NORWALK, Conn. – A 14-year-old Westport controversy has made its way to Norwalk in a battle concerning “100 yards” on the town line.
Developer Felix Charney, under Summit Saugatuck LLC, is seeking to use a conservation easement it was granted in 2006 to provide emergency vehicle access to a development that has been rejected seven times by the Westport Planning and Zoning Commission. Summit, in requesting the Norwalk easement use, is responding to a Westport objection in denying the 187-unit apartment complex, of which 30% of the units would be affordable housing. Meanwhile, Charney is suing Westport as violating state statute 8-30g, which supports affordable housing, in turning down the development.
This brought up to 60 people to the Norwalk City Hall community room Tuesday, where Attorney Timothy Hollister argued at length that Summit has a right to the emergency access easement, presently available only to pedestrians, cyclists and occasional utility vehicles, and 22 local citizens decried the proposal as a breach of the public trust. While Westport Representative Town Meeting member Matthew Mandell said, “they’re just trying to cover their you know whats … and it should not be at Norwalk’s expense,” former Norwalk Mayor Bill Collins alleged that it was all “Alice in Wonderland,” a “phony” maneuver from Westporters who do not want affordable housing in their town.
The 8.8-acre apartment complex off Hiawatha Lane would be a half-mile from the Westport train station, tucked into the Old Saugatuck neighborhood featuring approximately 68 structures and a population of about 200 people, Hollister said to the Norwalk Conservation Commission. It would feature 57 apartments for people who earn $40,000 to $80,000 a year,
Heading off expected opposition, he said, “there are numerous comments” that it would “adversely affect the character of Westport.”
“I venture to think that Norwalk should be very concerned about those words not only because they’re untrue, but because they imply that if Norwalk is given emergency access to Westport that is somehow detrimental to the town,” he said.
The easement is in use by the East Norwalk Avalon, and is owned dually by Avalon and Summit, according to Hollister. The existing gravel surface would be expanded from 13- to 14-feet wide to 20-feet wide, and more gravel laid on top to make a total depth of nine to 12-inches instead of the current 2- to 3-inches, to support the weight of firetrucks.
This, because Westport Fire Marshall Nate Gibbons said the size of the current proposal means that there should be two access points, according to Hollister. Norwalk Fire Marshall Broderick Sawyer doesn’t think it’s necessary given the location of nearby fire stations.
Construction would exceed the fire codes, Hollister said. “It’s not a big change. It’s not, we’re not cutting any trees. We’re not filling any wetlands. We’re not changing any drainage. We’re doing this even though … we think it’s unnecessary, because it is an accommodation of a request that has been made to us.”
Project manager Mark Shogren said 2200 cubic yards of material would be added to the path, with a 2- to 3-foot retaining wall on one side, and Sawyer has said this will be acceptable to the Norwalk Fire Department.
Bill Kenney, who described himself as a professional wetlands scientist, said debris would be cleaned up and surface ponding likely reduced.
‘Against’ argument begins
Conservation Commission Chairman John Verel warned speakers to address only the easement issue, not concerns about traffic or other issues associated with the proposed development. Most stayed within those guidelines.
“Norwalk has no reason to inconvenience its own residence to accommodate a developer who is seeking to construct housing in another town that is not even endorse the project,” State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) said, kicking off the public speaking.
The Conservation Commission set the stage back in 2006 by giving Westport and Norwalk residents the leverage “to negotiate a settlement with then-Spinnaker development” that featured one apartment building instead of three, with 11 acres of open space carrying a conservation easement on it and four single family homes accessible through Westport, Mandell said.
Charney “made a terrible business decision 13 years ago,” and Westport “does not want” his apartment complex, he continued.
“Engineers always come up with plans that seem perfect at the moment. But in our lifetimes, we frequently look back and say, ‘Geez, the Titanic sank. The Space Shuttle blew up. Bridges have collapsed,’” Mandell said. “…I apologize for you being brought into a Westport fight that’s been going on for 14 years on a developer which just doesn’t seem to get it that nobody wants his project.”
Summit’s arguments are meant to either scare or cajole the Commission into “believing that they actually have a protected property,” Hartford Attorney Keith Ainsworth said.
