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Residents weigh in against Norwalk River barge proposal: “Our worst nightmare was actually a real possibility” 

Devine Brothers barge docked directly opposite proposed site for O&G barges to dock. (Photo: Claire Schoen)

Dozens of residents and business owners, supported by hundreds of mailed-in opposition letters, packed a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Wednesday to voice opposition to a proposal to operate barge shipping services on Norwalk River.

The proposal by O&G Industries calls for storing and transferring aggregate materials, including stone and sand, to the site owned by O&G off Smith Street along the Norwalk River. The materials would be brought primarily by barges, then distributed to construction sites throughout Norwalk, Fairfield County, and the state by trucks arriving at the site.

Residents argued that would bring more truck traffic to local streets and additional barge traffic to the river that would interfere with rowing, boating, and other water-related activities.

“In the neighborhoods off of East Avenue you will find single-family detached homes and small plots of land, duplexes, rentals, condos, co-ops, a thriving commercial corridor and multiple houses of worship all within this neighborhood,” said Anthony Pavia, the leader of the City Hall Neighborhood Association. “We are home to several mental health providers and home to the dorm for the Norwalk Conservatory of the Arts, along with a full-service hotel. But what P&Z and the City of Norwalk at large seem to work so hard to create over the city, this application seeks to single-handedly destroy here.” 

Pavia added that “​​this application benefits no one except the applicant at the expense of the neighborhoods surrounding.”

Bradford Craighead, the owner of multiple properties around the Norwalk Green and founder of the Norwalk Green Association, said he and Pavia were stunned that “our worst nightmare was actually a real possibility.” 

“Unfortunately, our nightmare could actually come true,” he said.  

During the applicant’s presentation some members of the public booed and jeered their analysis of the site, until Chair Lou Schulman asked them to quiet down and allow them their time to present, noting the public would have its time after.

In addition, the owners of Head of the Harbor South, located just north of the property, filed an application to be an official intervenor. According to Connecticut state law, “any person may intervene as a party… asserting that the proceeding involves conduct which has or which is reasonably likely to have, the effect of unreasonably polluting, impairing, or destroying the public trust in the air, water, and other natural resources.” 

The intervenor asserts that the proposed activities on the site would “result in the contamination, pollution, impairment, and/or alteration of the soil, water, and air.”

The application remained open, with at least 15 more members of the public who said they wanted to speak, as well as traffic follow-up questions the applicant had to provide, so the commission did not vote on the proposal at this meeting. Its next meeting will be Wednesday, June 26. 

A Look Inside the O&G Proposal

Attorney Liz Suchy, who was representing O&G, highlighted that the site has been an industrial one since 1920, including previous owner Norwalk Concrete and Asphalt. O&G purchased the property in 1990, and according to its application, has “operated with proper permits or as an established legally nonconforming use, a reputable and valuable contractor’s yard, asphalt plant, and other similar industrial enterprises on the properties.” 

The site is also being used by a company called Sav-a-Tree and by the Norwalk River Rowing Association for storage. However, residents said that the asphalt plant has not been in use for years, with many stating the plant has been closed since 2008. They also questioned the fact that subcontractors, including Perro Construction, have been using the site, potentially without a permit. 

“Eight to 12 barges up Norwalk River every month represents an unprecedented level of barge activity from the site that has been inactive since 2007, or 2008,” Craighead said. “This would generate a never-ending stampede of approximately 9,600 tri-axle dump trucks per year through the Norwalk Green Historic District, the city’s iconic and symbolic center, dispersing in all directions through the residential streets in Norwalk.”

Suchy emphasized that the “asphalt plant is not part of this application,” and that the application was solely focused on allowing barges to bring material to the site, offloading it to be stored, and then allowing trucks to come in and take the material to job sites where needed around the region. 

There would be eight barges per month, according to Suchy. This would “reduce truck traffic” on I-95, she said, as the materials could be brought to the site via the river. 

However, there would be about 40 to 50 trucks per weekday or at least 800 a month coming to the site, according to traffic engineer Neil Olinski with SLR, of which about half would be traditional dump trucks and the others would be “smaller trucks.” 

Richard Warren, the company’s assistant vice president of facilities, emphasized O&G’s ties to Connecticut and Norwalk. 

“We are a family business, run by the fourth generation of family members,” he said. “We operate in 14 municipalities including four other sites that are water dependent…we’ve worked on school construction projects in every town in the state including Norwalk.” 

Warren highlighted how they’ve supported the dredging of the Norwalk River to “support water-borne commerce,” and participated in discussions about the Walk Bridge to maintain river access, as well as the fact that the Norwalk River Rowing Club is able to store equipment on the site. 

“We believe we’ve operated as good neighbors,” he said. 

Residents and Neighbors’ Concerns

However, many residents pushed back on that and on the proposal itself, saying it would ruin the surrounding neighborhood, which has “grown and changed” since members of the public said the asphalt plant stopped operating about 10 to 15 years ago. 

