‘Lesser of two evils’ defended in Norwalk Council endorsement of Al Madany settlement

From left, Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large)
From left, Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), Councilman Jerry Petrini (R-District D) and Attorney Joseph Williams discuss things before the start of Tuesday’s Common Council meeting in Concert Hall.

Correction: The “damages” part of the settlement is $925,000, as we reported in our earlier version. A typographical error in this version erroneously inflated the cost.

NORWALK, Conn. – A seemingly large dollar figure was debated by the public Tuesday night, but all of Norwalk’s Common Council members were unanimous in their support of buying the Al Madany Islamic Center’s land, paying its damages and covering its expenses, calling it the lesser of the two evils.

Almost everyone said thank you, too.

The Common Council meeting in Concert Hall was not nearly as packed as it had been the first time the proposed settlement with Al Madany was presented to the public at the Zoning Commission’s public hearing three weeks ago, with up to 200 people there Tuesday night.

“Literally we were finalizing terms of the agreement up until 7 o’clock this evening,” Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said in introducing the settlement. Norwalk will reimburse Al Madany $307,500 for its expenses, pay $925,000 for damages, buy the property at 127 Fillow St. for $585,000 and pay up to $215,000 for development costs at a new location. Norwalk will also help Al Madany find a new site.

Attorney Marci Hamilton, a nationally recognized expert in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), said the choice was to challenge the law’s constitutionality or go for a rational settlement. Norwalk chose the latter, she said, calling it a “very good result.”

“This is an agreement that is welcoming this mosque to Norwalk, but it is essentially saying that their current location is not the right one,” Hamilton said.

A small amount of public outcry came quickly.

“I am astounded,” Sheldon Green said. “I am amazed. You want to raise money for something? Have a tag sale? Have a bake sale? Do a car wash? No. Buy a piece of property that you know you will never be able to use for the purpose intended. Find every legal device – God I am looking at attorneys here – find every legal device to challenge a major city in Connecticut. Do so successfully and … say to the city, eat my mistake. I wish I could have thought of something like that years ago. I would have been a millionaire.”

But Attorney Peter Nolin, who gave a fiery speech to the Zoning Commission against the original proposed settlement, said he had come with the intention of speaking against that again. Instead, he commended everyone on the stage for coming up with a different solution and promised to spread the word:

“You have to remember that maybe you are overpaying in the context of a litigation settlement but you are saving the neighborhood and, more importantly I think, helping the Al Madany community find a better location, so this I think is a win-win settlement. It’s a lot of money, but I will support you and defend you because I think you are doing the right thing,” Nolin said.

Pat Conlin, who fought unsuccessfully more than a year ago to keep a senior living center out of New Canaan Avenue property, called for a moratorium on special permits until the zoning regulations can be fixed. She also said she didn’t like the precedent being set.

“The other thing that I am going to say, and anyone who knows me well will probably fall off their chair: You have restored my faith in politicians because if I was a betting person I would have bet tonight, I would have bet tonight hands down, that this was in like Flynn, as the saying goes. I didn’t hear all the particulars as far as costs, but in the long run it’s a cheap price to pay for what might have been and I thank you all very much,” Conlin said.

Kimberly Grimm thanked the council. “I felt very slighted by the Zoning Commission. I felt when we all spoke to you, you all listened,” she said.

She wanted answers to questions, such as, what will the city do with the property?
There were contradictory answers. Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said later that the city would sell it, making it a wash and reducing the total outlay to $1.3 million. Councilwoman Michelle Maggio (R-District C) suggested it could become open space, maybe with trails “for kids who want to do some sightseeing.”

Realtor Joan Dupree said it sounded like the city was paying too much and asked if an appraisal had been done.  Coppola said there had been appraisals. “We determined fair market value based on highest and best use,” Coppola said.

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Concert Hall
The not packed-Concert Hall on Tuesday night.

Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) made the motion for the settlement, then referred to the voluminous amount of information Council members received in executive sessions.

“A lot of us here struggled both ways with mind, heart against each other because we are here with a fiduciary responsibility to try to make sure that our expenditures are wisely spent … but at the same time … we are supposed to protect the little guy. It was a dual argument amongst a lot of ourselves,” Hempstead said.

There are lessons in this, he said.

“I think we all need to understand that tolerance, understanding, working together from Day 1 to have an appropriate place for anybody to worship,” Hempstead said.

