Letter: Mayor should defend the city, not settle mosque suit

To the Editor:

Letters must be signed with your real name and include a contact phone number that will not be published.

I am writing on behalf of Executive Committee of the Norwalk Republican Town Committee. For the record we stand united in demanding that our mayor, Harry Rilling, and the Common Council defend the city, its boards, staff and processes against unfounded and unsubstantiated lawsuits.

As has been pointed out by a number of West Norwalk citizens in letters to the editor over the last few months, the city’s Zoning Commission, acting in a responsible manner, did what any city would have done. It rejected an application based on the inappropriate bulk of the structure, multiple traffic hazards, lack of parking as well as myriad other impacts on the neighborhood and the city as a whole.

As a candidate, Harry Rilling stated he would let the case “run its course,” yet now barely seven months into his term, the case is reported as near settlement. Hiding behind a corporation counsel who will argue whatever side of a case he is paid to, the mayor has moved to “settle” the case, rather than defending the interests of our city. We might support a settlement that did limit the height and bulk of the proposed structure, limited the parking onsite, and ensured safe traffic on Fillow and North Taylor, but only if such a settlement also included an admission that the city did nothing wrong and a reparation payment from the mosque for the city’s fees and expenses. But such a settlement seems doubtful.

More than likely, Mayor Rilling’s settlement will consist of just the opposite. The mosque will be built largely as it was initially proposed, and the city will be the one apologizing. This is inappropriate, and sets the stage for further disaster. What group wouldn’t want to submit an outrageously inappropriate application and then find a contingency lawyer to get them a settlement and a payday?

This mosque may or may not get built, but the city will now certainly be an attractive target for spurious lawsuits by the dozen. Beyond the financial effects of that precedent, which will affect us all, no doubt, the preservation and protection of our neighborhoods and citizens will now not be sacrosanct. If the mayor won’t stand behind Kendall and West Norwalk, how are we to believe he will ever protect and preserve Rowayton, Cranbury or East Norwalk.

The city’s processes worked. There was no religious bias, and the case needs to be defended. If a modification of the plan were to be submitted, or an appeal made on the basis of zoning issues rather than unsupportable claims of racism, the process would deal with those eventualities. Dropping the city’s defense and yielding to legal pressure for the mere sake of a settlement at the expense of our neighborhoods is not good governance and is beyond belief and beyond the pale.

Executive Committee, RTC

Peter Torrano

Chairman, Republican Town Committee


61 responses to “Letter: Mayor should defend the city, not settle mosque suit”

  1. John Hamlin

    If there’s a legitimate reason to settle the mosque lawsuit, no one has been able to articulate it yet.

  2. Suzanne

    Really, Mr. Torrano, a lot of grandstanding and speculation without any facts as to the outcome. The place you should be pointing to, instead of this politicized comment toward the mayor and corporate counsel, is where the problem lies to begin with: zoning regulations that have no backbone. But, I suspect, that would not be as inflammatory as playing the partisanship card.
    No one wants the mosque where it has been planned to my knowledge or, maybe, to the best of my or your knowledge for that matter, because the process is sealed. That it could possibly exist on the site proposed and we can all see the problems with that? I think it is just silly you don’t think the mayor, the counsel, and the rest of the population can’t see that or believe, somehow, any Mayor would cave against the best interests of the City. He is between a rock and a hard spot, I guess that’s the perfect place for you to write this “out of the mud” letter.
    Likewise, what can be done legally is filled by you with “apparently”‘s, “maybe”‘s, “perhap”s, etc., because you, in fact, don’t know what is going to happen. To believe or speculate that the mayor is going to roll over in spite of citizen concerns shows your duties to partisanship, a far lesser value than the protection of the city.
    In my home town, people would say, “Hold your horses.” I would say, instead of trying to bet against whatever eventuality you have in mind, you might want to “hold your pen” until some actual results of a protracted legal process are known. Then, try listening. You might learn why this situation has ended up the way it has instead of speculating from behind your desk.

  3. piberman

    Br virtue of its majority control of the Common Council the Norwalk GOP can certainly “encourage” Mayor Rilling to protect the valid and long standing zoning regulations. The studied “silence” of Norwalk’s Democratic leadership on the mosque zoning issue hasn’t gone unnoticed. Mayor Rilling’s “indecision” on the zoning issue may well ensure a return of GOP control of City politics.

  4. EveT

    Perhaps Mayor Rilling has read Mark Twain: “”It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

  5. One and Done.

    Suzanne, zoning regulations may not have backbone for those who can’t see common sense in front of their noses. But, we expect our mayors to have backbone. It is his job. No one forced him into it. If he can’t do it, we’ll show him the door next year.

  6. Mea

    There is a historic home on this location that will likely be demolished. This is not a good sign for any attempts at preserving Norwalk’s history.

  7. Mark Barnes

    Suzanne, what grandstanding? All of the things in Mr. Torrano’s letter have already come out in the press, including here on Nancy. Zoning Regulations with no backbone? They apparently have enough backbone that they were grounds to reject the inappropriate development. The Al-Maddany group didn’t even appeal the zoning decision, they claimed racial discrimination.

  8. Paul Thomas

    The only thing that isn’t in the public is the settlement itself. The process was open and so was the Corporation Counsel’s motion to go into settlement. Did he do that behind the mayor’s back or based on direct orders?

