Norwalk council debates liens vs. fines in sidewalk ordinance

Councilman David Watts (D-District A) advocates for distressed Norwalk homeowners during a discussion about a developing sidewalk ordinance.
Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D), left, leads last week’s meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk council members have “grabbed something easy” while they wrestle with the can of worms inherent in revising Norwalk’s sidewalk ordinance, sending a revision related to construction permits to the full council for a vote on Tuesday.

That was after a prolonged discussion at last week’s Ordinance Committee meeting concerning the ramifications of liens and fines. Chapter 95 is still a thorn in the committee’s side – although Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) said much progress had been made – and members voted unanimously to go with a suggestion made by Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large): “Can we grab something easy here to move it forward?” Meaning, separate Chapter 96 from Chapter 95 and send it for a vote on its own.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann had asked if maybe the committee could send the drafted sidewalk ordinance through and then maybe overhaul it later. McCann said he was worried that there is no “trip and fall” language in place to protect the city from liability, and that there are contractors doing work all over the city without permits, with no penalty.

Penalties for not having a permit are a Chapter 96 issue.

Councilman David Watts (D-District A) said he would vote no. He had been arguing that a provision should be made to protect lower income people from liens and fines they cannot afford.

“I am prepared to vote no on this because this may be good for the city but bad for my district, without the protection in here that protects the citizens of my district,” Watts said. “You talk about passing an ordinance. When was the last time we passed an ordinance? When was the last time we passed an ordinance the last council? I think they did the chicken one last time.  Blight and chicken. … Maybe there is a new vigor with this committee, and it’s not a knock, but again I want to make sure that when we do pass an ordinance, because passing an ordinance is so rare, that we get some protection for an area, you know, give me something that I can take back to my district.”

He suggested that he could live with protection for senior citizens but Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) said he wanted protection for anyone in the urban community who was under a certain income limit. “You want to make sure everyone is protected, not just seniors,” Simms said.

The committee was hung up on liens and fines. Fines accrue, meaning that even if you fix the problem you still owe the city money, they said.

Watts said the attitude expressed toward liens, that the expensive work could be done without costing the homeowner, was false.

“If you have a lien and you have to refinance or sell it, that is a part of your wealth gone down the drain,” Watts said. “…If we do push this forward I just want to make sure these liens or fines are not in a particular neighborhood where they already have financial problems.”

A sliding scale is in order, he said.

“I have been around this building for a little while now,” Watts said. “I want to make sure there is a procedure in place that says how we determine that and it’s on the books, and it’s not ‘hey we’ll give you a lien’ but ‘you, you’re getting fined every day.’ OK? That’s not a good way to go forward … I don’t want to leave that to a city bureaucrat. No offense.”

Many of the poor sidewalks are in the urban area, he said.

“I am begging you, I am asking you to do the benevolent thing and make sure that if we have liens and fines and the person can prove that they cannot do it that the fines will be adjusted according to income, and it’s right in this law. It should be,” Watts said.

Bonenfant said he appreciated that but, “It’s a tough pill to swallow if you don’t quite make that threshold, you’re paying for the full ride and you’re finding out that your tax dollars are paying for the other guy, too. … There is people – won’t say they’re indigent but they don’t have an extra $7,000 to throw out the door.”

But Watts had a point, Bonenfant said. “They’ll say ‘Let’s just pass it and we’ll come back and we’ll fix it later.’ That never happens, or it does, it’s five years later,” the veteran councilman said.

Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said that, in his research into sidewalk ordinances, he had looked at a half a dozen other towns and no one had both liens and fines. Every one except Westport had liens. Norwalk was the only one that had both.

“I think they avoid all these dilemmas, you go one way or another,” Kimmel said.

The Finance Committee should have a senior tax relief program nailed down next month, he said. That would involve reimbursement; the ordinance committee could plug the language into the sidewalk ordinance, he said.

Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said sewer assessment language could be used. “At some point we need to pull the trigger. It has come a long way,” he said, of the ordinance.

McCann said that the existing ordinance has been in place for 10 years without an issue. Kimmel said that the sidewalks are in lousy condition after those 10 years.

“This is the first time in my memory that we are tackling the problems and it has to be addressed or there will be that many more sidewalk issues to deal with. Eventually the chances of a serious tragedy occurring goes up,” Kimmel said.

He suggested, as he has in the past, that Norwalk might need to approach its dilapidated sidewalks the way it has approached its roads. The city spends $5 million a year on roads now, but when that was first suggested it was looked upon as being crazy, he said.

“We had capital budgets in the ’90’s that totaled $7 million. We spend that much on road repair now,” Kimmel said. “We bit the proverbial bullet with roads and now we have to do it with sidewalks and there’s got to be something in the budget. (The Department of Public Works) can’t perform miracles. … (Director Hal Alvord) needs the budget. He needs the ordinance and he needs the money.”

“Still, we have to be careful because a lot of people’s taxes went up by a lot of money and you know there’s got to be a tipping point there, too,” Bonenfant said.


17 responses to “Norwalk council debates liens vs. fines in sidewalk ordinance”

  1. John

    This also brings up another issue – we should hold businesses accountable for general daily cleaning of the sidewalks in front of their buildings. Certain restaurants and bars leave huge messes out front. Some businesses have sidewalks that are littered with trash, beer bottles, and the like. I lived in Manhattan for years and know that the city would have issued a small fine for every infraction – it’s not about the money, it’s about the notification to the business owner that the citizens of Norwalk are putting them on notice that trash in front of their building isn’t acceptable to be a good business in our neighborhood.

