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Former Norwalk Councilman: P&Z split was largely inspired by inadequate sewage treatment plant

Norwalk's state of the art sewage treatment plant. The old one was The sewage treatment plant was built in 1971, he said. “Experimental was not right word, it was new wave, It never, ever worked as designed,” he said.

Norwalk’s state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant. The old one was built in 1971, former Common Council President Ed Lyons said. “Experimental was not the right word; it was new wave,” he said. “It never, ever worked as designed,”

NORWALK, Conn. – While former Mayor Bill Collins talks “big box stores” in relation to the separation of Norwalk Planning from Norwalk Zoning in the ’80s, former Common Council President Ed Lyons tells a different story – and it’s not pretty.

Lyons said Norwalk got called out for dumping of raw sewage into Long Island Sound and had a big dilemma on its hands. That led to the split, he said.

Lyons, who lives in Florida, spoke to NancyOnNorwalk in November in response to comments made by former Zoning Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield and Collins regarding the split, which Lightfield and others say has led to haphazard development in Norwalk.

“The thing in the last split was that it was done in reaction to Bill Collins’ zoning changes. They wanted to separate the powers and that was fine, because everything was running through the Council, but when they changed it they never changed it back,” Lightfield said. “So we are left with situations where we have a (Council) Planning Committee that never consults the master plan or the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission is told that it only does budgets. The Zoning Department says, ‘Well you have to meet the master plan,’ but for 30 years nobody in City Hall has ever wanted to have a master plan that you comply with, because we don’t believe in plans. That goes back to that generation of Ed Musante, head of the Redevelopment Agency, Mike Lyons, president of Common Council. These guys… They knew what they wanted to do and they just made the changes to make it easy for them to do what they wanted to do and they moved on and left the government, probably it must have occurred to them, ‘Oh, if they don’t like it they can change it back,’ but the successive line of Council people have never questioned the way things were.’”

Both Ed and Mike Lyons served terms as Council president.

Collins said that Planning and Zoning had been split, but maybe while Frank Zullo was mayor there was a great reform and they were put back together.

“When I was in office, Planning and Zoning was often a bone of contention – most of the time it was a bone of contention,” Collins said. “The developers were eager to be able to put in the big box stores, but the commissioners that I appointed put in the two-story minimum limit on all the commercial areas so it was more difficult for the big box guys because they don’t want to put second stories up.”

Nowadays, mixed use developments are the rage, but back then,“the property owners didn’t like that because they had bigger pieces of property and they wanted to rent them to Home Depot and Sports Authority,” he said.

Because his commissioners would not agree with what Council wanted, when he left office the Republicans changed the ordinance involved and split Planning and Zoning – thereby allowing them to replace all the commissioners, he said. Mayor Frank Esposito vetoed it, he said. But the Common Council overrode the veto, he said.

“They quickly abolished the two-story rule and thus we have the big box stores that we have today,” Collins said.

Still another version of why Planning and Zoning were split comes from Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large).

The purpose was to get a group of people focused on planning because, “At that time, we had Merritt 7 and stuff and nobody was planning anything,” Hempstead said.

Mike Lyons was not president of the Common Council when Planning and Zoning split; that was 1987, and Lyons’ term ended in 1985. He said Lightfield’s comment the “nobody ever wanted to follow a master plan” “reflects Jackie’s ignorance.”

“She’s operating on hearsay,” Lyons said. “I don’t know if Jackie even lived in Norwalk back then, but she certainly wasn’t active, and her statements are simply wrong.  I had served (as a Council member) on the Joint Committee that in 1984 recommended a full update of the Master Plan, and its proposed plans were supported by 75 percent of the voters in the 1986 referendum.  My brother Ed was president of the Council in 1988 when it split the P&Z.”

Plus, “It is true that Bill Collins’ commissioners had adopted a regulation requiring housing on the second floor of all buildings on the big thoroughfares, but they didn’t do it to prevent big boxes – they did it because they were hell-bent to increase housing densities throughout the City,” Lyons said.

Ed Lyons said he was chairman of the Ordinance Committee that wrote the ordinance that split P&Z. Collins “nailed it” when he said the Council wanted an entire new slate of characters, but was way off on the motivation, he said.

“C’mon dude, nobody is even mentioning the lawsuit?” Ed Lyons said.