  9. Carlos Sanchez

    I supported the mayor in the election. I stopped supporting him when he lied at Fox Run School and said that a judge ordered us into this settlement. Judges can’t order you into settlement, and since then it has been clear that corporation counsel made a motion and begged to get into the settlement.

    Grandstanding is taking credit for the accomplishments of the previous administration. Grandstanding is showing up for every possible for photo opportunity. Grandstanding is unfortunatley all that this mayor can do.

    Sticking up for West Norwalk is not Grandstanding…it is what all elected officials should be doing.

  10. Dee Odom

    Anyone else think that Suzanne sounds like she is Donna King? Nancy…is her IP address City Hall?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Dee Odom

      The guessing game is alawys fun, and we do not divulge the names of our commenters, but we will say that Suzanne is absolutely not Donna King.

  11. Suzanne

    Methinks Thou All Doth Protest too Much. (“Play” on Hamlet.)
    A bunch of blather signifying nothing. No one can wait but a lot can speculate and condemn the Mayor before any result. Any concept drawing I have seen has shown the historic house preserved, BTW, Mea.
    “For the record we stand united in demanding that our mayor, Harry Rilling, and the Common Council defend the city, its boards, staff and processes against unfounded and unsubstantiated lawsuits.”
    I would call such a statement grandstanding. Verbose and only to emphasize the self-righteous nature of the obvious message. Is there anyone in the population that agrees we should all accede to frivolous law suits?
    Zoning: Has RLUIPA ever been addressed by the Zoning Commission before? http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php Shouldn’t there be something on the books about this? If you haven’t gone toe to toe with Zoning regarding inappropriate development, especially in more rural neighborhoods, you don’t know how limited our Zoning laws are. When was the last time they were reviewed and re-written based upon current town conditions? I heard it was the 70’s but even if it was in the 90’s, there are far more serious land use issues in Norwalk that need current, 21st Century Zoning laws.
    One and Done, I propose you show the Mayor the door next year and you be the one to walk through it. Perhaps this will then inform you of the nonpartisan, pragmatic issues you will have to hold in the face of rife partisanship. What will be the best for Norwalk?
    I am a citizen of West Norwalk. I have gone toe to toe with Zoning in the past to protect our neighborhood to no avail. State reports, Federal Studies, it did not matter. The developer was the priority party. If you think that will be any different with the mosque, I wish you good sleep and good dreams.

  12. Benthere Donethat

    My guess is that Suzanne is really Dorothy Mobilia. Am I close?

    1. Mark Chapman


      No, and that is the last I will say on the topic.

  13. West Norwalk Neighbor

    Pete Torrano is missing something here. It was reported here on Nancy on Norwalk that it is the Norwalk zoning commission’s Republican Chair Joe Santo and Republican Co-Chair Emily Wilson who are actually negotiating the settlement with the mosque. That has nothing to do with the mayor. Emily Wilson is currently running in the upcoming GOP primary against Fred Wilms for Larry Cafero’s seat in the 142nd District.

    Any questions or complaints about any eventual settlement should be directed at the Republican leadership of the zoning commission who are settling this case in federal court, and not at Mayor Rilling who has no control over the decisions of the US Justice Department, which is directing the settlement. This is an unfair attack on Mayor Rilling by Pete Torrano, who does not know what he is talking about. If he continues to attack the mayor publicly over this issue with patently untrue statements like he has made here, there may be serious legal repercussions.

    As reported here on Nancy on Norwalk, it was the Norwalk Republican Town Committee who made up that slanderous attack flyer last year that insulted Muslims as a sleazy political stunt, that Emily Wilson and David McCarthy distributed door to door to voters in the Common Council race (while Emily Wilson was still the chair of the zoning commission.) McCarthy won by a slim margin and Wilson lost, which is why Wilson is still on the Commission leading the settlement of the case, along with Joe Santo.

    There were many who thought that flyer represented a clear case of religious discrimination, which many heard was submitted as evidence. Ironically this flyer may be connected to why the city has to settle this case instead of going to court and risking taxpayers up to tens of millions in damages if the city lost, which has happened before in similar cases around the country. The truth is the original application followed all the zoning codes, which many people forget, including its size on the property. Pete Torrano should be demanding the code be changed if he is so concerned about protecting Norwalk from projects like this.

  14. Dave McCarthy

    To “West Norwalk Neighbor” …Zoning Commissioners do not negotiate settlements with litigants, that is the responsibility of the City’s Corporation Counsel under the direction of the mayor.

    The flyer that made its way during the last election was perfectly correct and all too prescient in that it predicted exactly what is happening now, Fred. There was nothing related to religion in that flyer and it was created well after the case was filed, so it could not possibly have any impact on the case.

    You should also know that I won handily, even with a shift at the top of the ticket away from our party. Emily, in her first race, lost by a slight margin to someone who was an incumbent.

  15. isabelle hargrove

    @West Norwalker. I am just an average Norwalker with no legal training; I am only interested in the welfare of my neighborhood. However, I feel compelled to make the following points…

    I just re-read the flier distributed by the republicans during last election and I dare you to show readers what passage in the flyer “insults Muslims” or “represented a clear case of religious discrimination”. It is quite frankly absurd to state that this flyer could play even a tiny part in this lawsuit.