Kimmel said there were possible consequences to not settling and referred to the weight of RLUIPA. “There is the possibility of them making a solid argument that … even the large version of the mosque may have indeed corresponded to our zoning regulations. The potential costs of the litigation were quite high, as you probably know,” Kimmel said.

He referred to the remarks about it being a precedent.

“Well, you’re darn right. This is a precedent which we don’t like. We are fearful that it will happen again. The only way to address it is to clean up our zoning regulations so we can have a little bit more control with what happens regarding land use in Norwalk,” Kimmel said.

Councilman Jerry Petrini (R-District D) said Council members listened to the public.

“I am a businessman, looking at the upside and the downside,” Petrini said. “To me, I would rather use your money to work on this settlement whereas, no offense to all the lawyers and everybody that is here, the people who are up here, I think your money would be better placed helping a congregation that has waited patiently and wants to have a place of worship rather than going to court. That is the reason why I am going to sign onto the settlement. I think we have used your money to the best purpose.”

Councilman David Watts (D-District A), who Kimmel accused recently of making it a primary goal to “bring down” Mayor Harry Rilling, lauded the mayor.

“You allowed us as Council members to talk among ourselves without interfering, letting us do what we thought was in the best interest of the city, and then you came in and you showed leadership. I can’t thank you enough,” Watts said to Rilling.

“This was very hard decision,” Councilman John Igneri (D-District E) said. “I strongly support the settlement and I look forward to sleeping again. We spent many hours over weekends and during the week, here until the small hours of the morning.”

A child attends Tuesday's Common Council meeting
A child attends Tuesday’s Common Council meeting in Concert Hall.

Maggio said she had been prepared two weeks ago to vote against the settlement. Two things happened: Hamilton explained RLUIPA and Seyal Kadri made a big impression with his speech at the last council meeting, in which he said Al Madany members had made a big sacrifice to give up the classroom space for their children.

“I have had a huge learning experience through all of this,” Maggio said.

But, “I’m not thanking anyone because I think we all worked equally, Mario, Joe (Williams) and Marci worked the hardest but that was their job,” she said.

The Council is spending a lot of money and setting a terrible precedent, she said.  “The only people that can help us with that is the congressmen who passed (RLUIPA),” she said. “… We are taking the lesser of two evils, we are deciding to settle on this case so that it doesn’t cost the taxpayers more.”

Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) said she had “fully supported the mosque,” but Watts talked her out of it.

“One of the things that we stress on the council, or I stress, is you should respect the person who represents that district and he really represented you all very well,” she said.

“I am very proud of the accomplishments that were made here,” Councilwoman Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) said. “I really am grateful for the outpouring of emails and long conversations. I think that going forward as a community we should be able to work on any projects that we face without a problem at all

Rilling said he is proud of Norwalk.

“We did it right. We discussed things. We respect each other, we worked together and we came up with what we consider to be the best possible solution and worked things out,” Rilling said. “I know that going forward that is how Norwalk will continue to work.”

The vote for the settlement was unanimous.

Green, the outraged citizen, said after the meeting that he felt, going in, that the settlement was a terrible miscarriage of justice. After listening to all of the comments he referred to the movie “Master and Commander,” in which Russell Crowe asks someone to choose between two dinner rolls, each of which has a weevil on it.

“I think that’s what we finally wound up doing, choosing the lesser of the evils that could have been, but it does show the error, the faults, in our zoning laws,” Green said. “End of story.”

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26 responses to “‘Lesser of two evils’ defended in Norwalk Council endorsement of Al Madany settlement”

  1. NorwalkVoter

    Well done Norwalk.

  2. Greene Has to Go.

    There will be no real zoning reform as long as Mike Greene stays in his position. He helped dismantle our regulations and corrupted our planning process over decades, and is unqualified to hold his position. Norwalk is a rare city because it has no controls over building size in residential zones, even though we once did have them before Greene got rid of them. He needs to resign gracefully or be fired if he doesn’t.

  3. Just curious

    It may be the lesser of two evils but why don’t they include the legal costs the city has incurred in the total so the TAXPAYERS know exactly what the total is.We must keep in mind who got us into this mess and make sure they know how we feel come November.

