact that it is going to be so close to us,” said Chris Cascio, a Grumman Avenue resident.
Cranbury Elementary School was built in 1959.
“We are completely supportive of this new school as we’ve been begging, pleading for it,” said Pamela Schneider Young during ZBA’s Sept. 30 public hearing. The list of problems “goes on and on,” she continued, describing the burden on working parents when kids were sent home on their first day back because the school doesn’t have air conditioning. “Why can’t they get air conditioning? There’s not sufficient electric, the school has to be upgraded. It’s a whole overhaul.”
Nicole Rios, a Cranbury teacher, said, “We are in dire need of a new building. Some classrooms have up to three teachers sharing one common space, with file cabinet dividers. During heavy rains, other classrooms are flooded as water seeps in through classroom tiles, while leaking AC units continually drip destroying valuable teaching materials. We are continually putting temporary band aids to help remedy building conditions.”
While the Board of Education originally planned to renovate Cranbury, in early 2019 it pivoted to thoughts of a new school. The Common Council approved a $45 million capital budget expense for a new Cranbury Elementary School in 2020. The State is reimbursing $10 million of that.
It’s a plan that’s been in process for two years, according to Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo. Yet nearby neighbors were blindsided when certified letters arrived in August, surprising them with the proximity of the building and its basketball and tennis facilities.
That’s if they got the letter. At least one went to the wrong homeowner, said Diane Lauricella, hired by the neighbors as a consultant, in August.
“I’m very surprised that so many people were caught short on this,” said ZBA Chairman Lee Levey.
“Not once did I get a letter or knock on the door, or any indication that there was something going on with the zoning, specifically, prior to last Thursday when I received a certified letter,” said Matt Bury, a Knowalot Lane resident.
Bury said he was very excited about the school update and thrilled by the drawings, but, “The concern I have is where the school the new school will be located, and what the change in the variance means for our family and our neighborhood. With so few properties, it seems like it would have been simple to have a conversation with us.”
ZBA members voted to continue their hearing to September, where Lo explained that his department had erred in using the City’s GIS system to identify abutting property owners. “We did not realize it, it’s not a live link to the assessor’s office. So this information is updated manually from time to time. Therefore, there was an error in terms of legal notice,” he said.
He had been directed to meet with the neighbors, he said.
Bury indicated a bit of progress from that effort; he said that a dumpster has been “tucked in as close to our properties as humanly possible,” but Lo and the planners had agreed to move it. He’d been told that the City will plant trees to provide screening from both the sight and the sounds the school will produce, but, “those are the only two things that have been compromised so far.”
Matt Forte, a Grumman Avenue resident, said he’s also supportive of upgrading Cranbury but, “There’s a basketball court out there now there are teenagers down there now on the weekends and at night, playing basketball breaking beer bottles, what have you. Those courts are 350 feet away from our property line right now. The way it’s proposed, they’re going to be like 60 feet from the property line.”
Lo said the City purposely did not design a full basketball court that would attract the public, but has two half-courts planned instead, so the kids can use it at lunchtime.
While some speakers said the neighbors knew what they were doing when they bought property next to a school, Bury countered. “Our home will be here forever, that school will be in our backyard forever. When we purchased this home, we purchased it with a school and a setback. That research was done and understood. And that’s why the purchase was made.”
Bury said, “My wife is the vice president of the PTO there was no communication to the PTO organization that this was happening.”
In seeking a variance, the City has to prove it has a hardship. Its argument is that it needs to preserve the existing building until the new school is completed, and wants to maintain existing wooded areas on the property, adjacent to Cranbury Park. In addition, roughly half of the parcel contains wetlands.
“The bottom line is that the city does not have a hardship. There’s a functional school on the property today. And so by definition, there is no hardship,” Bury said. “Now, we’re willing to compromise and figure out a solution. But we need open minded solution-oriented conversation to do that.”
Bury and Forte presented alternative concepts. Their favorite one puts the existing plan “back 60 feet north and 18 feet east,” using about 10 feet of wetland, Bury said. “It takes the basketball hoops and a tennis court and it pushes them into the front of the school where they’re going to be safer, where people can see what’s going on there. And they’re going to attract less trouble.”