    Attorney Coppola works for city hall and represents the city in the settlement. Coppola takes his cue from his boss, Mr. Rilling. The mayor and common council will be the ones voting on any monetary pay out, not zoning members.

    Finally, Zoning cannot vote on a settlement in any lawsuit brought to the city. Below is what the zoning commission voted on November 29, 2012. They did not vote to settle, they voted that SHOULD a settlement be reached by the city (ie, Mayor and common council), they would allow for zoning approval. Motion passed 6-1, not listing who the dissenting vote was. See below from public records:

    ** MR. BLANK MOVED: BE IT RESOLVED that subject to an agreement
    on the terms and conditions of the final settlement agreement, we consent to
    allow for zoning approval for the mosque and accessory use building.
    ** MOTION PASSED (6-1)
    I am not sure why you are so adamant at trying to damage Ms. Wilson’s record, but this is very disingenuous!

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Isabelle Hargrove

      Here is a link to the settlement worked out and written with the participation of Emily Wilson and referred to in your comment. Also, the mayor does not get a vote on any payouts or settlements except in the case of a tie on the Council. While the Zoning Commission voted to approve, 6-1, it wa rejected by the mayor and Council and is not likely to be the settlement that would be agreed upon now — if, indeed, there is an agreement.

      1. Mark Chapman

        @ Isabelle Hargrove, et al…

        Emily Wilson contacted me at about 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 9, to say she has “neither authored nor sponsored any settlement of a lawsuit brought against the City of Norwalk, and that am precluded from saying more given court confidentiality.”

        It has been reported since 2012 that Wilson authored or participated in the authoring of the original non-binding settlement that was accepted by the Zoning Commission on a 6-1 vote but was never signed, as then-Mayor Richard Moccia dismissed the outside attorney and opted for the current lawyer, Marci A. Hamilton , described in an online bio as “one of the United States’ leading church/state scholars.”

  16. Peter Torrano

    Been away most of the day and just read some of the comments. Clearly there is division among the readers of NoN as to what is fact and what is speculation. The letter I submitted was reviewed and edited and in some areas changed by members of the executive committee. So, even though I have signed it as the RTC chairman, it is with the backing of the entire executive committee which is comprised of me, the RTC vice chairman, all five district chairmen, all five vice chairmen, secretary, etc. (possibly minus one after reading comments from West Norwalk Neighbor, although I’m not sure of that persons identity).

    I stand by the content of the letter, and reject the condescending notion that it is politically motivated and an attack on the mayor. It is simply what we understand to be true, in support of our neighbors in West Norwalk, and I believe what was written will be borne out over the next few months.

    As for the attack on some elected officials of the Republican Party by West Norwalk Neighbor, which seemed to be the real reason for that persons response instead of a defense of our mayor and corporation counsel, I can only say that it was done in an effort to discredit Ms. Wilson in her party-nominated campaign for the 142nd Legislative District. I sincerely hope it was done without the knowledge of her primary candidate, and if it was not with his knowledge, I hope that he will speak out on these pages to separate himself from the slanderous and politically motivated comments made toward her and Councilman McCarthy.

  17. Suzanne

    Mr. Torrano, Congratulations. You play your role very well. It would be so nice, however, if you kept the politicking out of this issue and WAIT for the REALITY to be realized. I guess the Republican Planet, in this case, just refuses to come back to orbit. The fact that all those committees and executive councils, etc., etc., vetted your letter only shows that small minds do, in fact, think alike. Your mind, however, has shown so much more promise in the past. What a disappointment.

  18. isabelle hargrove

    I am glad the Republican leadership is taking a public stand at this time. Now is the time to speak up, not after the fact! I am not interested in dissecting the “what went wrong” if a bad settlement is approved. I want to prevent it from happening and I welcome the help of Mr. Torrano and the RTC executive committee.

    Mr. Rilling was elected to represent us and we all need to let him know how we want to be represented. We also need to let the common council know their electorate is opposed to ANY settlement that would suggest the city did anything wrong and hand out monetary damages with our tax dollars. The Republican majority caucus of the common council now knows where their party stands and they will hopefully work with Mayor Rilling to make sure our voice is heard and that this groundless lawsuit does not set a damaging precedent for our city.

  19. isabelle hargrove

    @mark Chapman
    The link you just provided is not what I was referring too. I am not sure what this is since is it not signed or dated. It appears to be a proposal but doesn’t even identify whose terms these were and whether anyone ever agreed to them…Is this part of some official records? If so, I would want to see the link to not just a random PDF file but official records and minutes…
    And if this was really on the table, thank goodness Moccia turned it down! Although I am now really confused… Moccia needed to approve a settlement or had the power to turn it down, but now Rilling, in the same job, has nothing to do with a settlement??

    Here is the link I referenced earlier. It is the official record of the minutes and votes published by the city and you posted it on your site as well. The lingo on there seems clear, it is not a vote to settle but to work on zoning approval SHOULD a settlement be approved by the city and no settlement is included.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Isabelle Hargrove

      The link is to the settlement proposal referred to in the document you posted. We obtained a copy of it at the time. It was not signed because the city’s outside attorney was replaced by then-Mayor Moccia. The current outside legal team is the one Moccia hired. The mayor can decide who the city hires to represent it, but does not have the power to make a final decision on any settlement agreement. It is, indeed, a confusing situation, made more so by the court’s gag order forbidding the involved parties from talking about it.