First, some context: There was a real estate crash in 1987 in Connecticut, he said. Housing prices were cut in half as result of the combination of some of President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts with an inability to write off investments in buildings, he said.

“Pressure to build what? Nobody was building anything,” he said.

Plus, big box stores weren’t even a glint in a developer’s eye, he said. A Google search confirmed his assertion that Sports Authority opened its first store in 1987 in Florida. Norwalk was a long way off. Home Depot opened here in 1999, Lyons said.

The coalition that split the Planning and Zoning Commission was a weird alliance – Democrats, Republicans and neighborhood groups, he said. While the neighborhood groups were against the higher housing densities being pushed by P&Z, the politicians were united by their fears of massive fines being levied because Norwalk was habitually violating the federal Clean Waters Act by dumping raw sewage into Long Island Sound. Norwalk needed to replace its sewage treatment plant but did not have the millions of dollars necessary. Building more housing would be “insane” – the sewage treatment plant could not handle the existing housing stock, he said. But, he said, P&Z would hear nothing of it.

Terry Backer, a local lobsterman, had contacted the Riverkeeper organization and sued Norwalk because raw sewage was being dumped into Long Island Sound, Lyons said, and the city settled the suit for around $360,000. But that just made the suit go away; it didn’t solve the problem of sewage being dumped, and the Council was informed by the city’s corporation counsel that every day it violated the Clean Waters Act it could be levied a $5,000 fine.

“That adds up. I remember that it was stunning,” Lyons said, while not being able to come up with the actual number the Council was given. “He said we basically have no defense.”

Council members were pondering having to spend an entire year’s capital budget on fines – and still having a sewage treatment plant that needed replacing, with no funds to pull that off, he said. Plus, the fishermen knew it, and there could have been a new lawsuit filed at any time. It could have become a yearly thing, he said.

“That’s where the Common Council was coming from, when we were hit with doubling and tripling of housing densities in Norwalk by Planning and Zoning. We were stunned,” he said.

There was a meeting, at which Department of Public Works Director Dominick Degangi informed the Planning and Zoning Commission of just how badly overwhelmed the sewage treatment plant was, and the fines that could be levied. “They said, ‘OK, thank you.’ It was one of those off-the-record meetings, Frank Esposito called it… Their response was, next day they went to The Hour, told them I was a bum,” Lyons said.

This was also in violation of a referendum that was overwhelmingly endorsed in the 1986 election, against the development densities outlined for Route 1 and Route 7 and for the Joint Committee Plan mentioned by Mike Lyons. P&Z was ignoring that sentiment, Ed Lyons said.

“On the Common Council there was general agreement by the vast majority that they were elected in large part on platform of getting these things repealed. They were not going to sit around, not do anything,” Lyons said.

Waiting wouldn’t work because the commissioners had six-year terms, he said. Planning and Zoning had been split before, then put back together. “The idea was, ‘OK, separate them again.’ There was too much power in one place,” Lyons said.

The strength of the diverse coalition is shown in the fact that Esposito’s veto was overridden, he said. “They didn’t care what Frank did, they were very angry, they felt as though Frank should be supporting us on this, not shooting us down,” Lyons said.

The real estate market had nothing to do with it – the developers were against it, he said. “They liked one-stop shopping,” he said.

In spite of his passionate assertion that it was all about the sewage, Lyons said Hempstead’s assertion about Merritt 7 being the motivation could have merit. There were 15 neighborhood groups involved in the coalition, each with its own agenda, he said. One might have been focused on Merritt 7, and big developments on Route 7.

“They were united in one thing – they didn’t want increased densities,” he said.

There was subsequently a referendum to overturn the split, but it failed.

His brother, Mike Lyons, came up with the newspaper articles linked above, and this one, which has multiple articles on the subject. He also offered more detail on the master plan issue:

“In 1988, my friend Jim Cunningham (former Councilman) was appointed to the Zoning Commission, and later became chairman. Over the next several years, he and his commission did something never done since – they systematically went through the updated Master Plan of Land Use, and zone change by zone change, over several years, brought the zoning regulations into conformance with the Master Plan.  That hasn’t been done again (except piecemeal) in the 20 years or so since Cunningham left the commission.  Far from being a ‘generation that didn’t want a master plan you complied with,’ my brother, myself and Cunningham were the last generation that DID believe in implementing a full master plan – and did so.  Of course, master plans should be updated at least every 10 years, so the plan we put into effect in the late ’80s/early ’90s is now way out of date, but that’s expected – that’s why you do updates.