  4. John Hamlin

    This is the only way Norwalk can protect its residents from lawful and compliant but unwanted building and other actions by individual property owners — buy them off. This is the nail in the coffin of any argument that our planning and zoning is effective in Norwalk. Those who have been responsible for it for the past 10 years or so need to be held responsible and sensible reforms need to be instituted.

  5. Sara Sikes

    Maybe I’m missing something, but this looks to me that the only winners are the West Norwalk neighborhood who didn’t want a large institutional building in their neighborhood. Understood, who does? So the City pays the institution $1M+ to NOT build on that parcel in West Norwalk, but no agreement not to build in another neighborhood. It looks like the Council has “kicked the can down the road” with a very large amount of taxpayer dollars that will enrich the legal fund of the Al Madany group.
    Wonder what will happen 6 months from now when they have found another nice residential site?

  6. Piberman

    Lost in the discussion is that when the property was purchased in 2008 the Mosque made known its intention. By not following the customary procedure of speaking to neighbors about its planned zoning submission of a large oversized structure the Mosque apparently early on intended to to pursue its “rights” legally. That strategy was uniquely successful in Norwalk given the capabilities of our elected officials. Whether it’s a “great day” for Norwalk remains to be seen. Perhaps a year from now we’ll have a better appreciation.

  7. Mike Mushak

    I agree with all of the comments above. We need a serious overhaul of the Planning and Zoning Department, with the help of an operational audit by a professional municipal planning consultant, to recommend improvements in how our dysfunctional P and Z as well as our Redevelopment Agency work together as well as internally. We also need staff changes. Anything less that that is just lipstick on a pig, to borrow Sarah Palin’s famous phrase.
    What is fascinating to observe now is how Joe Santo and the Democrats on the Zoning Commission turned out to have made the most sensible decision by voting for the original settlement, which kicked it up to the Council for its approval which had much more leeway in its negotiating abilities, unconstrained by the stricter limits of the federal court on the Zoning Commission. That opened the door to this settlement agreement relocating the mosque off of Fillow St. Imagine if the Republican position to deny the settlement on the Zoning Commission had won out. That would have made Emily Wilson and the 2 other GOP commissioners, and Joe Santo if he had voted the way his party was directing him, responsible for Norwalk immediately entering the federal lawsuit with its October deadline for a settlement, with potential uninsured expenses approaching an estimated $4 million if we won the case and $15 million if we lost, years of anxiety on both sides, and in the end whether we won or lost the case, some variation of the mosque likely getting built on the Fillow St site as all the national experts suggested would happen.
    What a fascinating outcome that along with the bipartisan cooperation of the Common Council, and the steadfast leadership of Mayor Rilling and Mario Coppola, that the Zoning Commissioners Joe Santo, Adam Blank, Nora King, and Nate Sumpter would turn out to be such pivotal players in this real-life legal drama with far reaching implications for entire communities including the long-established and well-respected local Norwalk Muslim community. Amazing.

  8. EveT

    @Sara Sikes, I wondered the same thing. Suppose Al Madany buys the Route 7 land where BJ’s was going to go. Then will Rolling Ridge put up the same legal fight that Stonegate did? Will homeowners still be up in arms because a mosque, even on Route 7, is going to “destroy” their property values?

  9. LWitherspoon

    Sara Sikes asks an excellent question. Suppose six months from now Al Madany finds another lot in a residential neighborhood and draws up plans which are widely regarded as out of scale. Does any part of the settlement head off a repeat of this painful experience?
    How was the $975,000 figure determined and justified? Is $975,000 the amount of money necessary to purchase a significantly larger lot? Is there any assurance that the funds will be used for purchasing a larger lot rather than construction costs?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @L Witherspoon:

      First a correction: The figure is supposed to be $925,000, and has been corrected to match what we reported in our earlier version . The typo got past us. We apologize.

      Second, that money is for “damages,” which would indicate they can use it any way they choose. The $307,500 is for legal expenses, but not legal fees. The $215,000 would not be used for construction.

  10. anon

    This settlement did not settle any legal challenges, it created future ones someplace else.

    If anyone needs to be fired, start with Mario Coppola.

  11. Sara Sikes

    What is the “the customary procedure of speaking to neighbors about its planned zoning submission,” mentioned above? A non-profit residential institution was built across the street from me several years ago. The neighbors got a notice that it was happening long after the official approvals. The notice came from a city department, and I wondered if that was a courtesy?

