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Norwalk council taking on ‘tough’ decision in Al Madany settlement

From left,
From left, Councilman John Igneri (D-District E), Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) and Councilwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) watch the pubic hearing Thursday from the Concert Hall balcony.

Update, 2:39 p.m., comment f rom John Kydes

NORWALK, Conn. – While at least two Norwalk zoning commissioners look forward to attempting to revise Norwalk’s zoning regulations in the wake of a “heartbreaking” decision Thursday, Norwalk Common Council members are tussling with their own difficult deliberation.

Council members will meet in an executive session Monday night in advance of Tuesday’s regular meeting, at which the city’s proposed settlement with the Al Madany Islamic Center is on the agenda for “discussion and potential action.”

That follows an intense Zoning Commission meeting Thursday, where an angry crowd jeered the volunteers on stage and mocked statements made by lawyers.

“They were on the hot seat last night,” Council Majority Leader Jerry Petrini (R-District D) said Friday. “That was a tough, tough decision. Now it’s coming to us and it’s even tougher. You know, zoning is zoning and we’re just looking at the money aspect of it. I’m looking for a lot of intervention between now and Tuesday.”

By that, he meant help from a higher power.

Petrini said he thought the feelings of Council members are “mixed” after the hearing, although it is obvious that Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) is against settling and Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) is for it.

Kimmel sent a letter to the editor defending Mayor Harry Rilling on the issue, and left numerous comments on this website. McCarthy spoke Thursday, drawing applause from the crowd.

Although McCarthy is known to have handed out a flier through West Norwalk before the last election, emphasizing that people should vote Republican to protect the neighborhood from having the mosque built there, he recently said, “This application has become politicized and that’s unfortunate. I have worked very hard to not do that.”

McCarthy said that he is reaching across party lines, talking to Councilman David Watts (D-District A) and Councilwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) about the issue. Watts stood with McCarthy for much of Thursday’s meeting. Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) joined them for a while.

If the council chooses to vote on the issue Tuesday it will do so with one member missing. Councilman Glenn Iannacone (R-At Large) will be on a vacation he planned six months ago, Petrini said. “It was a choice between that and marriage and I think he chose wisely,” he said.

Councilwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) has not been in any of the discussions on the topic and will not be allowed to vote because her husband owns a condominium in Stonegate Condominiums, a party to the lawsuit. So the Republican caucus is two members down.

Minority Leader Travis Simms (D-District B) refused to talk to Nancy On Norwalk on Friday, claiming that he was misquoted in a previous article about the upcoming vote. Nancy On Norwalk stands by its reporting of the conversation.

Councilman John Kydes (D-District C) said, “Things have changed so much, I don’t know,” when he was asked about his vote.

By that he was referring to the news that the city’s insurance carrier will pay the legal costs in the case. Norwalk is only on the hook for the price of a gate, $53,000, at Stonegate if Council approves the settlement.

On Saturday, Kydes emailed a statement: “I’m unsure at this point on how the final Council vote will roll out on Tuesday but I do want to praise those amongst us that are basing their decisions on what’s in the City’s best interest and not what will hurt or benefit them in the next election.”

John Metsopoulos
Former Fairfield First Selectman and state Rep. John Metsopoulos urges the Zoning Commission to accept the settlement Tuesday in Concert Hall.

John Metsopoulos recommended at Thursday’s hearing that the city should do that, citing his experience as a Republican former Fairfield first selectman and Fairfield state representative.

“This settlement is fair. This settlement has been reached in good faith,” Metsopoulos said. “To turn down the settlement does open the city up for a lot of financial hardship. It also brings blight to the neighborhood as the battle is going on. If you want to have a negative impact on property values, continue to have public discourse both on the state news and possibly national news. It is also my experience that when a settlement is turned down as such, the town usually does lose these cases.”

He received applause, though not as loud as the applause McCarthy and other settlement opponents got.

The mood in Concert Hall was hot. When Claudia Boerst came to the microphone she said that, when she arrived 20 minutes into the hearing, “I was afraid of the high energy, the anger for a while.”

“I am almost bowled over tonight by the mob mentality,” West Norwalk Association board member Galen Wells said. “It’s stunning to me and really irresponsible that people in this community have stoked, particularly politicians, have stoked this kind of mob reaction. I think it’s shocking and very unfortunate.”