Forte said they’d shown their “reasonable compromise” ideas to Mayor Harry Rilling and others that week, and although Lo and others had “worked diligently” in the days preceding the Sept. 30 ZBA session, “they have not yet been able to come up with a completely acceptable plan. They’re close, but there’s still some tweaking to do.”
Lo said the concepts weren’t new; Antinozzi had tried multiple variations of where the building could be situated. “We actually went through all these scenarios before we get to this the puzzle in front of us,” he said.
ZBA members were skeptical of the variance request.
“The building is a big ask,” ZBA member Andy Conroy said, admonishing Lo and the consultants that while they may not like the setback requirements, they’re the regulations. “To get a variance, you need a hardship. And hardship can’t be because you’re building a building while you have the old buildings still there. Because that’s a self-created hardship. And we can’t approve one of those.”
The City needs to give the neighbors something, moving the basketball and the tennis facilities, he said. “I’m not voting for approval of this even if we modify it slightly, unless that’s done.”
“I would tend to agree with you in terms of the variance request,” Levey said. “… I think it’s easier to move the basketball area and the tennis court than it is to move the school.”
ZBA members voted to continue the hearing one more month. In October, Lo said the City wanted more time to have the opportunity to “further come up with a resolution to the matter at hand on hand,” so the matter is set to resume Thursday, Nov. 18.
“The Mayor and I requested for the Corporation Counsel, Mario Coppola, to engage the neighbors’ attorney, Joel Green, to confirm the neighbors’ concerns regarding the proposed Cranbury School project and to try to find acceptable solutions to those concerns,” Lo wrote Tuesday. “Over the past few weeks, Attorney Coppola and Attorney Green have convened multiple meetings with City officials/staff and the neighbors to try to resolve these concerns. The City’s staff has worked tirelessly prior to various solutions to present and discuss during those meetings. The parties are still working together to try to finalize various changes to the project that will address the neighbors’ concerns.”
“We are having conversations with the city, but nothing has been finalized yet,” Forte and Bury said in a statement.
Leaving parents on pins and needles.
“How is it possible that a 62-year-old school to be put on hold and sent back to the drawing board?” April Wennerstrom asked on Sept. 30. “…If we delay this project, it just will be devastating.”
“This is the only solution that allows the school to be to be built without the kids being dispersed across the city,” Brian Brown said.
It’s a very thoughtful plan, Schneider Young said.
“It would be so unfortunate for just, what, two homes, two families, to kind of affect and keep something from moving forward after all this work and all this money taxpayer money that has been put to (it),” she said. “I know what happens with government if this doesn’t get passed. So I’m guessing it puts on the back burner. And I it was hinted or I kind of overheard somewhere that I would think that they might have to even God forbid, find another property.”
Justin Matley, a Cranbury School Governance Council member, emailed ZBA in October, to press for the cause. He wrote:
“While I empathize greatly with the general construction concerns of the neighbors, the core argument they present just isn’t really true. There are already these amenities in place, and they’re currently larger. The school itself is closer, yes, but that was not the crux of the argument, and their preferred alternate plan they submitted moves the school a negligible amount. This move creates larger problems as it renders the move of the courts to the far east, making them far less accessible for the kids during the school day. These courts are used as part of gym and lunchtime almost wholly. Having them exists across driveways and a parking lot is both impractical and hazardous.
“In the end, dozens of scenarios were analyzed on the part of the city and architects, and the budget is extremely tight. Any moves going northward or eastward involves expensive environmental issues, and any move southward toward the road involves major traffic routing issues and an enormous amount of land moving. More costs that just aren’t in the cards. We’re already having to manage with higher costs of goods related to supply chain issues.
“Finally, I am twenty-year sound engineer and professor of sound at UConn with experience on the matter. A reminder that evergreen, particularly broadleaf evergreens and arborvitaes, along with a combination of varieties with ground level branches, make for excellent sound barriers (in addition to visual). If the right combination of trees are used, a very effective sound reduction can be had.”
Updated, 2:12 p.m.: More information.