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Norwalk P&Z considers private school application for LaKota Oaks property

Screengrab from the Schoolhouse Academy website.

NORWALK, Conn. — Event venue LaKota Oaks would be transformed into a K-12 private school in a proposal up for a Planning and Zoning public hearing Tuesday.

It would provide a welcome alternative to Norwalk Public Schools, five city parents wrote to P&Z. On the other hand, West Norwalk Association President Anthony Carrano reported in April that more than 100 neighbors oppose the application.

“Obviously, the quiet West Norwalk neighborhood will not be the same. The entrances are on 2 local streets that do not have sidewalks,” Carrano wrote.

LaKota Oaks, a former seminary on 66 acres at 32 Weed Ave., was known as the Dolce Center for 15 years before Queens Plaza West LLC, a real estate investment and development company headquartered in Dix Hills, N.Y., acquired it in 2018.

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

Parental responses indicate that about half the student body will be from Norwalk, Attorney Elizabeth “Liz” Suchy of Carmody Torrance Sandak and Hennessey said in a letter to Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin. A few years after opening, once fundraising has kicked in, scholarships “will be awarded on a need basis, unrelated to where a student resides.”

It will be an option for families who may be unable to afford existing private schools and may be additionally attractive as it’s not affiliated with any religious order, she said. “Further, the proposed school will adaptively reuse an underutilized and underperforming building without any changes to the physical appearance of the buildings or grounds. If acceptable to the Commission, the Applicant would consider allowing civic and other groups to hold events at the Property, if they do not conflict with school operations or functions and provided proper and sufficient insurance coverage is provided.”

No students would drive to school, according to Suchy.

The property is governed by a Declaration of Grant of Conservation Restriction, which mandates that anyone eligible to be in the West Norwalk Property Owners Association be allowed to walk the grounds, Suchy explained.

“The subject property is unique, considering its location in a predominantly single-family zone,” Kleppin said in a memo to P&Z Commissioners. “In addition, the existing use and historical uses are also unique, and a significant portion of the property contains regulated areas or are under a conservation easement.”

A Norwalk Planning and Zoning Department diagram.

While its “size and building makeup are ideal for a private school,” its “location and proposed use raise concerns about traffic,” Kleppin continued. In addition, ensuring that sensitive environmental areas are permanently protected, as well as maintaining public access to the property must also be considered.” Planning and Zoning recommends the Commission consider conservation easements to prevent Schoolhouse Academy from building a sports field behind Little Fox Lane and also preserve the ambience of Huckleberry Drive South.

“Considering the proposed use as a school and that student and staff safety should be the priority concern, the applicant should review the intended site layout and access to see if there are ways to separate the public access from the school grounds, which would allow the school to operate safely but also guarantee the public perpetual access to the grounds which are conserved and contain the walking network,” Kleppin wrote.

A peer traffic review resulted in a request for the applicant to install sidewalks on Weed Avenue.

Schoolhouse Academy should “be required to comply with the same standards as the City for public schools in terms of the walking and busing radius,” Kleppin wrote. “This standard includes necessary improvements to the infrastructure on the property and in the right-of-way in order to make walking and bussing feasible, which is required when the City contemplates constructing schools.”

Traffic engineer Michael Galante of Hardesty & Hanover LLC responded by saying that a sidewalk along the .4-mile site frontage on Weed Avenue would “serve no purpose” and would likely never have a sidewalk connected to it, either by the City or another property owner.  He said no students are expected to walk to the academy and, “there is no benefit to providing a sidewalk that will not serve anyone and certainly not serve Little Fox Elementary School or the Schoolhouse Academy students.”

Kleppin also said Schoolhouse Academy needs to provide information on its internal traffic circulation plans, but this is not expected before the hearing. Galante said proposed school bell times have been changed to accommodate needs at the intersection of Fillow Street and Richards Avenue.

Tax benefits are also questioned, as LaKota Oaks paid “$355,764 for the 2020 grand list which includes a $32,207 sewer use fee,” Kleppin said.

A Norwalk Planning and Zoning Department diagram.

That’s not in the Commission’s purview, Suchy replied, adding that Schoolhouse Academy is a for-profit entity. Further, it will be a tenant and not a property owner, so it can’t agree to restrictions and “is not aware of other conservation easements imposed on other private schools such as Winston Prep, All Saints Catholic School, or even any City of Norwalk Public School; therefore, it is inappropriate to impose such a restriction on this institution.”

P&Z has posted the letters it received on the application, through June 24.