The Zoning Commission was not required to hold a public hearing or receive comments on the settlement but did so to give the public the opportunity, Attorney Joseph Williams said.

Several speakers said the lawyers had done a disservice by not going to the public sooner. Isabelle Hargrove said she had a “huge problem” with only being allowed to speak for three minutes. “How insulting is that?” she asked. “You have spent two years looking at this. We have one night and you can’t give us the time?”

It’s not about the value of the settlement, it’s about the property values, she said, pointing out that Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola does not live in Norwalk.

“Why aren’t you fighting for us?” she asked Coppola. “… You did not try hard enough and I have an opinion as to why. Because you didn’t believe you needed to. Because your boss didn’t think he needed to. He thought that Norwalkers wanted a settlement. They don’t.”

Hargrove said she has been bullied for two years because she didn’t want the mosque in her back yard, called a racist and a bigot. Now the Zoning Commission knew what it was like to be bullied, she said.

Norwalk citizens cheer Isabelle Hargrove's comments Thursday in Concert Hall.
Norwalk citizens cheer Isabelle Hargrove’s comments Thursday in Concert Hall.

“You are bad people who do not understand what this country is supposed to be about, and we are not. We are good people, this does not make sense,” she said.

Lars Lindstrom said he had moved to Fillow Street, in close proximity to the proposed mosque, in 1986 because the home he had bought in South Norwalk had become unlivable due to the proliferation of “rock and roll joints.” He said Norwalk Police had been unable to keep the clearly illegal noise levels down and that Fillow Street was the quietest place he has ever lived.

“Now my fear is the same thing is going to happen to me, because the city has allowed the neighborhood to change so dramatically it becomes unlivable and I’m going to be forced out of the neighborhood,” Lindstrom said. “My experience of living in Norwalk is that of a two-time loser. I assure you if this happens I am not going to buy another home in Norwalk because the city will not protect the individual rights of the residential community.”

While there were many complaints about the traffic the mosque would bring, Azra Asaduddin said the traffic would be confined to Friday afternoons.

“It’s about 1 o’clock, it’s for an hour because people have to work so they go, they pray, they listen to the sermon … The whole thing takes about an hour, otherwise everybody is late for work,” she said.

There are two high holy days and, like any religious institution, the attendance would swell, she said.

“The rest of the time it’s a pretty boring place,” Asaduddin said. “I think all the fears about traffic are the fears. I understand the anxieties that come with any new structure or any new place coming into town, but this is not going to be a Disneyland for Muslims. It’s just a mosque. It’s a small congregation. There is not going to be a lot of traffic.”

Shaeera Ali said she went to Cranbury Elementary School as a kid and loves Norwalk. Her one disappointment is not having had a mosque, she said. “I may not have grown up with a mosque in my town but now at least my nieces and nephews get to have that precious experience,” she said.

Brian Gough
Brian Gough speaks to the Zoning Commission on Thursday in Concert Hall.

Brian Gough called the proposed settlement a joke. When he bought 1.5 acres in 1989 he was told he could only put up two single-family homes, he said. The city had busted his chops for two years over a storm drain, he said. “Should I have sued the city for $300,000?” he asked.

He blamed the Zoning Commission. Builders had been refused the right to build homes, he said. “Look at the mess you’ve got us in now.”

Zoning Commissioner Nora King said the last few weeks had been heartbreaking. “I agree with a lot that has been said tonight. My heart goes out to the homeowners in this audience,” she said.

King has only been on the commission since February. It has become “very clear” that Norwalk has a “problem with our city planning and with our zoning code.”

“We as a Zoning Commission must abide by our current code,” King said. “The owners of 127 Fillow St. bought this property based on the current zoning code. Emily Wilson and Joe Santo have spent a large amount of their time negotiating and working with the judge on a better project for this neighborhood. … The lesson I hope the mayor and the Common Council take away from this is that our Planning and Zoning process is flawed.”

Fixing that should be the number one priority, she said. Zoning Commissioner Adam Blank recently rejoined the commission with that goal in mind.

King voted for the settlement.

“This has been my toughest decision ever since serving the city of Norwalk on and off for the past six or seven years,” said King, a former councilwoman. “I would be totally disappointed in our leadership and our city if we don’t learn from this and start going through the process.”