  12. anonymous

    Wait till they find another piece of property on East Avenue and then we go through this all over again and they get paid $1,000,000 once again. That’s a great way to fund a building project.

    I don’t understand the continued apologizing by the council especially those who commented how wonderful the al madany group is. Nothing like having such a wonderful group like them suing your city and everybody is happy about it??? All council members and Mayor need to resign!

  13. Taxpayer Fatigue

    @EveT: The proposed BJ’s building alone was 4.5 acres in size on what is a 5 acre parcel. The entire Fillow Street parcel is 1.5 acre; they were keeping the house and some green-space buffer, so whatever the size of the proposed Mosque building, it isn’t anywhere even close to the 4.5 acre size of the proposed BJ’s building. 5 acres seems like it ought to be more than enough space if they wanted to build their building on Main Ave. But, I doubt they want to build on congested, unattractive Main Ave and there is a considerable traffic issue that would still have to be considered. The reality is that, even if they built on a 100 acre parcel in Norwalk, there will be some people who object to it because it is a Mosque and they are Muslim.

    The real issue here is that the Mosque representatives went into P&Z before they bought the property and asked if they could build their mosque there. Instead of getting guidance that it may be difficult to get the special permit because of the building size in a residential neighborhood, they got a narrow interpretation of the zoning regulations that said they could build their building there. I don’t blame them for feeling like they were misled – they were. We need to fix our planning and zoning function, which unfortunately, won’t happen under the current leadership of Joe Santo and Emily Wilson. I hope the mayor and the council reduce P&Z’s budget by half until the Zoning Commission finally takes some action.

    The P&Z/Code Enforcement budget for 2014/15 is approximately $1.9M per year. If you reduce it by 50%, we could use the savings to fund the settlement with the Mosque over two years. And, I seriously doubt anyone in the city would notice any difference at all.

  14. Scott

    Are these really the true costs of litigation minus lawyer fees (remember the lawyers were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts)? Sounds like our legal system is just as damaged as P&Z. How on earth can the average person ever have their day in court at that cost. We work the majority of our life to pay for a home which has a far smaller price tag than this.

  15. Mike Mushak

    PIBerman, you make a claim that was disputed by the mosque representatives here on NON. They claimed that they tried to reach out to the neighborhood early on but their requests were mostly ignored. I recall claims on the record that the mosque did meet with neighbors, or at least attempted to, before the original public hearing. I wonder if anyone reading this can confirm what actually happened. Please back up claims like this with verifiable evidence, such as condo boards and neighborhood groups that can prove they were never contacted, or the mosque providing copies of correspondence that were sent but were unanswered, or evidence of meetings that did happen. Otherwise the actual history of this situation will be influenced by conjecture instead of facts, which would not benefit anyone who is working to prevent another controversial situation like this from happening again.

  16. Babs

    So, this means Stonegate, gets no gate? But instead of a 50,000 gate Norwalk now must pay architects and survey ppl, realtors and others on top of the million in damages? Wait, what? A MILLION, in damages? What was damaged? Another half million in legal fees and “relocation assistance”? Gee, hate to rain on the councils parade but that’s a win? For who? For Norwalk? Compared to a possible liability of 15 million. Getn off easy? Really? Here allot about liability and not enough about accountability. How many of us can leave our respective employers with a 15 million liability and a million and a half payout and still expect job security and a pension? Some may think Norwalk has just been taken by the old bump and sue routine. Slam on the brakes and sue the unwitting, unaware guy that hits you. Most awards, the attorney’s get a slice of the pie, usually what 33%? So that means that the attorneys for the planitiff’s are walking away with what, a 600 g’s and change? The plaintiff’s appear to be just passengers on the gold brick road of lawsuit land. Norwalk, you have been taken hook line and sinker. Fortunate you got off easy. tighten up your ship, post haste, sharks smell blood for long long distances.

  17. Screwed Taxpayer

    If the full settlement does not include an agreement that Al Madany must seek a larger than 1.5 acre lot in AAA zone or other reasonable parameters, then Mario Coppola should be fired immediately.
    The city should have even considered paying a few hundred thousand more if it could have been negotiated that way. But, by everything I’m seeing here Al Madany could do this tomorrow. For all we know they might already own another property under another alias. Please. Please tell me someone thought a little bit more about this.

