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Norwalk Conservation Commission considers ‘phony’ Westport request

Attorney Timothy Hollister, right, argues on behalf of a Westport developer, Tuesday in Norwalk City Hall.

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.

 

 

‘For’

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.”

 

 

Attorney attacks

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.”

13 comments

John Levin December 12, 2019 at 8:52 am

“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.” Bingo. Why do the affluent, and profoundly white, towns surrounding Norwalk, including Westport, look to Norwalk as their dumping ground for: affordable housing, racial, ethnic and income level diversity, social services and school desegregation? Granting an easement for emergency vehicle access (Westport’s zoning commission is demanding TWO access passages because one isn’t enough?) won’t compromise the conservation value of the Norwalk land in question. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our neighbors, and our state representative, were willing to work as hard to help create affordable housing and foster diversity rather than zoning gymnastics to block it?

This article was shared and presented by NancyOnNorwalk last May and is worth a visit:
https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2019/05/separated-by-design-how-wealthy-ct-towns-fight-affordable-housing/

Sarah Waters December 12, 2019 at 9:09 am

Let them have their easement, and let Westport have just a tiny bit of affordable housing. All communities need to take some direct accountability and social responsibility.

Adam Blank December 12, 2019 at 10:21 am

Extinguishing a portion of the conservation easement and giving this developer access to Norwalk is very important (i.e. valuable) to the developer. Why on earth would Norwalk give that away for free? If the developer were offering to make a substantial payment to the City or give the City a much better and larger piece of land for conservation purposes that would be a different story, for me at least.

John ONeill December 12, 2019 at 2:59 pm

IF Westport helps support Norwalk school system to the tune of $30 Million per year, we’ll put the kibosh on easement. $ 30 Million per year should pay for our current school crisis.

Residente December 12, 2019 at 3:19 pm

Not Norwalks problem to accommodate a developer seeking profit in Westport. Doesn’t seem like the town of Westport really wants this either.

@ Sara isn’t conservation also part of social responsibility?

John Miller December 12, 2019 at 3:50 pm

Bingo John Levi and John O’Neill. Under no circumstances should this easement be modified to accommodate this developer. PERIOD. Also, bravo to Mayor Collins.

John Miller December 12, 2019 at 3:55 pm

Excuse me. John Levin (not John Levi). That’s what happens when geriatric fingers operate a modern electronic device.

Elizabeth Gibbs December 12, 2019 at 4:57 pm

Kudos to John Levin and Sara Waters and thanks to Adam Blank for a really good idea. The need for two fire lanes is trumped up by Westport as a way to block the possibility that anyone who isn’t wealthy might move into town. Norwalk firetrucks would never use that route to a fire there. No need to worry about fire sirens and traffic.

Babar December 13, 2019 at 10:24 am

It is so obvious what is going on here. Westport residents should be embarrassed by the blatant racism/classism. I would expect things like this to happen in Tennessee, not in Fairfield County.

selma miriam December 13, 2019 at 1:54 pm

An open letter to Bill Collins,former Mayor of Norwalk

December 12, 2019

Dear Bill Collins,
I am writing to you because we were once friends, and I am disappointed that you have been taken in by Tim Hollister’s tricks during the December 10th Norwalk Conservation Commission meeting.
I am inviting you and anyone else interested to take a good look at my neighborhood.
To do so, come down Saugatuck Avenue and turn onto Ferry Lane West, a small street between I95 and railroad tracks. You will pass Gault gravel and heating company.
Turn left at the next corner onto Indian Hill Road. Two blocks ahead is West End Avenue, where there’s Homes for Hope supportive housing. Turn around and turn left onto Davenport Avenue, a one-way street with some Section 8 housing. Go to the end and take a left onto Dr. Gillette Circle, a street created to save people’s homes (when the I95 thruway was built) and paid for by Dr. Gillette.
Turn around to exit, and turn left onto Hiawatha Lane Extension, where I live.
We paid $15,000 to buy the little Cape Cod home (with water in the cellar) and renovated to add rooms and a garage, spending a total of approximately $60,000.
Drive to the end of Hiawatha Lane Extension, a dead-end at the edge of Norwalk’s boundary.
Finally, turn around to leave Hiawatha Lane Extension onto Hiawatha Lane proper, and finally to Ferry Lane West, the only exit and entrance for this community. Imagine what would happen if 187 new rental apartments and 325 cars were added to it.
When Jim Campbell, working for Charney, offered home owners on Hiawatha Lane Extension 2 times and sometimes 3 times the market rate for their houses around 2004-2006, he bragged that Charney wanted to make our neighborhood look “more like Westport”.
We don’t want to look “more like Westport”. We are proud of our working-class neighborhood that evolved with no help from the government nor lawyers like Hollister and we are proud that Westport P and Z Commissioners understood and defended us.
See for yourself how incorrect your assumptions are, and realize you were scammed by the lawyer sitting shoulder to shoulder with you, and who continues to earn big bucks whenever he loses.

Sincerely,
Selma Miriam
29 Hiawatha Lane Extension
Westport, Ct 06880

Lisa H December 14, 2019 at 7:59 pm

Why would we ever modify a conservation easement especially to help an out-of-town developer profit in another city? This is not Norwalk’s fight. Let the developer build what Westport zoning will allow him to build. Why open the door for future conservation easement modifications?

Tim Roth January 16, 2020 at 7:56 am

I live on Hiawatha Lane and there are no million dollar homes here. This is already an affordable neighborhood. The developers lawyer is lying when he makes claims it is not. The 830g law has allowed these predatorial developers to come into neighborhoods that are affordable and attempt to buy up the homes because they are affordable so they can build these massive apartment complexes to maximize profits. They care little about whats affordable because they are destroying naturally occurring affordable neighborhoods. its about profit that is why they are attempting to build such huge complexes in these tiny neighborhoods.

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