Wilson did not vote for the settlement she helped craft. Santo did.

Santo thanked the attorneys for the “very good work” they have done for the city.

“They have done a very good job on this application and I think that we need to move on,” Santo said.

Petrini also said this is a tough decision.

“I heard the people, I heard the people loud and clear,” Petrini said. “It’s been a heck of a couple of weeks. I have been involved in this for quite a bit. I don’t think I’ve ever faced something like this, not even in my own business. I take this to heart, I really do. I’m agonizing over it. If you ask me ‘how am I leaning?’, I really don’t know at this point. I really want to take Monday night and listen to it all. Listen to my caucus, listen to the other side and see if we can come up with something that makes sense.”

Some have suggested that the city should help Al Madany find another location.

“I think if it gets settled or not, either way, there should be a dialogue,” Petrini said. “I don’t think it should be the end of any of this. Let’s say we vote it down. … I imagine the suit will take its course but I don’t believe we should be prohibited from trying to work out something on this.”

Comments

29 responses to “Norwalk council taking on ‘tough’ decision in Al Madany settlement”

  1. anon

    1+1=8. 1+1=4.

    Stamford population 125,000. Greenwich population 61,000. Norwalk population 87,000.

    Stamford mosque-5,000 square feet on 2 acres of land, 100 members. 1+1=8

    Greenwich mosque-12,000 square feet on 2 acres of land, 120 members. 1+1=4

    Norwalk mosque-42,442 square feet on 1.5 acres of land, 100 members. Does not compute.

    Al Madany Islamic Center, it’s time to be a good neighbor, go on the record and explain the math.

    The math says there are plans for this to be a REGIONAL DESTINATION.

    If the Al Madany Islamic Center won’t explain the math, Mayor Rilling, it’s time for you to show some leadership, ask the questions, explain the math.

    And, Norwalk Corporate Counsel MARIO COPPOLA, that’s the best you can negotiate for Norwalk? It’s time to earn your money from Norwalk taxpayers, explain the math.

    Common Council, show some leadership. Explain the math.

  2. JC

    While I realize some may argue I’m talking apples and oranges, according to Dave McCarthy, Norwalk couldn’t afford the $500,000 it would have had to pay the state if they declined the Rowayton Avenue ” improvements,” it is ok to put the city at risk in a ten million dollar lawsuit.

  3. One and Done

    More apples and oranges maybe, but the city also had $3 million to spend on a middle school ball field so people who probably don’t live here can play soccer until 9pm at night. $3 million worth of lighting for an extra 30 to 60 minutes of play time a summer night.
    .
    Or maybe these aren’t apples and oranges and the goal of the council is to destroy as many neighborhoods as possible? Williams Street, Fillow Street, who cares right? Let’s paint bike lanes all over the place, give all city land over to POKO for permanent blight, ignore the daytime shootings in SONO, and pat ourselves on the back when we only raise taxes 10 to 20% on the homeowners already paying the most. Great job.

  4. One and Done

    “Norwalk is only on the hook for the price of a gate, $53,000, at Stonegate if Council approves the settlement”
    .
    Wrong. The city’s grand list, or estimated value of all real property, has been flat for 5 years from the last reval thanks in part to boneheaded decisions like this one.
    .
    Also, WTF is with the guy from Fairfield. Here is an idea. Fairfield has tons of undeveloped land. Let’s buy four acres up there and give it to Al Madany since he is so for it.

  5. Mea

    The only thing for residents of N Taylor to do right now is to email their congressman.

  6. Jeff

    No doubt on the grand list collateral damages. Perhaps in furtherance to One and Done’s remarks, the City should postpone the vote and complete a pro-forma estimation on lost property valuations in West Norwalk and fully inform the council of the real cost and likely mill rate increases across all districts next year. The council would be wise to consider the likely damage of this across all their districts.

  7. Pibermanfmc

    Democrat officials telegraphed their votes on the Mosque well in advance so we know how the Council will vote. A learning experience for City residents. On the regional issue comparing the size of NE’s largest Mosque in Roxbury, Mass with Norwalk’s Mosque should settle the issue.
    Roxbury residents had the backbone over 20 years to reach a suitable location agreement. Norwalk really is the hole in the middle of the donut.