“What confuses me is the apparent view of some on the current Planning Commission that its not its job to do master planning – that is precisely its job.  Back in 1984 we had created a Joint Committee of four Common Council members (including me) and four P&Z Commissioners to come up with a consensus master plan, which was then adopted and then, as noted above, converted into zoning regulations (good ones, I believe, for the environment of the late ’80s and early ’90s).  Times change, of course.

“Perhaps the Council and Planning and Zoning commissions of today should follow our lead – appoint a new Joint Committee, gather together the current plans, all the studies that Mike Mushak talks about, etc., update the master plan in a way that brings the various groups together, and get a commitment from the Zoning Commission to implement the changes as much as possible. We did it back then, and it worked. Why not try it again now?”

13 comments

M. Murray's January 5, 2015 at 6:53 am

I seem to remember condos going up everywhere in the mid-late 80’s. Neighborhoods were upset with condos going up on small parcels of land it neighborhoods dominated by single family homes. They were popping up everywhere until the bubble burst. I think several of the larger condo complexes were not completed when the bubble burst and they were later finished as rental units.

Mike Mushak January 5, 2015 at 10:06 am

Great article, thanks NON. I am sure the years have clouded some recollections, but this offers a different perspective on history for sure. I am glad to see my position that the PC and ZC are not currently doing their jobs reinforced by so many.

I find fascinating the point that is made about concerns in the 1980’s about “concentrated power”, which is so ironic because that is EXACTLY the point I have been making for years, that the Director of Planning and Zoning (who was hired in 1978) has too much unchecked power at this point, controlling both commissions with deliberate manipulation with impunity and even playing petty games with Norwalk’s future by pitting these two important land use commissions against each other in the service of some hidden agenda we can never figure out. We do know it is never in the best interest of the city. Is it ego? Is it favoritism? Is it a chronic need to retaliate against anyone who challenges his highly paid job that costs Norwalk taxpayers tens of millions over the years?

Combined with a lack of any real planning experience, we have ended up with the staff-driven dysfunctional mess we have now. All on the record for those who think I am “making it up”, a laughable position since everything I have ever stated is on the record including witnessed by many on both sides of the aisle. The emperor has no clothes. Oops.

The ball is now in the court of the ZC and PC Chairs to start the process of reform that serves Norwalk’s taxpayers and business community and not the petty interests of the staff only . That starts with following the commission by-laws, City Charter, and restoring accountability through performance reviews, which have been mostly abandoned by years of indifference and staff using threats and stealth moves to get around.

I just happen to remind everyone about the serious planning mess we are in, and for that I am being ruthlessly attacked by one party in particular who have decided to make me, the whistleblower, a target instead of dealing with the real problems. That strategy is backfiring and will continue to since thousands of Norwalk cirizens have now seen the real dysfunction affect them directly with the mosque , BJ’s, and Farm Creek fiascos among many others that all followed our existing dumbed -down code that still hasn’t been fixed . I am trying to be diplomatic here.

I think of this as I sit here in a Holiday Inn Express in Durham NC on a 2000 mile road trip from TX to CT, studying dozens of cities and towns from a planning and zoning perspective, while my partner David is simultaneously studying the museums and cultural history in his research for the new Norwalk museum.

Between this trip and a similar fact-finding mission we took last summer to the Rust Belt and Midwest, we have seen plenty of good and bad planning, from attractive walkable and vibrant compact dense urban centers to ugly traffic-clogged sprawl, from cities with new housing downtown, rotaries, and bike lanes and bike share programs, including some new light rail and streetcar systems (Houston, Chattanooga, LittleRock, Charlotte on this trip and Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh last summer), to unplanned messes that are obviously trying hard to recover from years of planning mistakes (Hot Springs AR, Memphis TN, Research Triangle Park, NC.)

Norwalk has become a case study around the state over the last 30 years in how NOT to plan a city, which is no surprise as we have an entrenched staff that abhors professional planning in any form, and works closely with their supporters like Joe Santo to plot and scheme against anyone like me who challenges their corruption of process and ignorance of by-laws and charter responsibilities. I have paid a heavy personal price for exposing this nonsense including having my small business and home threatened (just as they have done to others so I am not alone in being a target of this corruption) , but if anyone things this petty nonsense has worked, I have news for you. It only strengthens my resolve!