Ernie DesRochers, a former Zoning Commissioner, is among the application’s supporters.

“The property was developed at a conference center by GTE for their sole and exclusive use in circa 1981,” DesRochers wrote. “Subsequent to that Prudential bought the property and ran it as a conference center for their own use. The nature of offsite conferences has evolved over the past 25 years +/- and as a result the zoning was changed to allow more and more companies to use the facility in order to allow the owners to properly market the facility and make it economically viable.”
In more than three decades as a West Norwalk resident, DesRochers is familiar with the property and its issues, he said, calling its owners “good neighbors.”

“While the conference business is changing on account of Covid and the advancement in tech, the need for a top-quality affordable school alternative has increased. Schoolhouse Academy will fill that gap giving parents in the area an additional option to educate their children.”

Jordan Harter, a Norwalk parent and New York City school administrator, said the school would be a gift to the city.

“{I}t would be a timeless mistake to allow this opportunity to pass our town, and its children, by,” Harter wrote. “Our area boasts some of the most sought-after schools in the country, but the cost for such an education is prohibitive for most families. We have a chance to extend an affordable private school education to more children and families right here in Norwalk, with Schoolhouse Academy. (Not to mention, on an ideal property for even more diverse experiences).”

Amy Esparza, a Rowayton mom, said that when her two daughters reach middle school age, the family’s “unsatisfactory” options would be Roton “or private school which would pose a huge financial barrier, one we cannot sustain, especially with two children.”

“We have attended the Schoolhouse Academy’s informational sessions, tours, and spoken directly with the founders at length,” Esparza wrote. “It, by far and away, seems to be the only sensible choice for our children offering challenging academics, top notch staff, and reasonable tuition. We have discussed at length if we cannot attend the Schoolhouse, it would be necessary to relocate for our children to attend other schools, which we want to avoid as we do cherish our Rowayton community.”

Other parent responses:

  • It is a wonderful opportunity for all Norwalk Residents to have a different choice of school other than the public schools in Norwalk,” Henrietta Manna, a West Norwalk resident, wrote, speculating that “perhaps our daughter can start high school there while our son would be in middle school there.”
  • We’re excited to see a private school in our town that can compete with the surrounding schools in Westport, Stamford, New Canaan & Greenwich,” wrote Niki McDonald, a Blue Mountain Court resident.
  • As our society evolves, many parents have come to realize that schools are not one size fits all,” Kerrie Huxta wrote. “The model that SchoolHouse Academy provides is forward thinking and meets the needs of many students who seek hands-on learning. I expect this school will provide our future generations with the education and foundation needed for success in life and careers.”

 

“I welcome the school to the neighborhood as long as they do not alter the beautiful open areas, wetlands, woodlands, and historic structures (barn, cemetary, stations of the cross) that are part of the property’s and city’s natural and cultural heritage,” Erin Willigan wrote.

MaryAnn Wirth, 81, objected to the online nature of the public hearing. “There is no reason for this with so many public and private meetings taking place with no masks. This should take place at City Hall in person,” she wrote.

She lives across the street from LaKota Oaks and already accommodates Fox Run Elementary School, where children get a “great education,” and Norwalk Community College.

“I do not feel I need to accommodate a private school especially for children outside of Norwalk when there is a great education right here in Norwalk,” Wirth wrote. “…I already have enough speeding outside my home which makes it difficult to get out of my driveway and I really do not need more. I did not move to 43 Weed Ave. to accommodate a private school where there would be noisy children which children are entitled to be noisy because of their youth, sports and field games, and adoring parents who will want to attend these events.”

Screengrab from the Schoolhouse Academy website.

14 comments

DryAsABone June 28, 2022 at 7:39 am

It smells fishy, but then most “development” in Connecticut seems to have a dark side. Who exactly is QUEENS PLAZA WEST and who are the principles? They received at least two PPP loans from Chase.
One for $1.020.813 3-27-21 and one for $867,730. in 4-16-20. Almost two million taxpayer dollars to…”develop” real estate into a private school? And the property as it is seems to pay very little in tax already. Will they go off the tax list completely when they turn into a school?
It all smells fishy.

Nancy Rosett June 28, 2022 at 7:44 am

If Michael Galante refers to “Little Fox Elementary School” by which I think he means Fox Run Elementary School, how well has he really studied the neighborhood?

Piberman June 28, 2022 at 8:01 am

By all means lets encourage another private school in Norwalk. Given the systemic issues in securing CT Edu Dept standards in Norwalk public schools private schools offer a viable alternative to parents wanting superior education for their children. Neighbors ought be appreciative of a private school neighbor.