  8. Carol

    another closed session monday night–the public has a right to hear what is being said by the “experts”. it affects all norwalkers.
    please postpone this vote until calmer heads can prevail and have another public meeting on the “closed session” that will take place monday night.
    shame shame on our local powers that be.

  9. Mea

    I love your headline, that it’s a tough decision. Would be even tougher if you actually lived on N Taylor or Fillow? I can’t wait for the rock blasting to begin during morning commute. I’m really looking forward to it!

  10. Seth

    Seems as if Emily Wilson voted with her convictions, and Joe Santo with his _ss so that he could stay seated in his chairmanship on Zoning.

  11. Oyster

    Mayor Rilling,
    Your second year agenda is now dead. The crises at NEON followed by this debacle now demand that you turn your attention to fixing what is broken here in Norwalk–accountability and fixing the line of communication between citizens and their representatives.
    .
    1. Call for a morartorium on new zoning applications until zoning can consider modernizing the code.
    2. Ask for the resignations of the entire zoning commission immediately. Work with council to appoint or reappoint only people who demonstrate a commitment to harmonizing ALL of the master plans and regulations with our vision for a revitalized, thriving, diverse community.
    3. Remind anyone that refusesto resign that the community is watching.
    4. Turn your sights to all of the public works projects that live at the intersection of city planning and state funding.
    5. Appoint a citizen ombudsman to help citizens get input into processes that technically exclude them, and prevent them from being bullied and ostracized by government representatives when they exercise their rights.
    6. With the insights from these fixes, institute charter revision.

  12. Pibermanfmc

    What’s strange about the Mosque issue is that the City’s Democratic leadership are more concerned about litigation costs than preserving the integrity and property values of a size able residential neighborhood. And that they haven’t publicly engaged the Mosque’s leadership to find a more suitable location that would not involve alienating a size able neighborhood. There’s no precedent at least in recent decades for a religious group selecting a location that alienates the neighborhood. To have City Democratic leaders “knuckle under” to such uncivil behavior seems inappropriate or incredulous to many. Reportedly no other CT City has “knuckled under”. Norwalk can ill afford to be a City known as one without “backbone”. Especially after 3 Democratic BOE members publicly accuse the BOE of discriminations and call for resignations without any official chastising such bizzare behaviors. One wonders whether the City’s a Democratic leadership is really representing Democratic voters.

  13. DeeeeMoooo

    @Oyster: “1. Call for a morartorium on new zoning applications until zoning can consider modernizing the code.”
    .
    So your first demand is that Norwalk commit economic suicide? Brilliant. Shut it down, and turn of the lights.

  14. UN Envoy

    Oyster, you are wrong about Mayor Rilling. He’s doing just fine and will come out looking much better when the dust settles, after the real damage is revealed from the ugly political drama the Republicans have created around this using fear and thuggery, over a situation their own policies helped to create by supporting a dismantling of regulations and the lack of accountability of city staff. It is the Republicans who have supported no performance reviews of P and Z staff, not Democrats who have been demanding it for years after Mayor Moccia eliminated them in 2005.

    So, you missed one important condition on your list. Request the credentials of Planning and Zoning management, and if they are not qualified planners who live in Norwalk, request their resignation. You might be surprised at the results, and under these conditions, resignations will surely follow. . Your list ignores the fact that it is the P and Z staff that have written this code and defended it over decades, and have turned the commissions into their rubber-stamping lapdogs who they manipulate at will. Put the blame where it belongs. The only way to overhaul the broken planning process in Norwalk is to replace the incompetent staff. That includes looking at Redevelopment also, who never coordinate with P and Z because of petty animosities. It’s like high school, except the future of our great city is at stake.

  15. LWitherspoon

    Gosh, I wonder how Mike Mushak feels about all this.

  16. Ken Werner

    The fears of declining property values are surely overblown. Once the dust settles, housing values in the area will return to their pre-dust-up values. Hey, Muslims wanting to be close to their house of worship might even bid up values considerable above what they were. (Hmmm. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.)

  17. Suzanne

    I like what Michael McGuire said on another thread: do a land swap. There is an Episcopal Church sitting empty in Norwalk waiting for a buyer. There are several larger buildings in downtown waiting for a buyer. Why not make this an opportunity for a win-win?