Norwalk needs good planning now, as we repair the damage done by decades of unplanned sprawl that has cost taxpayers dearly to fix ($90 million on CT Ave to try to fix that traffic clogged mess the big box explosion has created.) I know what good planning looks like, as a licensed landscape architect with a lifetime of experience studying urban design.

Norwalk has such great potential to be a truly great walkable and bikeable (and safer for cars too) New England coastal city with connected historical and cultural attractions, with great schools and quality of life. P and Z is certainly not helping us get there, as everyone now agrees.

It is time that the Chairs of the Planning and Zoning Commissions take their responsibility seriously and start performance reviews and zoning reform, or step aside and let someone else do it if it is not a challenge they feel up to.

As far as the ZC chair goes, he needs to resign immediately for his unethical relentless threats and stalking against me and other zoning commissioners, and his most recent corrupt actions lying and scheming with staff to bypass the committee system with a sleazy action (all on the recording of the Dec 10th ZC meeting, not all in the minutes as those are routinely manipulated by staff). Santo was prepared to thumb his nose at the entire commission including members on his side of the aisle, and throw the large contractor and commercial real estate communities under the bus for a zone change they have wanted for years as evidenced by a petition and two public hearings where no one spoke against it, simply to retaliate against me personally (see another article on NON).

There is no place for this kind of unprofessional old-school bullying any longer in Norwalk, and it should not be tolerated by anyone.

Then we can start talking about fixing this colossal planning mess that everyone knows we have on both sides of the aisle. It starts with the commissions since that is where the power lies to do this. I find it astonishing that the GOP leadership has made such a stink about Democrat behavior on the BOE and yet remain silent over the unethical bullying and scheming by their own member Joe Santo that is all on the record, and that has helped destroy the public trust in our P and Z system.

And since when did our society decide that a municipal job is a cradle to grave position? I would suspect that our leadership of P and Z would be accountable and open to working well with others if they knew that they could at any time be thrust into the competitive private sector where pay is directly tied to job performance and qualifications, and bad behavior as we have witnessed and tolerated over and over for decades is rewarded with a pink slip.

And here’s another story for NON. Who decided to make Mike Greene’s position the only department head protected by the NASA union, and why? And also find the contract language that prevents the ZC from having a performance review of him. No one else including in Personnel has ever been able to find it.

Oldtimer January 5, 2015 at 12:15 pm

I lived through all this, yet this story was a history lesson. Thank you. There was a time when Conn. Ave had no sewer line and very little development. In Fact the hotel near exit 13 was required to build it’s own small sewer treatment plant that fed into five mile river when it was built. A group that favored development on Conn Ave was able to persuade the City to spend the money to extend City sewer lines to the Darien line and even enter into a contract to take some sewage from Darien. Route seven was a similar situation and again the city was persuaded to extend city sewers up to the Wilton border and accept some sewage from Wilton. No wonder our poor old sewer plant was overwhelmed.

Part of the basis for the lawsuit against the city for dumping untreated sewage into the harbor was the regular release, about 5 AM. of substantial amounts of untreated sewage that floated downstream in easily recognizable little islands at the same time the lobstermen were getting ready to go out for the day. Terry Backer was a lobsterman. With some backing from the late Hillard Bloom, the Conn Coastal Fisherman’s Association was formed and it filed the suit. The City had been using the midnight shift at the plant as a place to assign the DPW employees that were not much use anywhere else and this group soon got in the habit of sleeping through a good part of the shift and falsifying the inspection reports that indicated the process at the plant was being well monitored at least once every hour. The fisherman’s association was well prepared and the City, as stated, had no defense. Terry Backer’s position as Soundkeeper grew out of that suit and the City eventually accepted the fact the sewer plant, now called waste water treatment, had to be enlarged and brought up to date. Fortunately, the State funded a big part of the cost for the expansion and update, but insisted on certified sewage treatment professionals to run the plant and it has been run by a contracted company ever since, with no city employees, and much cleaner discharge.

Peter Parker January 5, 2015 at 4:24 pm

Happy New Year to all! This is a wonderful article, but a look backwards is just that, doesn’t matter how we got here, but where we go from here is the important thing. It still sounds like he said, she said, and in the end no one really knows the truth. It is so tiring. How about we move forward and make the changes needed to improve our city, but I fear that will never happen until all the good old boys down in City Hall are retired or drummed out by people who are not afraid to fight the fight and stand up to the nonsense. We all know who has to go, so let’s make it happen. Get out the brooms and sweep the floor clean. Yep a clean sweep is what is needed or nothing will ever change. Maybe we need a dream team for Norwalk.. It could happen.. You’re out there, let’s make it happen.