  20. Peter Torrano


    Is it possible for you to have a conversation, agree or disagree with someone and not be dismissive of the other person’s point of view? And please lose the hatred you have for those who don’t think like you. The party of the “big tent” and its politicians, which you seem so often ready to rabidly defend is the one I can only assume you belong to. So behave like a member of that party and be willing to accept a view and/or belief that differs from yours, as right as you may be convinced that you are. My name is clearly posted with my submissions to this site and others. Yours is not. Easy to hide behind a fake name and toss bombs at any and everyone you disagree with. After all, you can never be held accountable for your words if nobody knows of your identity. There is a word for that type of behavior. I’m certain you know what it is.

  21. Dennis DiManis

    Vote out every single person who participated in this settlement.

  22. EDR

    Doesn’t anyone find the a potential settlement just s little hypercritical? On the one hand we have elected and appointed officials working tireleslly to stop the development of BJ’s on Main Avenue because of its size, traffic concerns, parkimg deck etc. They wanted to “protect”‘the residents in the neighborhoods that surround that development. On the other hand we have a 20,000 sf development in clearly a residential neighborhood that is way to big for its site has horrible traffic site lines and was turned down because of legitimate zoning concerns. Should not the city apply it’s zoning regulations with some consistency?

    This is not about freedom of religion but about putting a massive building with a parking deck on a one acre lot in a heavily residential neighborhood. Oh yea it has an historic house on itoo! I must be missing something. I wish someone could set the record straight for me.

    For the city to settle this lawsuit is insulting on so many levels I cannot even count. The next time some one of import elected, appointed or otherwise argues about land use I am going to have a good laugh because they really do not mean it.

  23. Suzanne

    Mr. Torrano, You classify my responses as hateful. Yet, this letter simply repeats a known longstanding position by the Republicans, does not serve the Norwalk citizenry in anyway but to inflame an already large fire of concern and callously uses politics to anticipate something for which the full repercussions are not known. It is easy to call someone a “hater” when they disagree with you but I am not the one in a position of potential service here. You are. What about your letter serves the constituency other than to provide a determined, puffed up slap at the Mayor on the opposite side of the aisle? It is a needless polemic that is not civil. I would say the same thing for the Democratic Party if they, likewise, flew off the handle with a statement that is: 1. a well known position 2. speculates about an issue for which there is no resolution as yet 3. rallies your party to a dismissive and radicalized position with no foundation 4. shows little self-control over the political perspective rather than being one of service and patience that would truly serve the citizenry. All I am saying, in spite of my last comment which was, admittedly an ad hominem statement, play nice. Be of service. Because I disagree with you? That is what these threads are for. That I am able to make my comments freely? Given the reaction by you and others who disagree with what I have to say, I am very comfortable with protecting myself with my privacy and from the rancor.

  24. Tim D

    @Mr Torrano – Suzanne is typical of today’s liberal ideology -disagree at all with them they shout you down, they attack you and give no room for general exchange of ideas. You penned a letter that was of your belief, right or wrong, and you got a response that was to be expected. Thank you for speaking out.

  25. Suzanne

    It is not liberal nor conservative to disagree. It is what our country is all about. That this makes some uncomfortable is unfortunate but that is the land we live in. I would bet that if a Democrat or any other party placed a letter with which the Republicans disagree, the rant would be even louder. No one has the corner on self righteousness here but everyone has the freedom of speech. That I happen to disagree with this political letter positioned to condemn the Mayor whatever he does and without foundation as to the conclusion of the issue? This is a transparent attempt to regain the Mayor’s seat by the Republicans – whatever the conclusion they can point and say, “See, you need a Republican! The Mayor is ineffective!” This view has been spoken so loudly, it resounds across the community. We don’t need to hear it anymore unless it is to serve the political gain of one party and that is what this is. As a citizen of West Norwalk, I am highly skeptical that it has anything to do with our welfare. I can have that opinion. Mr. Torrano and I can disagree. That does not mean I am a liberal, uncivil, or on any particular side of an aisle.

  26. Oldtimer

    To claim a letter from the RTC chairman, criticizing the idea of a settlement to a lawsuit and trying to find some way to blame the mayor when a federal court judge ordered discussions about (only discussion, not a settlement) a possible settlement before Mayor Rilling was elected, is not a political attack is ludicrous. Of course it is political, that is what Town committee chairman do, some better than others. Don’t feel bad, you will get better with practice. I fully expect you to criticize the mayor for the next really bad weather event, it is part of your job, sadly.

  27. The Aga Khan

    I have studied this situation for years and have spoken to the principles on both sides of the issue. I am compelled to make a few points:

    1. To put it bluntly: Emily Wilson is lying. While it is technically true that she did not author the resolution adopted by the zoning commission in 2012(Norwalk’s outside counsel did) and she did not sponsor the resolution (Adam Blank did) she was much more involved than she lets on. Ms. Wilson was the Chair of the Commission in 2012, and in this capacity attended the mediation in Hartford held by the federal magistrate. She actively participated in the session and agreed to its outcome namely that the Commission would approve the mosque’s plan as presented and that the City would pay the mosque $100K to compensate them for the expense of filing a federal lawsuit. The resolution would not have been authored or presented to the Commission unless she had agreed to that form of resolution at the mediation session.

