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Golden Hill shows first example of Norwalk blight ordinance at work

Before and after photos of what has been described as an long standing Norwalk “eyesore” show progress made with Norwalk’s new blight ordinance. (Contributed photos.)

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.”

Comments

11 responses to “Golden Hill shows first example of Norwalk blight ordinance at work”

  1. anonymous

    Hearing officers to handle appeals, by owners?, will that speed up the process of blight reduction or slow it down. Is the burnt out hulk in the center of Wall Street exempt?

  2. The Norwalker

    Some home owners are going to be left with no where to turn to and the $100 a day fine is only going to make things worse.

  3. John Hamlin

    This new blight ordinance is weasel-worded and weak — and for the .01% of heinous properties, there will be some change, which is good. But the politicians lacked the interest to pass an ordinance that had a chance of really working effectively — that seemed their goal from the start. Jim is right that those who benefit are landlords who neglect their rental properties. And the people who suffer are their tenants and the surrounding property owners whose property values drop. Stamford’s is a much more effective blight ordinance — another reason Stamford has made so much more progress on this front (and so many fronts) compared to Norwalk.

  4. dlauricella

    To clarify: What has been printed here appears to have been taken out of context. My discussion with NON was mainly about the efforts of the last administration before November with little progress for many many years and the appearance, including select councilmen, to pass a watered-down blight ordinance for campaign purposes. Then- candidate Rilling said he wanted to do something about this and as Mayor apparently has. In my conversation with NON, I, as a good- government watchdog, literally complimented Bill Ireland and this new administration and said that I was happy that something was begin done. I said that fines could probably pay for almost a full-time person to help expedite the effort that the new administration is conducting (and come to think of it quite frankly this could be out-sourced).

    When NON asked me if I had seen much progress about blight in OTHER neighborhoods besides Golden Hill I said that I had not. But I also DID say that this program just got started and as the program rolled out and Bill Ireland has time to check out the regulation that it should be returned to the new Council Ordinance Committee for tweaking.

    1. Mark Chapman

      Diane Lauricella’s comments were, indeed, taken out of context — they were taken out of the context of a 12-minute conversation that wandered into other areas, with much of what was said being of no interest to the readers. This article was not intended to be an article about what Diane Lauricella thinks about the blight ordinance. It was a story about the beginnings of enforcement, and she was called for a comment, like others quoted in the story who also said much more than was reported.

      That is how it works. Anyone who has been interviewed knows this. You talk about something, and pieces of the conversation are used, items that add to what has been written. The only time it is a problem is when taking the words “out of context” changes the meaning. Happens with politicians and PR people all the time. Nothing Ms. Lauricella was quoted on in the article suffered this fate. Did we report all of her words, her thoughts and her opinions? No. But what was reported did not misrepresent her opinions.

      We interview or record words in public meetings of dozens of people every week. We report on what they say. Only one person — Ms. Lauricella — consistently wants to revise or explain or deny her comments.

  5. EveT

    Is it true that until this ordinance was passed, nonresident landlords were allowed to give only the rental property address as their contact address? No wonder we had ongoing blight if there was no way to contact the landlords. If Norwalk now requires landlords to provide their actual address so they can be served notice about a violation, that’s a step in the right direction.

  6. Mike Mushak

    This is a step in the right direction but I agree the ordinance was watered down too much based on political concerns that are not worth rehashing here. There was no evidence offered that the Stamford ordinance would cost more, in fact, it appeared no one from the Norwalk Ordinance Committee even bothered to talk to Stamford to find out. We do know Stamford’s ordinance has passed years of legal scrutiny and has generated results. But we did get something passed and in Norwalk that can be considered a miracle worth celebrating, and I did speak in favor of this ordinance before the Council despite my reservations.
    .
    My favorite news item in piles of research we did over the years on this subject was the experience of Milford, which got 13 properties on their list of their worst blighted properties cleaned up soon after they passed their ordinance, simply through publicity without even having to begin enforcement. Deterrence does work sometimes, but the word has to get out there, so thank you Nancy!
    .
    Norwalk now needs to think about improving zoning enforcement now that the treble damages law was struck down by the state in May of 2012, almost 2 years ago. We fought hard in Golden Hill to change this law, with Senator Duff’s help, after hearing for years from P and Z Director Mike Greene that this law was the reason our staff was not more aggressive on zoning enforcement, instead relying on the state court system which is expensive, inefficient, and chronically back-logged, and ties up our highly paid city legal staff who could be working on other pressing issues besides enforcing what should be a P and Z responsibility.
    .
    The CT General Statutes give municipalities the right to charge up to $150 a day in fines for zoning violations, which would require a city ordinance and would dramatically increase zoning compliance, especially among the many chronic violators all over the city, such as a current illegal log-splitting business in Cranbury which has terrorized an entire neighborhood for years with noise and blight and reduced surrounding property values, leaving neighbors frustrated and angry at the city for not controlling this. Every neighborhood in the city has its zoning and blight horror stories (remember the Fitch School fiasco that dragged on for years?), and giving zoning staff the right to enforce our code with fines like every other city in CT does will add to neighborhood stability and quality of life for property owners who are responsible and follow the rules.

  7. Casey Smith

    So, judging by the article and the comments here, the blight ordinance was a gigantic waste of time and effort because they will not improve Norwalk. It’s clear that the Mighty Mushak, along with the Greek chorus of the Dianes have determined that nothing will do but to adopt Stamford’s ordinance and go after people hammer and tongs. What a pity that homeowner on Flax Hill actually made the improvements to his property. He could have just shrugged it off and said, “No problem, I’ll just want for the newer, tougher Stamford based laws.” Just think of all the money he would have saved!!!!

  8. anonymous

    @Mushak your personal attacks, can’t you make your point without that. @DelGreco comments very subjective, who is the decider on whether a blighted property has a ‘wealthy’ owner who can afford to make repairs, and go lenient on those not as ‘wealthy’. Blight is blight, otherwise it selective blight.

  9. Mike Mushak

    Anonymous, I personally attacked no one in my comment. I spoke the truth about what a city staff member, Mike Greene, told our neighborhood and other officials for years, all in the record and in published accounts, and now that we got the law changed, lo and behold, two years later, still no policy changes have been made. That is not a personal attack, but a statement of fact. And your statement criticizing me for personally attacking someone includes insulting comments towards Jim DelGreco, one of the most committed volunteers I know in the city, and a man of strong integrity and character. It is easy to find out the home address of owners of blighted properties through a few computer clicks, and our research proves that a majority of these blighted properties are owned by folks who live in expensive homes in wealthier surrounding towns. One owner had a 60 foot yacht docked in his backyard in Florida, besides a waterfront home in Westport. Perhaps this owner was needy as you suggest it is a subjective judgement. Needy for a bigger yacht perhaps, while he can’t afford to hire someone to clean up his blighted properties in Norwalk! Lol!

  10. anonymous

    @Mushak you missed my point, which was not about a landowner being right or wrong, the home in the picture was a shambles. The process as described above sounds subjective and discriminatory. Blight is blight.

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