NORWALK, Conn. – One of the Golden Hill area’s “perfect examples of blight” has been cleaned up, leading one member of the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations to look upon the blight ordinance that went into effect Jan. 1 with determined optimism. Other members are not so sure.
A few months ago the house Jim DelGreco is referring to was a real eye-catcher for drivers making a left onto Flax Hill Road from Washington Street, with an appearance that can only be described as shabby. Now it’s sporting new vinyl siding and is a “not so much” for glances, as it looks relatively normal.
“When we went to see the mayor (in January), we identified two properties that we felt in our neighborhood were perfect examples of blight,” said DelGreco, head of the Golden Hill Association. “One was on Elmwood and one was on Flax Hill. We showed him pictures. The mayor said ‘OK, I’ll take these, I’ll give them to (new blight enforcement officer Bill Ireland) and see what Bill can do.’ Sure enough, Bill took one, 109 Flax Hill, and obviously brought it to the attention of the owner and the owner, really in a very short period of time, like months, turned that whole building around.”
The blight ordinance, which went into effect Jan. 1, is “a little watered down” version of what DelGreco was hoping for, but he said he felt, “Hallelujah, they got to that,” when it was finally made law.
It calls for fines of $100 per day for violators.
The ordinance is the result of years of effort, DelGreco said. Extensive research was done into what surrounding communities were doing. The state wrote an ordinance, which local municipalities needed to piggyback on, he said. Stamford’s ordinance was looked upon as something that should be modeled, he said.
Last August, the Ordinance Committee, led by then-Councilman Michael Geake (D-District B), finally created an ordinance. Geake said it was far from perfect, but it was doable, and was targeted to the worst of the worst, those that are “truly heinous.”
Like the one on Flax Hill.
“This has been an eyesore in a very strategic location for decades,” DelGreco said. “Literally through the help of the city, and that’s what this is all about, combining the residents’ associations and the city, bringing to bear on a situation. Through the help of the city, that building now has a completely different look.”
“The cleanup and the difference was absolutely remarkable and I was very, very pleased, so you are well on your way to making an impact,” Mayor Harry Rilling told Ireland recently.
But other CNNA members are not so sure anything is happening.
“I don’t see any legal postings. I don’t see any list of offenders on the city website. There’s no placards outside of a building. I’m not sure what the visibility would be to the general public that there’s anything going on,” Diane Cece said. “That’s not to say that it’s not going on. I just don’t know that it is going on.”
Cece said she was “maybe the most vocal opponent” of the ordinance. For one thing, she wanted to know how it would be funded.
Ireland, who was appointed by Rilling in January as the enforcement officer, recently asked the Board of Estimate and Taxation for a special appropriation of $12,000 to cover expenses just through June 30. Finance Director Thomas Hamilton recommended against it, saying the fees and fines that will be collected are likely to cover the costs, as they do in Stamford. If not, the issue can be revisited, he said.
The BET voted to deny the request.
Cece had other problems with the ordinance.
“Almost every describable condition of blight was already covered under existing regulations and ordinances and codes,” she said. “If we’re not enforcing them then, what would make us enforce it under some other ordinances? I’m not sure how it’s being enforced because I don’t see anywhere on the city website how you can report blight, what the process is.”
CNNA member Diane Lauricella said she hasn’t seen any evidence of progress as she drives around the city.
“While I know I am glad that some effort was made, I think they could do a little more comprehensive because it was not that controversial,” Lauricella said. “… I thought it was more wanted to put something on a campaign brochure. I’m glad they did something but it wasn’t enough. After all these years of study, it definitely was not enough. They should have adopted Stamford’s plan, or Bridgeport, or combined it.”
Third Taxing District Commissioner Deb Goldstein, a CNNA member, also criticized the ordinance.
“It could have been more robust and more effective. We had been hoping for something closer to what Stamford had. Right now, this is a lot of subjectivity in it,” she said.
Council members said enacting an ordinance closer to the one Stamford has would have been too expensive.
DelGreco said it’s a matter of focus.
“Over the decades that the Golden Hill Association has been working to improve our neighborhood we have really come to the conclusion that it’s one property at a time,” he said. “Whether it’s illegal apartments, whether it’s parking in the front yard – whatever the violation is, you have to attack one property at a time. You can’t look at it from a big perspective and say it’s graffiti and then not come up with a solution. Now it’s looking at this particular mailbox, what are we going to do about it? Selling drugs from this particular location, what are we going to do about it? We found over time that’s what we had to do.”
The association worked with Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene to get rid of illegal apartments and with the Norwalk Police Department on specific cases of illegal parking, he said.
“I encourage people that have a very specific example of a blighted property to bring it to the attention of the city. Don’t come in with a mass of them. It’s individuals. Pick a perfect example of it and bring it to the city’s attention with a very specific problem,” he said.
That formerly dilapidated two family home on Flax Hill is owned by a New Canaan couple, according to the city’s website. Zillow.com says the house they give for their home address is worth $1,777,653.
That’s a widespread problem in Norwalk, DelGreco said — wealthy out-of-town landlords neglecting their properties.
“We are looking at properties where we know that it’s not a social issue,” he said. “It’s not an economic issue. Our feeling is those are properties we need to go after. It’s not somebody who cannot do the work themselves or get the work done themselves. It’s just that they are not being good neighbors and they are not basically taking care of the property. We believe that if you are a property owner, you have the responsibility to add to the neighborhood’s well-being, not detract from the neighborhood’s well-being.”
“The Golden Hill Association was one of the leaders from years ago because of the sorry streets,” Lauricella said. “They really did put a lot of effort in trying to get departments coordinated so they would know each other’s records. That still hasn’t happened, there’s no online coordination of records so the fire marshal knows what the zoning department is looking at.”
“I knew that any blight ordinance would help as long as the motivation from the city was there to do something about it,” DelGreco said. “In other words, getting the mayor’s attention, getting the enforcement officer in place and then the willingness of those people to do something. So I am not surprised (it is working), but I would like to see more people assigned to it so we could get more done quickly, but as we’ve just proven, and one of the things Golden Hill prides itself on, is leading the way to see how we can improve on the neighborhood was needed.”
The ordinance calls for two hearing officers to handle appeals. Rilling said he would make those appointments next week.
“If you stay after it, sooner or later you get what you want,” DelGreco said of the effort to get an ordinance. “Persistence overcomes resistance.”