    Turning to the resolution itself, a close reading will inform the educated reader that it was authored in such a way to give authority to the city’s lawyers to negotiate a settlement. Neither the city’s attorneys nor the mosques want the zoning commission to take another vote. Rather they want the federal judge to issue a judgment ordering the City to issue the permit. This is called a consent order. It’s the same way the civil rights cases such as housing discrimination or school segregation are settled. (More on civil rights later).

    Also important to note that Wilson voted for the resolution. She has argued that the lawyers told her to vote for it but this is disingenuous on two counts. First as above she is the one who negotiated and consented to the terms in mediation, and secondly if she truly disagreed with it she should have voted against it. The only person to vote against the resolution was Joe Santo, the former chair.

    Having negotiated, endorsed in front of a federal judge, and voted for it, Wilson, (and McCarthy, and the Republican Party) had the audacity to claim in the 2013 election that it was Rilling who had just joined commission was a supporter. Poor Rilling was not there for the hearings or the mediation so if anyone should have an excuse to hide behind lawyers it would be him. The flyer itself hurt Norwalk’s case and was brought into evidence to support the mosque’s claim of discrimination. (More on this)

    Even in the current round of negotiations Wilson has been present during the court ordered mediation session multiple times. She has actively participated in formulating the City’s position.

    So simply put Wilson is a best being cute with the truth, or less charitably speaking lying. Norwalk voters should question whether they want someone like her representing them in Hartford. If she is going to lie and obfuscate the truth about a series of events that are easily verifiable then voters should not be surprised when she misrepresents her views on important legislative issues.

  28. The Aga Khan

    2. Let now turn to Mr. Torrano’s characterization of this lawsuit as “Rilling’s Settlement” In reality it would be more apt to call it a “Republican Settlement”. Why? Because bother the Zoning Commission and the Common Council are controlled by Republicans.

    The only powers Mayor Rilling has is to instruct Mario Copolla, the city’s lawyer to negotiate a proposed set of terms and to place the item on the the agenda of the Common Council. Any conditions pertaining to a Zoning special permit have to be accepted by the Zoning Commission which Rilling doesn’t sit on. Any monies that have to be allocated to the mosque would have to be voted on by the Common Council. Mayor Rilling doesn’t have a vote on the Common Council. So the only power the mayor has is that of the bully pulpit. It is the Republicans who hold both the keys to the zoning permit as well as the power of the purse.

    Now having said that the informed reader may ask how did Mayor Moccia block the first settlement negotiated in 2012? The answer is that he probably over-stepped his authority. This is why the outside attorney at the time wrote directly to the members of the Common Council telling them it was their decision to vote on the money not the mayor’s. Nothing happened because our Common Council members either were asleep at the wheel (Watts), didn’t care (igneri), are Islamophobic idealogues (McCarthy) or wanted to issue to blow up in Mayor Moccia’s face (Pena)

    Indeed in financial terms it has. What would have once cost the city $100K is now going to cost the City close to $1 million. Recall at the beginning of the year that NonN reported that the City’s legal bill was close to $300K. One can safely assume that the mosque has spent that much as well. And in the intervening 7 months the amount has grown. Remember we are not including other costs that the city has incurred like hiring a traffic expert of its own planning expert (because apparently Mike Green and Mike Wrinn weren’t up to the task)

    So really the matter is in the Republicans’ court. They can either settle now and it’ll cost the a cool million, or they can gamble and hope that Norwalk won’t be on the hook for several million. The Republicans may be looking to pre-emptively pin this on Rilling and in reality vote this through because it makes good fiscal sense.

  29. One and Done.

    Sorry Khan. Rilling owns this one.
    There is one and only one person who could have initiated the settlement proceedings and that is Harry.
    Fortunately for us the council would have to accept the settlement.
    Unfortunately for us your average jellyfish has more backbone.

  30. One and Done.

    A smart executive who cares would be battling the court of public opinion and behind the scenes seeking out heavy media exposure to what is an obvious farce. An executive who values self preservation first and wants to sit on both sides of the fence would do exactly what Harry is doing now.

  31. RU4REAL

    Thank you sounds right Mr. Khan, all verifiable, maybe some folks should check the facts, do a little homework before posting! Has NoN heard any of the above?

    1. Mark Chapman

      We have heard many things off the record and not for publication. We have heard other things that have proven to be in question or just wrong. Some of this post is new to us. Some lines up with what we have heard, but we have no way to verify it as fact. Not knowing who is behind the post, we have no way of knowing how much credibility to give it. And NO ONE is going on the record with any details, as per the court.

  32. The Aga Khan

    3. Let me continue fellow citizens of Norwalk with my observations and get to the heart of the matter — the lawsuit. The city’s fatal flaw is that it chose at all points in this matter to ignore the federal law that governs land use by religious organizations — the Religious Land Use and Institutional Prisoners Act (RLUIPA).

    A bit of background, Norwalk is not the only place in the country where religious groups were being denied special permits because of size and traffic concerns. In the 1990s this really began to affect evangelical churches. So the Republicans (surprise!) teamed up with Sen. Ted Kennedy (strange bedfellow but Catholic) to create a law which would allow religious organizations to trump local zoning regulations. The courts have upheld it because the law is meant to protect the religious exercise rights of churches in the face of local ordinances.