  18. Jlightfield

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the headline read: “Council Saves $10 million, ends costly law suit, buys new open space near Oak Hills.”?
    As with most things, there are multiple ways to look at what this settlement accomplished. And the armchair second-guessing is just part of the that messy democracy process. But let’s put the financial perspective in context, to not settle would result in continuing lawyer fees. A million spent thus far, going to trial is more expensive so, call it double what has been paid thus far and you get to $2 million. So, aside from all the other issues, the council chose to spen $2 million on a different solution that ended the lawsuit rather than $2 million towards lawyers to find out what a judge would say about the case.
    As for the underlying zoning code, the issue here is that our code allows for exceptions in a residential zone for educational and religious uses. Those uses should either be defined more specifically to neighborhood characteristics or not allowed by exception and simple governed by the same regs as that particular zone.
    I specifically want to point put to all your zoning reformists that the educational exception giveth NCC, (how do you like that traffic compared to Costco West Norwalk?) and taketh from sites like Jefferson school (bye-bye basketball and playground, hello trailers). Then there’s the oft-cited traffic concerns of Strawberry Hill which impact residents far more than anyone realizes.

  19. Don’t Panic

    Since the City is offering to assist Al Madany in finding a new location, it would be nice to know what that assistance will look like. How many man-hours of which department’s staff time?
    Also, there better darn well be a city lawyer in the room to supervise any “advice” given by Zoning in connection with any future sites being considered going forward.
    Zoning needs to get with reforming these regs ASAP.

  20. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    Thank you. I hope someone involved in the settlement will comment to you regarding whether there was an attempt by the City to include a provision to avoid a painful repeat of what just happened. There could well be a reason why such a clause could not be included.

  21. John Hamlin

    Other towns have zoning regs and planning and zoning departments (as well as functioning anti-blight ordinances) to protect property owners investment in their properties. It can’t be that mysterious if the many other towns in CT seem to get it right. Norwalk should be able to do the same thing — or at least improve the situation. Unless the interests of those in favor of unfettered rights for individual property owners continue to prevail.

  22. Jlightfield

    @johnhamlin, a functional blight regulation would be awesome. But that would come from an ordinance created by the common council. Who also, along with the Mayor control that funding support for things like enforcement budgets, planning and of course the staffing that makes stuff happen. None of this is mysterious, but it does require the political will of the electeds to fund the budget to support city-wide and neighborhood studies and plans that craft implementation recommendations. That is how other cities and towns get it done.
    There is a committee of the common council called the planning committee. It is not staffed by the city planning department, but rather the redevelopment agency! In other words the City doesn’t look at Rowayton, East Norwalk, West Norwalk, most of South Norwalk etc. in any of its meetings. Tim Sheehan even thinks this is a bad conflict since often the Redevelopment Agency brings plans and projects to the City for approval and yet there is no staff there from the City to vet and protect the city.
    No other city in CT operates like this.

  23. piberman

    Mosques have been built in other CT towns reportedly without litigation and controversy. How did Norwalk mess up grandly ? That’s the question City officials ought to answer to the public. Sooner than later. And before celebrating their “accomplishments”. And maybe the Mosque’s attorneys could explain why their original application for an oversized structure was acceptable. Were they surprised by the rejection or was the “plan” to litigate to Federal Court after an expected rejection ?

  24. Jeff

    If not incorporated within the ordinances already, I would hope that strict or stricter noise restrictions should get embedded in the P&Z code for this specific kind of application. It is still much of a mystery how the mosque could really believe they would not disturb the neighborhood peace with several hundred of doors slamming at 5am in the morning along with other times throughout the day within only a stone’s throw to hundreds of neighbors. Unlike Judeo-Christian places of worship, Isamic practices are somewhat different given the frequency of their call to prayers and the potential frequency of in and out traffic that would result. I would hope in the future that the mosque officials are attentive to good neighbor principals and can balance the needs of finding a desirable place of worship with the surrounding neighborhood rights to peaceful possession

  25. Very Concerned

    Zoning personnel should have their salaries cut 20% immediately to fund the cost for this mess.

    Norwalk taxpayers should not pay the bill.

    As a Norwalk resident, I cannot allow these outrageous salaries to be paid. Also the benefit packages.

    Have you seen the salaries and raises online? This is public information you know.

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