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Norwalk P&Z Commission turns down Schoolhouse Academy plan

Screengrab from the Schoolhouse Academy website.

NORWALK, Conn. — West Norwalk residents won a victory Thursday when the Planning and Zoning Commission turned down an application for a private school at 32 Weed Ave., the former Dolce Center, now called LaKota Oaks.

Discussion before the 4-3 decision centered on traffic.

“If you were to ask me, what would be the worst possible use for this beautiful site? I would say a school. Parents are not normal drivers, they are rushed. They are stressed,” Commissioner Mike Mushak said. “…This is not going to work. And I cannot imagine the stresses in this neighborhood that are going to be formed by parents speeding through here, trying to get their kids at school.”

“If this were a Norwalk City school, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. It would just go through,” Commissioner Tamsen Langalis said. “… For us to say that, you know, this school is somehow different or wrong because it’s an independent school filling an incredibly beautiful location, I think that’s hypocritical of us.”

Schoolhouse Academy wouldn’t change the buildings’ exteriors and didn’t plan to board students, City documents state. Its student population would hit its maximum 650 in several years’ time.

AKRF, an engineering firm serving as a peer review traffic consultant for the city, said that under a reasonable worst-case scenario, traffic conditions at Fillow Street and Richards Avenue would degrade if the school is opened. AKRF Vice President Marissa Tarallo described it as a matter of degrees, “not deteriorating to the point of congestion on an overall intersection level,” but only on the westbound approach, and maybe from a “B’ to a “C,” not a “D.”

Norwalk’s guidelines differ from other communities and “we don’t consider (overall intersection levels) a proper way to evaluate impacts as a whole,” she said.

AKRF recommended a roundabout at the intersection. The Department of Transportation, Mobility and Parking (TMP) estimated that the applicant would be need to contribute $500,000 to the project, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said. This would be used as leverage to acquire additional funding and is considered to be “on the low end.”

Attorney Liz Suchy, representing the applicant, called the dollar figure “arbitrary and capricious and without foundation.”

“I’m gonna say $500,000 is peanuts compared to what would be needed to turn this neighborhood into a neighborhood that could absorb another huge school with 650 students,” Mushak said.

Thursday’s discussion was a continuation of a previous public hearing.

Three Rowayton residents spoke in favor of the application, describing Schoolhouse Academy as a needed private school option that would help keep middle class families in Norwalk.

“I think that this school poses an incredible opportunity for many, many, many more families to move to our area and feel a comfort level, that they should feel anyway going to the public school, but they will definitely feel having the option to pursue the Schoolhouse Academy, which is a fraction of the cost of private schools,” Liz Beinfield said.

A man from the other side of town, Brian Clarke, said he thought the school is needed.

But Betsy Wrenn, who lives just down the street from LaKota Oaks, asked if the traffic study factored in the uptick in speeding brought by the pandemic.

“We’ve lived here 25 years. And it this is just really just started…. This is the first year that we’re talking about moving, it’s just become unbearable,” she said.

Plus, the traffic study doesn’t consider Wegman’s possibly opening off Connecticut Avenue nor the Sikh temple expected on Richards Avenue, she added.

Commissioner Galen Wells suggested that parents waiting to pick up their children at the Academy would sit there with their cars idling. School buses would idle as well.

Suchy replied that if that were a problem, Norwalk Police could be asked to enforce the law and issue tickets for people idling more than three minutes. “It’s a difficult issue, but it exists at every school,” she said.

Mushak was the first Commissioner to speak when the public hearing ended.

“I wanted to support this application from the moment it came in. Because I think it’s a great idea. … I think it’s the wrong location. It is fitting a square peg in a round hole,” he said.

If $5 million were spent, it wouldn’t be enough to “turn that network of Indian trails” that have been converted into paved streets into a system capable of supporting the school, he said. “All of these roads suffer a burden from a decision that Norwalk made 40 years ago to build regional draws on Route One, big box stores.”

He said, “I took an oath when I became a Planning and Zoning Commissioner to protect the public health and safety of Norwalk. And I cannot sleep at night for the rest of my life if I approve this.”

Commissioner Richard Roina said he agreed with all of Mushak’s points and “I just can’t vote for it.”

Chairman Lou Schulman, Commissioner Jacquen Jordan-Byron and Langalis voted to approve the project. Commissioners Darius Williams, Wells, Mushak and Roina voted against it.

Langalis, a Rowayton resident, compared the location to the roads around Silvermine Elementary and Cranbury Elementary. She asked how a 650-student school on Weed Avenue would be worse than Wegman’s.

“I think it’s being hypocritical of us to pick on this, like this is the only school in the city that’s going to have streets that are going to have cars on them. We have an enforcement problem,” Langalis said. “…I’ve had the police sit at the end of Indian Spring Road many times. It doesn’t change the behavior of the drivers. It’s nothing exclusive to this particular location.”

She asked why Schoolhouse Academy would be charged $500,000 when the Sikh temple was approved without any request for traffic mitigation.

Parents drive their children to school down Highland Avenue even though they could send them on the bus, she said. “It’s just what people choose to do. And it happens at every single school in the city.”

Wells said, “Those schools already exist. They’re not going in new.”

Langalis said a new school is being planned for South Norwalk, at 1 Meadow St.

“That’ll be a site designed from scratch completely new,” Mushak said. “This is a site that can’t already can’t handle (the traffic it gets)…. I can’t envision this thing. It’s a square peg in a round hole. And the everything that I am opposed to in this project is on the record, it’s not conjecture, it’s not guessing.”

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