  18. Joe

    Why is this vote being rushed even though Iannacone will be absent.

    Our neighbors should at least be given the courtesy of a full council vote.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Joe

      The court has said it will not grant another extension to prepare for trial. Deadlines loom this month and next, and attorney Joseph Williams told us that it will take the legal team working fulltime to make those deadines, one of which is a week away.

  19. EveT

    Nora King’s statement is key to this whole situation. We need to overhaul the P&Z process. It’s because of the current dysfunctional zoning code, capricious enforcement, and chaotic planning process that Norwalk would not stand a chance of prevailing in court.

  20. Dennis DiManis

    Nora King is heartbroken. What qualifies her to be on the zoning panel at all?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Dennis DeManis

      Ms. King owns a real estate appraisal business and is a former Common Council member.

  21. RU4REEL

    Okay, Emily Wilson negotiated the settlement and then voted against it?
    UN Envoy has it right the Repubs (Moccia) got us into this mess, and now want to blame Rilling.
    Let’s get going on those evaluations, credentials and most importantly change the zoning codes where necessary.
    While were at it let’s take a look at the Redevelopment Agency, to be sure they aren’t part of the problem. If they can’t get along I bet both department heads have been in charge for years!

  22. One and Done

    @RU4REEL. Even if you were right about this, you have to be a fool if you don’t think the electorate at large won’t blame the current Mayor no matter how much he tries to spin this. His political future is over if he can’t work out some deal for a different site. No one, except a few here and there, care about the details or technical issues. They only care about results.

  23. RU4REEL

    @One and Done, the only fool is the fool who continues to argue that Rilling is at fault or responsible for this mess or the outcome. It is in the hands of the court system now, how can you or anyone else NOT get that (key word, fool)! The Republican administrations over the years have caused this, plain and simple! By their ignoring expensive studies and their zoning appointments of friends and political cronies, now here we are, so get it right who those fools are O&D. On top of that when Mushak spoke up he was ostracized by those same people. If Moccia had won folks like you would be singing a different tune, but he lost. Anyone with common sense can figure out we have more to lose if we don’t settle because of actions by Republicans trying to get elected with racially insensitive flyers THEY distributed. Come back to reality now O&D! I believe the electorate at large can figure it out IF, unlike you, aren’t blinded by your dislike of Rilling and your foolish blind following of our local Republican leadership. I’m not even sure if you live anywhere near the proposed site, I do, 30 years and I say settle, although I disagree with a payout to Stonegate by taxpayers. A little common sense goes a long way, but as we all know common sense isn’t always so common! Before your next post take a look in the mirror to be sure you don’t have that lollipop wrapper still on your head!

  24. Dennis DiManis

    Mike Chapman, my question was what are Ms King’s qualifications for deciding zoning issues. I have 3 cats..does that qualify me to practice veterinary medicine?

  25. MTP

    The electorate WILL blame the current Mayor, the Zoning panel and the Common Council. All who support this will be held accountable come election time. Bet on it. There are many here that will make sure we make them famous for putting this monstrosity in a residential neighborhood. How anyone could support this defies reason.

  26. Aga Khan

    @Pibermanfmc don’t you realize that RLUIPA was not in affect when Roxbury went on its 20 year march? RLUIPA trumps local laws when it comes to zoning decisions. Not sure why everyone can’t get it into their thick heads even after Marci Hamilton tells everyone so.
    ;
    Can’t people understand that Marci though one thing when she entered the case and based on the facts that she has seen has come to a different conclusion. Also she has seen how much cities have had to pay religious plaintiffs and says that this is the lowest she has every seen.
    ;
    Finally commentators also don’t seem to understand that under RLUIPA all areas in a town are open for religious development. It doesn’t really matter how “modern” you zoning regs are. Unless there is an important reason involved to deny, ie health hazard, the town loses.

  27. Jen

    If it is true that Norwalk’s insurance company will pay legal fees then what is the rush to approve this ridiculous plan. Lets work on finding a better site with more land. I still don’t understand why it has to be so huge. The other mosques in the area are so much smaller with the same congregation size. Is it true that even if zoning laws are changed a religious organization can still sue based on discrimination if denied.

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