  2. EveT

    How about fines for contractors who construct sidewalks improperly? I’m thinking of a brand new concrete sidewalk on CT Ave that has a large power pole right smack in the middle of the sidewalk. Aren’t power poles required to be located off the sidewalk so people can walk unimpeded? Who approved putting the pole there?

  3. Bruce Kimmel

    The story does not mention that we also discussed a reimbursement system for major sidewalk repair. At the June meeting of the ordinance committee, I passed out ordinances from a number of towns that have reimbursements for extensive sidewalk repairs. They are relatively simple and revolve around income. Thus, these cities help pay for the repairs of any property owner who qualifies. I was somewhat perplexed when the issue of affordability again emerged at the July ordinance meeting.
    It is also worth noting that Council member Hempstead, who is a committee member (I am not), suggested that we consider a kind of installment plan for sidewalk repairs; for instance, the property owner would pay back the amount of the repairs over a ten year period, similar to what we do with sewers. This recommendation was made at both the June and July ordinance committee members.
    I should stress that we are talking about property owners who are often not the inhabitants of the dwellings with broken sidewalks. We will not know the magnitude of the sidewalk problem, how extensive it is, and who will be impacted the most, until we complete the sidewalk survey that the council approved last month.
    Finally, when I mentioned senior tax relief at the meeting, I was merely suggesting that we follow a procedure in which the council’s DPW committee, along with its finance committee, come up with a reimbursement system, and then send it to ordinance, which will plug in the language and the numbers.

  4. LWitherspoon

    Ironically the very people struggling to pay the cost of fixing their sidewalks might not be struggling so much if Mr. Watts devoted more time and energy to keeping property taxes low. Instead Mr. Watts grandstands and bloviates against any attempts to save taxpayers money, particularly if it could lead to less money for municipal employee unions. All while failing to pay his own property taxes, which are delinquent back to 2012. Now Mr. Watts wants to be State Representative, but he won’t reveal who his “political consulting” clients are because he doesn’t want that information to be used against him. What’s he hiding?

  5. Scott

    There should some kind of tax deduction or reimbursement for a property owner who repairs their sidewalk to code. The sidewalk is used by the general public with the property owner taking all of the liability. Is a property owner required to have a sidewalk if one exists? I know of a property on a main road on the edge of two school zones who simply removed his and planted grass.
    And Lwitherspoon you are a bitter person. Are you friends with Peter Berman because you sound as if you’re cut from the same cloth.

  6. LWitherspoon

    Did you resort to a personal attack because you could not dispute any of the factual statements contained in my comment?

  7. peter parker

    If you want to make the homeowner responsible for the sidewalk then the homeowner should have the choice of repairing the sidewalk or tearing it out and having no sidewalk. If the city wants to mandate sidewalks let them pay for them and figure out how to maintain them. Sidewalks are over rated, we don’t need them in residential areas. In retail areas where sidewalks are needed let the business pay for and maintain them. Simple! You council members can’t get out of your own way. You are a mess and waste more money than you save. If you don’t mandate any sidewalks in residential areas there are no lawsuits related to damaged sidewalks. Change the charter so no sidewalks are required for residential properties. You are all brain dead!

  8. One and Done

    Is this a stock photo? Where is Watt’s IPAD we paid for? So much for saving money on paper.

  9. Dennis DiManis

    Speaking of sidewalks, Norwalk City Sheriff Duleep needs to go pick up the garbage every day at the corner of Wall & Commerce or make someone else do it.

  10. Tim D

    @Peter Parker – Seriously?

  11. TLaw

    @Scott – Yes, it’s obvious that LWitherspoon has a thing for Watts. That being said, it’s clear to see the why and the how. Here’s a guy who refuses to fully disclose what he does for work, who is behind on his taxes, who has rented an apartment for renovations on his house (why not pay your taxes before renovating?) yet has no problem passing the buck to the people like you and me who go to work everyday and then we carry those like Watts.

    He’s the wrong spokesperson for this project and perhaps for his party. Especially on this issue – spending other peoples money.

  12. peter parker

    @ Tim D, You betcha. Entitled to my opinion just like everyone else. Why do we need sidewalks in residential areas. There are many towns and small cities that do not mandate sidewalks in residential areas, and in far more affluent places than Fairfield county.

  13. One and Done

    Where is Watt’s IPAD we paid for? So much for saving money on paper.

  14. Bobby Badda-Boom

    Three cheers for David Watts who didn’t pay his taxes.
    We should all have his savy and his gooyonnes.
    Lead on David Watts.

  15. Non partisan

    Honerable messers Watts and Simms
    please stop trying to take money out of my pocket to put in your constituents.
    Home ownership comes with responsibilities. If you can’t afford to keep your home then you may need to move.
    If you truly want to help your constituents start working triple hard on real estate tax reduction.

  16. peter parker

    Not defending David Watts, but with all due respect, Watts did not create this mess. This mess has been in production through many many many years of poor city management..

  17. What the HELL is happening to Norwalk?

    Are you people serious?

    Our elected officials are focusing their attention on friggin’ sidewalks?

    All the meanwhile, people are leaving in DROVES because of the education system and the ‘stigma’ that Norwalk has horrible schools.

    This results in lower home values, etc…

    Wake up elected officials – stop being SO PETTY and fight worthwhile battles.

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