J. P. Coleman June 28, 2022 at 9:15 am

I welcome any new school to Norwalk, that can provide a quality, non-partisan education to residents. It would also need to develop basic recreational facilities to compliment the education. GO SCHOOLHOUSE ACADEMY !!!

Jackie June 28, 2022 at 9:57 am

As a west norwalk resident, we have to deal with the Hugh religious building go up on Richards Ave. Next to Fox Run School the traffic is going to be horrific there. Then we go right around the corner to Weed Ave and you want to put a private school there . Has anyone thought about the traffic ? Even the traffic at little Fox entrance Everyone that is for it from other areas why don’t you put it in your neighborhood ?.

meritt June 28, 2022 at 9:59 am

The neighbors should rethink their position. Schools can be good neighbors. I grew up near a Norwalk PS and now live out of town near a PS. Weeknights and weekends are quiet and the fields/track/tennis court are nearby for neighbors use. Certainly a smaller private school is not going to upend their lives and might add value to their homes. Neighbors should understand that they could get a developer who wants to build high rises and hundreds of apartments. Now that would be an accommodation that they really might not like.

Jo-Anne Horvath June 28, 2022 at 10:19 am

I totally agree with the comment made by MaryAnn Wirth, who objected to the online nature of the public hearing. “There is no reason for this with so many public and private meetings taking place with no masks. This should take place at City Hall in person,” she wrote. In my opinion, there have been too many important P & Z Commission Meetings being held only on Zoom where people with a webcam can participate. Consequently I can only make my “voice” heard (?) by writing an e-mail to the Planning & Zoning Director to voice my concerns and have my input read into the record.
City officials should be serving the residents — not the people serving them.

John O'Neill June 28, 2022 at 11:19 am

Some things to ponder here:
1) Norwalk Public School Parents need an option to current school culture. In fact, I would bet the vast majority of teachers would also jump at the chance to join ranks with Schoolhouse Academy. School Choice is needed in Norwalk. Let the “wokesters” have their space, but I truly believe a vast number of parents hunger for a better culture than is currently evolving in Norwalk. I think Amy Esparza hit the nail on the head.
2) For those on Weed Avenue that supported the last monstrosity Attorney Suchy pushed on Richards Avenue, I say: “Welcome to the Club”! A little support for Northern Richards Avenue a few months ago might have brought more supporters to your point of view. Divide and Conquer seems to be working on West Norwalkers.
3) I’m not sure how this school will allow those in the area to freely walk the property while young kids are in school. Not sure if that makes any sense.
4) Few care more about West Norwalk than Ernie DesRochers — If he’s on board that goes a long way. Although it shocks me that I would be on the same side of the fence with Wilton’s own Suchy…
5) Not to sound redundant, but the comments above in support of this Academy is really a crying out by those who know our Public Schools are becoming uncivil, untenable and unliked by those who actually give a damn.

When are our elected officials going to wake up? — The clock is ticking

Shooot! I almost forgot….As we end June I’d like to remind everyone that National Spitting Day is fast approaching. Please mark July 24th on your calendar. This year’s competition will focus not just on distance, but accuracy and trajectory.

Patrick Cooper June 28, 2022 at 12:07 pm

Excellent “development”. For avid NoN readers, I believe my position on the drive for ever increasing density in Norwalk is clear. Enough already. There is no debate, citizens and taxpayers have zero input or voice, and this effort is primarily driven by Hartford, but aided and abetted by a compromised mayor and ambitious state senator, and their minions.

But this is different. Given our wholly ineffectual BOE, controlled and politicized by Harry’s vice-lock DTC, and the absurd disconnect between ever increasing budgets and ever decreasing performance, the chance to offer a few Norwalk parents an affordable alternative education with a focus on academic’s is a no-brainer. The only disappointment is 650 max spots – that’s 50 per grade level. About the same size class as I had at Brunswick in Greenwich – which today costs around $40,000+ annually.

I wonder what pressure the military industrial education complex will put on our union-1st mayor – and he in turn on our “reaction-not-planning” cabal? God forbid there be competition. God forbid there be a comparative measurement? God forbid they may actually teach children how to read, write, and do math.

Here is the one shining positive: Liz Suchy. I mean, what is her “batting average” in getting projects passed in Norwalk? From my vantage point – it’s 100 – 0. Hall of fame (or shame, depending). I know this – when I take possession of waterfront property near the marina’s – she is going to get my 50 story apartment building passed – and all I’ll need to do is donate $1,000 to one guy, and $10,000 (to a pac) for the other. Boom – I’m golden.