“While they’re not extinguishing the easement itself they are extinguishing a portion of the conservative area, which is effectively the same thing, because by taking a 10-foot-12-foot gravel path and making it 20 feet, they’re taking an area that is soil, that is path-side habitat,” and turning it into unproductive gravel, he said.
It would set a precedent and not only are easements supposed to be difficult to amend, but this one only gives Summit the right to ask to put emergency vehicles on it, but “the applicant has no right to it,” Ainsworth said.
“You have no responsibility to grant it,” he continued. “You have no obligation to allow for these activities. There doesn’t seem to be a corresponding benefit to the public trust. And there’s a serious question of whether you even have the jurisdiction ultimately to make the final decision because of the elimination of portions of the of the habitat that are there. I think that that merits at least the Attorney General’s weigh in on the on the topic, and possibly the courts.”
‘Changes should be rare’
“I’ve lived in other cities where I’ve seen this happen, where we have seen walking paths and bicycle paths eliminated and vehicular traffic eventually starts to take a bigger role than it should be. And as a resident of Norwalk … we know what rapid growth and development can do to a city,” Norwalker Carl Dickens opined.
“There’s been a lot of conversation about fire trucks and fire access through there. But when I hear emergency vehicle access, I also think ambulances,” Deborah Goldstein, an East Norwalk resident, said, noting that fire trucks travel with ambulances and sirens disrupt the peace. The path will also need to be plowed free of snow, she observed.
The Norwalk Land Trust voted to oppose the request, NLT President Seeley Hubbard said. “Changes to the city’s conservation easement should be rare and only where there is a compelling public interest not to accommodate a commercial interest who’s located out of state and wants to develop something in a neighboring town. This is particularly true in this time of environmental crisis brought on by overdevelopment and climate change.”
State Sen. Tony Hwang (R-28) spoke of legislative intent and East Norwalker activist Diane Cece presented a petition that she said had nearly 400 signatures, opposing the request. Mandell had said there were 38 signatures from Westport neighbors.
Gerald Romano, a Westport resident, said, “Just imagine this beautiful community has been there for over 120 years. But 187 apartments …the devastation that will bring.”
Linda Stallman Gibson read a letter from a Westport friend, who said the easement was negotiated in good faith as “the basis for allowing the construction of the now existing Avalon” apartments, and shouldn’t be changed. The retaining wall will affect the wildlife, she said.
“I purchased my property 25 years ago and was aware of the restrictions because I am in wetlands and I have regulations,” Westporter Gabriele Kallenborn said. “…I’m not able to extend the driveway, build another construction on the site or anything else,” and the developer should be denied.
‘A sick man’
“Tonight’s hearing is sort of like Alice in Wonderland,” Collins said after nearly three hours of public hearing. “We are supposed to believe that all these folks from Westport (and Lavielle and Hwong) have come down here to oppose this application because essentially it’s going to tear up 300 feet of Goldenrod, the reported placement of another foot in depth of gravel over about 100 yards of the easement. Maybe these are big serious environmental issues. To me they sound pretty puny.”
The real reason everyone was still there at the late hour is the affordable housing because “this is the worst thing you can propose in Westport. Westport does not do affordable housing,” he asserted.
The Norwalkers present “really do care about tearing up 300 feet of Goldenrod and setting precedents and that sort of thing” but Norwalk is being used as a pawn in a Westport issue and “the whole thing is so phony,” Collins said. “I mean, that’s where the Alice in Wonderland analogy comes from. This whole the whole purpose of this is to protect Westport from having to have affordable housing.”
A woman sitting in the audience called Collins “a sick man.”
Selma Miriam, a Westport resident, confronted him with a pointed finger as she walked to the microphone and they had a brief exchange, each expressing respect for the other but using the phrase, “You’re wrong.”
“This is an affordable neighborhood. It’s the only neighborhood in Westport that became affordable all on its own,” Miriam said to the Commission, asserting that working class people like policemen and firemen own houses there. “It has been this from the beginning. I have lived on this street since 1961.”
Hearing to continue
Hollister then requested that the hearing be continued, because while he was ready to respond to the public he’d been handed about 100 pages of legalese by Mandell and Ainsworth, and he needed time to research a response. Verel agreed.
Hollister did take time to respond to Miriam.
“The fair market value of the homes on Ferry Lane and Hiawatha Lane ranges from $500,000 on the low side to $1 million on the high side,” he said. “That’s affordable housing in Westport.”