    The law basically says two things. First city’s can’t treat religious developers differently than secular developers. So if you allow something for homeowners, condo builders, restaurants or golf courses you have to allow it for the religious developer as well. Obviously you also can’t favor one religious group over another.

    Second if a religious organization can show that their practice of religion has been “burdened” by a denial, then it’s up to the city to show that they were trying to achieve an important interest and that the least restrictive way to achieve this interest was through the denial.

    An educated observer of the proceedings will recognize that the mosque met all of the required regulations (size, height, setback parking). The zoning commission has admitted this. They argue though that the have discretion under the special permit rules to deny the application. Given RLUIPA’s structure that doesn’t seem so. The city has to show an important interest and it doesn’t have one because all regulations have been met. The mosque will show that the 9 reasons offered by the Commission are simply pre-textual ie bogus.

    Second a close reading of the mosques complaint shows that the city has treated other religious congregations and secular buildings differently than the mosque by applying different rules and making allowances.

    When the mosque won the motion to dismiss hearing in November 2013 the judge basically told the city in open court that the allegations were sufficient given the evidence that was presented at the time. Game. Set. Match. Over.

    The mosque would still have to connect the dots but I think they have enough to do so.

    As NonN report in Mt Vernon a church won its lawsuit and the city had to pay $6 million in legal fees. Instead of wearing ideological blinders Norwalkers have to accept that the Zoning Commission […] this one up royally.

    There is a reason why people shouldn’t be Chairperson for 20 years or the head of a department for 30. its because you get too set in your ways or arrogant to learn how the world is changing.

    This comment was edited to removed offensive language.

  33. Don’t Panic

    If you take or the NEON implosion and the spats at the BOE, it seems zoning decisions are at heart of more controversy here in Norwalk than anything else.
    It is time to fix an arrangement that is failing the city so badly. We have been lucky up until now that it hasn’t cost us like the mosque suit is going to cost us.

  34. One and Done.

    Aga Khan looked over one silly little fact. At a hair over 1 acre the lot is too small. Take a look at St. Matthews. What is that, like 6 acres? Synagogue on Richards about 4? The city should appeal this to the highest authority in the land if necessary. Unfortunately out leadership is too spineless to do what is right regardless of their political stripes.

  35. jlightfield

    @The Aga Khan Your description of the religious exemption law is spot on. However it’s interesting to note that Norwalk hasn’t updated its zoning code concerning exemptions in residential zones for religious and educational facilities. This was an important issue to the zoning commission prior to 2010. While the mosque represents the latest iteration of the problem, there have been others. It is clear that when the exemption was allowed in AAA zones, the intent in allowing the exemptions was predicated on limited operations e.g. not open for business 7 days a week 20 hours a day etc.
    Many of the issues that affect the quality of life in exclusively residential neighborhoods center on traffic, lighting, and noise. Everything from adding lights to ball fields, to running a day care facility changes the time and intensity of operations of any educational or religious building. This was the gist of zoning commission discussions in late 2009/early 2010, particularly since the the commission had recently approved an expansion of a church on Bayne and had concerns about the many of the issues brought up during the application that indicated that a review of the regulation was in order.
    Alas the efforts to review and revise the zoning code to reflect the trend of 24/7 operations of the modern educational and religious businesses was never taken up.

  36. Suzanne

    jlightfield, Isn’t there an existing Council or Committee examining/reviewing existing Zoning Regulations for revision?

  37. One and Done.

    @JLightfield. Please explain exactly why Norwalk or any city for that matter is required to make every single negative assertion under the sun to protect itself. The plot is too small for the intended use. Period. That’s enough for me. Lawyers be damned.

  38. jlightfield

    @Suzanne the Zoning Commission is a legislative body. It decides to review its own regulations. Other entities, like Redevelopment can recommend changes, but only the Zoning Commission can change its own regulations.

    @One and Done, I’m not sure what you are asking. The zoning code in question is outdated and should have been revised. imho, this is no different than revising the conservation easement regulation that allows for non contiguous space to be counted, or allow for underground development in a conservation area.

  39. Suzanne

    Thank you, jlightfield. So, is the Zoning Commission reviewing its regulations for changes to more current town needs?

  40. Aga Khan

    Gentle citizens of Norwalk, if you will allow me a few responses to the above discussion:

    1) there are a lot of people who think that 1.5 acres is too small for a 27,000 square ft building and parking, but unfortunately these opinions aren’t worth the virtual toilet paper they are printed on. all that matters is does the mosque plan conform to the regulations. It does.

    2. Ms. Lightfield, perhaps you should consider running for mayor? But that’s a different topic. Back to the issue at hand, I would argue that even if the mosque chose to build in an area where houses of worship are not allowed the mosque would still win. The courts in the 2nd circuit have almost never found an important govt interest that outweighs a church’s proof of burden. In fact the DOJ has sued cities that restrict where churches can be built.

    Speaking of which we’ve forgotten that the DOJ is waiting in the wings to enter the case if the settlement falls through. In Norwalk vs USDOJ who is your bet on?