Approve this project. Then let’s build a few more. Then, let’s put a master technology university in Norden. The more NPS has competition, the better they will perform. We know it’s the same budget, so if those parents who can afford to remove their kids for a better education do so – that’s the budget number divided by fewer kids – so more spending per pupil. Everyone wins – except the NASA & NFT unions. I’m good with that.

DryAsABone June 28, 2022 at 2:11 pm

The already low taxes on this property will vanish with this school.
CharterSchools are FOR PROFIT so let them pay!
Now that the Supremes have ruled, it is only a matter of time that vouchers will be given to schools like this. I for one do not want my tax dollars going anywhere but to public schools.
Go ahead…bust the unions and fix the system but private/religious schools are not the answer. They are accountable to nobody and their results are as cherry-picked as their student population.
Note…several charter schools I looked at received PPP money in eye-watering amounts. KIPP and all their schools…I stopped counting at $50M Jumoke in Hartford $1,384,000. Achievement First and their little network over $10M
Any accounting for those funds?? I think not…they do not answer to anyone.
This “development” stinks. Turn the land into a park to benefit the entire community and fix the schools.

William Wrenn June 28, 2022 at 5:33 pm

It appears that Norwalk’s P&Z never met met a development proposal they couldn’t approve. Nearly every neighborhood in our fair city has had to accept projects that have or will increase traffic and noise and decrease residential quality of life. Developers must be happy about it, Norwalk residents, not so much.

The Schoolhouse proposal for West Norwalk is no exception. Busing and driving 650 students to the site during already busy rush hour traffic hours will aggravate already heavy traffic volumes on narrow local streets.

If the commission cares about protecting the property values and peace of mind of residents on Weed, Little Fox, Fillow, Fox Run, Richards and other West Norwalk Streets, they will reject this school scheme, or greatly reduce the maximum allowed number of students.

Piberman June 29, 2022 at 4:19 pm

Sometimes reading comments on Nancy’s bring a smile to ones face. By and large most commentators above see a new private school as a major advantage to our City with its well established failing public schools and indifferent leadership.

Our surrounding towns spend time and energies on providing their students with some of the best public educations available in the nation. Do they love their kids more than Norwalk residents ? Or is it simply they have real standards for those they elect to their BOE’s why Norwalk’s BOE members in our One Party City are selected by City leaders.

Many Norwalk residents are proud of our ethnic diversity. And surely know that high quality public schools are required to enable those from modest and single parent families to secure the American Dream. Especially going to secure 4 yr college degrees.

But our City leaders don’t seem especially interested in remediating our long failing public schools to provide required student achievement. Anymore than the concerns of the now minority City homeowners are listened to in our “renters City”.

Maybe the simple truth is that City leaders who put renters and developers interests above those of homeowners isn’t going to be concerned about its failing public schools.
Or the reluctance of our youngsters to live in Norwalk – the County’s most transient “in out City”.

Schools are a good test case for City homeowners. If they can’t demand City leaders provide suitable public schools then they’ll fail in other endeavors as Norwalk slowly evolves into a Bridgeport type City. CT has many virtues. But its major cities are not CT’s proud and joy. Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven are among the nations’ most impoverished cities. Saving Norwalk from a similar fate requires an all out effort by remaining homeowners. We all can’t retire to Florida.

Paul Cantor June 30, 2022 at 10:50 am

One of the questions that Planning and Zoning Director Steve Kleppin put to School House Academy was “How does this proposal align with the goals of the Citywide Plan? One of the goals of the Citywide Plan (p. 60) is to “preserve and maintain the overall character of traditional single-family neighborhoods.”

The increased traffic that Schoolhouse Academy would generate together with the increased traffic that the Sikh religious center on Richard Avenue would generate would contribute to undermining the residential quality of the West Norwalk Neighborhood and in the process undermine Norwalk’s reputation as a city that cares about honoring its commitments to its zoning regulations.

In short, by approving the School House Academy’s proposal, the planning commission would place an explanation point on the city’s willingness to disregard its commitment to preserving the quality of its residential neighborhoods.

Jo-Anne Horvath July 1, 2022 at 2:33 pm

Schoolhouse Academy already has a website for the school on Weed Avenue in Norwalk.
Here’s the link: https://www.schoolhouseacademy.net
Seems like a done deal already!
Why not file an application with Wilton. Our Lady of Fatima school is being closed. It would be an easy conversion for the private school

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