Kathleen Montgomery January 5, 2015 at 6:33 pm

The takeaway for me is that there was a dream team…Lyons brothers and Cunningham. It could happen again.

Mike Lyons January 5, 2015 at 8:40 pm

Thanks, Kathleen. 🙂

What it takes is someone to take the lead. It can be the Mayor, the Council President, the Chair of one of the Commissions. But big accomplishments don’t just happen … someone has to “Just Do It”. Why NOT create another Joint Committee? Ours back in the ’80’s started with a Citizens Advisory Group which recommended goals, then the Council / P&Z Joint Committee turned it into a recommended master plan. And for the only time in Norwalk’s history, before or since (at my brother Ed’s suggestion) the Council actually put it on the ballot and got a 2-1 endorsement of the plan from the voters, before the Zoning Commission adopted regs and map changes to put it into effect. The Zoning Commission’s actions were well-received by the community (see http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1916&dat=19891013&id=vf4gAAAAIBAJ&sjid=QnQFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5108,2023698 and http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1916&dat=19890826&id=djIiAAAAIBAJ&sjid=uXQFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5628,4418045.

There seems to a lot of discussion around this issue but no action. A new Joint Committee, building on a successful approach used in the past, might get us pass that impasse.

Mike Lyons January 5, 2015 at 8:53 pm

My brother Ed’s comment about the magnitude of the sewage treatment plant issue, BTW, is tremendously important in the context of the 1980’s. In those years a $10 million annual capital budget for everything in the City (roads, drainage, schools, etc.) was the norm. The estimated cost of bringing our (then-ancient) treatment plant up to modern environmental standards was staggering — $40 million and up. The work eventually got done (fortunately with a good deal of Federal and State funding), but the constraints were so severe at the time that moratoriums on development were part of the steps pushed by the Zoning Commission to give the City time to get the plant up to code. Just two years ago a FURTHER $38 million upgrade to the plant was completed. The plant today is vastly superior to what existed in the ’80’s, so much so that no one even thinks about it when contemplating new developments. But in the ’80’s, you had to.

Oldtimer January 5, 2015 at 9:59 pm

The Lyons family was in construction first and both Mike’s father, Bill, and his grandfather, had political roles colored by the very practical approach learned in construction. Bill Lyons was manager of the third taxing district electric company and then a commissioner. I am not sure of the order in which he held these jobs, but he had a lot to do with the reliability of electricity in east Norwalk. Steel cables, strong enough to carry a lot of weight, run above all the distribution lines in east Norwalk because he figured installing the steel cables, in nice weather, would save a lot of money in bad weather when tree limbs were falling. Residents will tell you they always have electricity while other parts of town lose power for hours, and they pay less.

Mike Lyons January 5, 2015 at 10:18 pm

Good memory, Oldtimer! My Dad Bill ran Lyons Construction Company until about 1975, then became manager of the TTD Electric Department. He made one of the smartest investments ever while he was manager, running “Hendrix cable” through the entire network in the early ’80’s (http://hendrix-wc.com/Aerial-Cable-Systems). The cables catch falling limbs and even trees in big storms, preventing them from knocking down the power lines running under the cables. The result is that even in hurricanes, power rarely goes out for more than a few hours in the TTD (if at all), while CL&P areas (unprotected by the cables) can be out of power for 8 to 10 days. Most of the cables are still the originals from the ’80’s, they’re so well manufactured.

Bill also served as P&Z Chairman for a few years in the mid-’80’s, where he adopted a little-noted series of regulation amendments that eliminated “use variances” in Norwalk’s residential zones. Prior to that, the ZBA could grant variances to allow businesses or industrial uses right in the middle of residential zones; that practice ended by the end of the ’80’s (though pre-existing businesses were grandfathered in by state law).

Amanda January 6, 2015 at 7:58 pm

Very interesting re the Hendrix cables! All of our East Norwalk/TTD friends talk about how they never lose power in a storm. We moved to W Norwalk the winter after Sandy, so we’re waiting for our big CL&P let down.

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