  41. Mr. Ludlow

    Anyone else concerned that confidential settlement talks have been leaked?

    West Norwalk Neighbor suggests that Emily Wilson is at fault for taking the advice of the attorneys hired by Mayor Moccia to resolve the problems created by a commission appointed predominately by the same Mayor Moccia? If he wants to claim that Wilson lacks political courage, then that’s what he should say. Problem is that Wilson’s opponent has habitually demonstrated confusion between boldly standing behind his gross exaggerations and having the strength of one’s convictions– unless, that is, the strength Wilson’s opponent has demonstrated in his public life is measured by his gall.

  42. One and Done.

    @Aga Khan. My money would be on the city. The parcel is too small and on too busy of an intersection. Either you lack basic common sense or have never even seen the lot. This isn’t anything like the ground zero mosque fight. Only an idiot would think this building is a good fit for the spot they want it.

  43. One and Done.

    @JLightfield. With all due respect, red means stop, green means go, and yellow means speed up. Laws and regs don’t need to be complex or modernized to have effect. What does AAA maximum building area of 25% mean? Someone less sophisticated might think that means 1/4th of 1.5 acres or about 15,000 SF. That’s a little less than 27,000. We get that you feel slighted and no one else in the city is as smart as you when it comes to zoning, but please be objective here.

  44. The Aga Khan

    @oneanddone look at the plans that were submitted. You’ll find that the footprint of the building is less than 15,000. However the extra space is because there are two floors.

    I’ll repeat this again folks. What you consider to be too big for the parcel or place at a “busy” or “dangerous” intersection is entirely irrelevant. The only pertinent question is what to the regulations say.

    If it fits they can build (apologies to Johnny Cochrane)

  45. The Aga Khan

    Oh one more the @oneanddone if the city can win, why was the first attorney so disparate to settle that he would do something lawyers never ever do — write an open letter against the mayor. The proof is in the pudding as they say, so far the city has lost a motion to kill the lawsuit. The question is do we really want them to burn our money and build on that record?

  46. jlightfield

    @suzanne the last regulation change they initiated that I remember concerned contractor yards.
    @aga khan the case law on religious institutions and zoning is rather interesting these days because of RLUIPA but I would say that the outcomes have been mixed. There is a certain amount of judicial leeway in determining what is the meaning of discriminatory thus far nationally, enough to have generated guidelines on how to review zoning code for RLUIPA issues.
    @One and Done- to the colorblind, red and green are gray. And yellow, means the signal is about to change, and according to Connecticut traffic law it means you should stop.
    But this non sequitor merely amuses. Which despite your kindly assessment of my state of mind; “smart and slighted”, it is in fact amused. Highly amused. 🙂

  47. Suzanne

    No, jlightfield, I mean REVIEWING ALL zoning regulations, not piecemeal enhancements of what exists.
    I think it is time for a comprehensive look at land use and regulatory changes.
    If a 3500 square foot house can be put over stilts on what some have described as a 15 foot wide piece of land surrounded by water and a mosque can be placed at a dangerous intersection, with the anticipation that many cars will be coming and going and attendance at the structure is expected, and a 100,000 square foot building can be potentially erected on a lot recommended for a 10,000 square foot building, something is very, very wrong with the current regulations as they stand with Zoning.
    When a five acre parcel hard by the Five Mile River wanted to be developed by an influential developer in this town, he got every variance he needed to install five houses, denude the woods and push the setbacks to the maximum allowable.
    I maintain that a single person wanting to do exactly the same thing, without the developer influence of a Seligson, a Beinfield or the deep pockets of a BJ’s or, currently a GGP, would be denied access to what they would wish to accomplish based on Zoning “regulations”.
    Yet, serious consideration is given to these developments and, even if they maintain the Zoning Regulation status quo, those regulations do not examine the overall picture of traffic mitigation and the environment much less what needs there are for our Town.
    Another example? Lowe’s. Catty-corner from the very large newly built Fire Department facility. There is traffic exiting Lowe’s, there is a major emergency on I-95 or East Norwalk or South Norwalk or Route 1 – where is that traffic from Lowe’s going to go. Right through residential neighborhoods. But, Lowe’s, another big box representing progress (?) to Norwalk Zoning is going up.
    Everyone can snap their fingers and look to anyone else for the responsibility of the problems that continually are exacerbated by these wrong-headed Zoning approved developments.
    Variances or no, the regulations are not appropriate for the development and shrinking land mass that is Norwalk. Zoning needs to grow up.

  48. The Aga Khan

    @jackielightfield respectfully the controlling 2nd Cir. decision says that a zoning denial can be “burdensome” without being discriminatory. Everyone is so defensive around the claim of discrimination (which in this case means being treated differently than other a applicants) that they forget about the burden aspect of RLUIPA. Remember that all the mosque has to do to win is show that their practice of religion was burdened. They don’t have to show discrimination, that’s just icing on the cake.

    So to conclude the City (and everyone else here) needs to think about “burden” and what it means in this context.

  49. Flip Wilms

    Complicated legal issues can’t be reduced to the bumper sticker slogans of “West Norwalk Neighbor”.
    But if Wilms wants to make Wilson’s time on zoning an issue, then his time on the BET is fair game. Let’s talk about all the inflated budgets he approved that raised our taxes.

