NORWALK, Conn. —Information revealed in court Thursday is “staggering,” Jason Milligan said.
“It’s amazing what you can learn in litigation. The truth has a way to work its way to the surface,” Milligan said Thursday evening to Common Council Planning Committee members, revealing that there is no valid redevelopment plan for the Wall Street area.
Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan testified in Stamford Superior Court on Thursday afternoon that the 2014 Wall Street Redevelopment Plan has expired. Milligan said this means that Redevelopment will have to start completely over in its determination of the area as qualifying for a redevelopment plan.
Despite this assertion and some related threats, the Council Planning Committee voted to move the Wall Street – West Avenue Redevelopment Plan to the full Council for approval.
Sheehan’s admission that the 2014 plan has expired ended hours and hours of his time in the witness chair, testimony that began in December. Rubin has pressed for answers on topics such as the “unity of interest,” the “right of reentry” and the “right of first refusal,” in questioning that has drawn many objections from Attorneys Joseph Williams and Andrea Gomes, representing the Redevelopment Agency, accusing him of being argumentative or questioning the relevance of the inquiries. Sheehan parcels out information in bits, and his testimony has been set aside several times to make room for other witnesses.
Rubin has asked several times about the 2014 Wall Street Redevelopment Plan, and Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said Wednesday that he thought it was expired. On Thursday, Rubin told Sheehan that he thought Sheehan had testified that he thought the redevelopment plan had been given an extension, but he would have to look up documents.
“There was an extension of the plan, basically a recertification of the plan, for a period in time,” Sheehan replied.
“So there an extension and a recertification, or an extension or a recertification?” Rubin asked.
“The legislative body needs to uphold the plan. That’s what the statute requires,” Sheehan said.
“What happened in 2014?” Rubin asked.
“We asked for an extension of the existing plan, for a specific period in time,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan subsequently said the plan had expired in June. Rubin ended his questioning.
Redirect was very brief; Williams asked, “Had the agency begun a new process of acquiring a new plan prior to June 30, 2018?”
The answer was yes. That was it.
The Council in March 2015 renewed the 2004 Wall Street Redevelopment Area’s designation to qualify for United States Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding, with controversy at that time revolving around the word “slum” in its description of the area.
The plan had lapsed before being renewed, meaning, it was expired at the time.
Redevelopment had been using the word “blight” to justify the proposed Wall Street – West Avenue Redevelopment Plan but changed the emphasis to “deteriorated or deteriorating,” as the criteria used to qualify the area for a redevelopment plan.
Milligan and members of the Wall Street Neighborhood Association have been telling Council members that those criteria are unjustified.
“To come in here anew and say this area is a slum, is probably crazy and it’s probably fraud,” Milligan said Thursday evening. “I can tell you this: there are more than one person that is gathering a report to bring to the FBI, because if you benefit financially from lying or misstatements, which we would do if we are saying this is blighted so we can get the money, the taxpayer money – that’s fraud. Now, can it be proven? I don’t know. But you are all culpable because now you have been put on notice, not only by me, by attorneys, and there will be more coming.”
He continued, “You have been warned, those of you on the Ordinance Committee, that a lawsuit is coming. You know what it is doing to say this is a blighted area.”
Committee members did not respond to these allegations and did not discuss them before voting on the plan.
Milligan and Rubin attempted to question the blight designation in court Thursday, by having Norwalk Chief Building Official Bill Ireland in as a witness, as Ireland is the City’s Blight Enforcement Officer. The line of questioning fizzled when Ireland said he didn’t know anything about the Redevelopment Plan.
Judge Charles Lee told Rubin that he’d misquoted state statute.
“What Chapter 130 section 8-125 does, it defines deteriorated or deteriorating with respect to a redevelopment area,” Lee said.
Rubin said he disagreed, and Lee said, “It’s ‘deteriorated or deteriorating,’ is the standard for the urban renewal area. It’s not ‘blight.’ Blight is the blight ordinance, which Mr. Ireland deals with, but they are two different sections and two different standards.”
“The renewal agency does determine whether it’s deteriorated or deteriorating,” Lee said.
“We would argue that the ‘deteriorated and deteriorating’ and ‘blight’ are synonymous,” Rubin eventually said.
“No,” Lee replied. “One is a defined term. The other isn’t.”
Ireland’s testimony ended a short while later; the case is set to resume on March 14.
City leaders have repeatedly explained in the past that they don’t like designating an area as blighted or a slum.
“That’s one of the little bureaucratic things you have to put up with, I’m afraid, the definitional issues,” former Mayor Bill Collins, said in 2015. “So you do what you have to do to meet their requirements.”
“To use that label is really offensive,” Mayor Harry Rilling said in May 2015. “Unfortunately, it’s what the state of Connecticut and HUD requires in order to get those monies in.”