  50. One and Done

    Aga Khan unwittingly lays out the reason why the mosque would lose (except for some spineless politicians). There is no burden. They can go worship at any of the other ones in Fairfield county. The ground zero mosque was rejected on bias and that battle is almost going on ten years now with the mosque proponents not getting their way. Norwalk has a legitimate claim on the usage. All it would take is a leader who cares more about the people he is leading than his own image.

  51. Oyster

    Suzanne is right. We have Zoning concerned with the movement of a flower pot and parking in setbacks, but not with setbacks from precious wetlands. Its crazy.

  52. Jlightfield

    @suzanne while a rewrite of the entire zoning code is a great idea and one that I’ve been advocating for some time, it can only be adopted by the zoning commission. If there is no interest there then it won’t get done. One of the reasons it is difficult to get that particular appointed board to focus on its own code is that the volume of applications it reviews is pretty heavy. Partly because so much code is convoluted enough that it requires review which ironically is why the code needs an update. And I would be remiss in not mentioning that the majority of political peeps want to keep it just that way.
    Norwalk is comprised of hundreds of neighborhoods that have very different looks. There are many communities where the existing houses are right next to each other and fill up the entire property and yet that is exactly what contributes to the charm and uniqueness of the neighborhood. You can see this is many waterfront neighborhoods because that is how they were historically built. While the controversy currently going on in the farm creek area continues, it is happening in a neighborhood where little cottages have been replaced with McMansions that each has been “fought” over with nearly everyone following the tired reasoning that when they built it was okay but the next house will be the destroyer of property values and kill someone’s views. The reality is when you attempt to craft a new zoning reg to prevent the latest iteration of what some don’t like, you can end up bringing a whole bunch of other properties in non-conforming status and then suddenly the quaint replacement of a porch someone was planning becomes impossible under zoning and the cycle repeats citing “bad zoning code.”
    But let’s get to the heart of the matter, zoning is concerned with what gets built and that whatever it is, fits the intent (often economic development related) of the city’s master plan. Zoning is not perfect, mistakes are indeed made and undone, sometimes and sometimes not.
    @aga khan, the burden element is indeed an interesting one, but I would argue that in Connecticut where the majority of uses are allowed by default except where cited, the idea that the applicant had an unusual, or extra burden to comply with because it was a religious institution would be hard to prove just by what the code said. Remember Norwalk code says that religious institutions are allowed in aaa zones. The criteria of what to build the defaults to all buildings equally. So any applicant would be burdened by the regs. Of course the remedy would be to comply with a smaller building etc. which I think although I don’t know for sure, is what the settlement proposal that was first offered up was. I don’t think the suit is a slam dunk in either direction on the law, but I do think that the risk of losing becomes an assessment that drives a settlement for the City more so than the applicant.

  53. Suzanne

    If there can be qualified advisory counsels examining everything from crosswalks, bike paths and urban development, then there can be an advisory counsel that examines the intricacies of zoning law in our town. If everyone continues to throw up their hands and say it is too difficult, we will continue to have the inequities that are applied now.
    I can’t believe there would be a problem between various established residential zoning requirements: that Rowayton has small and very large houses betwixt and between each other? I have never seen another beach community that wasn’t like that. I am sure many variances were applied to some of the grotesquely large homes.
    The fact that a smaller home could possibly not get a front porch just proves the inequality in applying zoning ordinances.
    I think such a task would be difficult BUT I think there is plenty of precedent out there of healthy zoning that respects land use, the surrounding neighborhoods and the environment.
    For Norwalk to give up on that or just ignore it hoping it will go away is very short sighted and materially affects every citizen, especially adjacent housing values to some of these larger smatterings of big box stores, one with glass just around the corner at 95/7.

  54. jlightfield

    @Suzanne, while there are many parts of our zoning code that should be updated to reflect current trends in market demands and construction, I wouldn’t characterize out existing code as something generating “inequalities.” It actually does a fairly decent job in balancing the preservation of our many neighborhoods with ongoing development. Again, zoning isn’t perfect, and the reality is that it will never be. I often say that a typical zoning issue will yield a 50/50 split on pro and con on whatever is up for consideration. That doesn’t mean that the zoning code shouldn’t be updated, it just means that one person’s glaring inequality is another person’s happy zoning regulation. People do have the right to develop their property.
    If you really want to get a feel that zoning and city policy is an extremely complex issue, take a read of this very long article on San Francisco, arguably with the most progressive zoning in the country, yet with currently roiling with a housing shortage and economic issues that are very similar to ones facing Norwalk. How do we balance the needs to create more housing, not displace lower income households, encourage smart development that sustain our infrastructure and schools and yet preserve our neighborhoods and the characteristics that make Norwalk great?
    The core issues, policy decisions harkening back to the 1970s outlined in the article also apply to Norwalk and Fairfield County in general. Just not the owl issue or the Google buses. 🙂

  55. Scott

    It simply feels like bs to the law abiding property owners of Norwalk. They get to build a structure (doesn’t matter what it will ne used for) that is that has a footprint more than 10 times the size of my house’s footprint on a parcel that is only 5 times the size of mine yet I can’t get permission to expand my asphalt driveway by 2 spaces because of setback rules. Maybe we should all apply to become our own religions and let the zoning regulations be damned

Leave a Reply

Recent Comments