“What also really bothers me is that the city has made such enormous progress in the past 10 years, in just about every single area you can imagine,” Craighhead said. “I don’t want to see our brand destroyed. But that’s what’s going to happen. I don’t want Norwalk to become the laughingstock of the Connecticut coastal cities.”

Tod Bryant said the impact on the historic districts around the site are “all negatives.” 

“None of those things improve Norwalk,” Bryant said. “We’re no longer an industrial city. We’re a city that has offices, residences, and the businesses that support those things. So this is really a step back in Norwalk history to approve this reuse of this site as an industrial facility.”

The two biggest concerns involved  the truck traffic the  proposal would bring to  local roads, particularly smaller ones such as  Moody’s Lane and Smith Street, as well as the impact of barges in the Norwalk River. 

Given the  property is across the river from Devine Brothers’ manufacturing,  if barges were at both properties, the river would be close to impassable, residents said.

The Norwalk Boat Club, located at the top of the river, said that if the proposal was approved, their business could be threatened because boaters wouldn’t be able to navigate their way to and from the club around the barges.

“We have a heck of a time navigating around what is currently there and bringing in side-by-side barges would leave no channel,” said Sue Powers, speaking on behalf of the boat club. “How are we going to share the waters when we don’t have any water left? I’m concerned about the severe consequences of approving this application. Boater safety should be paramount.”

Residents also highlighted how East Avenue is already full of traffic and trucks, including those from recently approved applications, such as the Norden Place site. 

“East Avenue has become a major thoroughfare across the city and it’s a route that’s prone to speed and accidents, and serves everyone except the people who live on or around it,” Pavia said. “We again are pleading for the city to take an interest in our neighborhood. This application highlights an already unsustainable situation for residents along or on East Avenue and the consequential damage that will be created by intense levels of commercial trucking.”

Rev. Daniel Simon, the pastor at St. Paul’s Church on the Green, noted that in addition to the accidents listed on the roads in the report, he sees so many “near misses,” from his office, and said this would take away from their efforts to reconnect the community to the Norwalk Green.

“That’s been a real intention to try to restore and do our part to really be community players and restore access to the Green and centrality of the Green,” he said. “This of course would have a really, really harmful effect on that.” 

Others raised concerns that there would be materials spilling into the river as they were lifted off the barges, and particulate matter strewn into the air. Warren said they would work to park the barge as close to the dock as possible and put out a rubber spill mat to make sure materials aren’t spilled. 

“Material spillage is a lost product to O&G—there’s no reason we would encourage that,” he said. 

Residents said this project would really diminish their quality of life, particularly those who  live near the area. Sarah Flade, a resident at the condo development next door, said she and her fiance have lived there for two years. 

“We heard from O&G and their representatives—a lot of it was about operations, but not about the quality of life for your neighbors,” she said. “I bought this condo only two years ago because I knew that this would help my quality of life and reduce my stress levels … knowing that my life would be great and it has been.I love Norwalk.” 

Flade added, “And what’s it all for, just money? That’s not what life is all about. It’s about the quality of life.”

Next Steps

The Planning and Zoning Commission’s next meeting is Wednesday, June 26 at 6 p.m. The application will be continued at that time, which will include a response from the applicant as well as discussion and potential action by the commission members. Members of the public who haven’t had the chance to speak yet can do so then.

Comments

6 responses to “Residents weigh in against Norwalk River barge proposal: “Our worst nightmare was actually a real possibility” ”

  1. I’d like to Thank the Public for its amazing expression of support of central Norwalk’s Neighborhoods in our ongoing effort to oppose this Application.
    We believe more than [500 letters / written statements of Opposition] have been submitted to the Zoning Commission. Last evening’s Public Hearing also included no fewer than 54 Zoomers and countless others standing by, eagerly awaiting an update on the proceedings. Thank You NoN for your ongoing coverage.

    BRAVO to all of those who took the time to Participate ! The Hearing will resume next week and letters can still be submitted.

    Stunningly, the Applicant detailed their plans to provide employment to a literal handful of job-seekers (3-5) to help manage the operation and its efforts to control dust particulates and other forms of pollution.

    Brad Craighead
    Norwalk Green Association

  2. I have a different view I do think that facility should get partially reactivated I think there should be a limit of operating hours tides and a few other Minor details however with the closure of the facility in Stamford due to repairs on the hurricane barrier next year we need a facility like this nearby I think I’m better location might be manresa unfortunately are loving neighbors neglected to take advantage of that. I don’t see why they can’t bring in a couple barges at a time unload them and drag them out on the next tide I would like to limit the number of days they can do that recommended mid week every other week

    1. roger shields

      O&G is located on the West Branch of the harbor which does not have a Hurricane barrier. The East Branch does have a barrier which is scheduled for repairs.

  3. Diane Lauricella

    Thanks NON for covering the hearing!

    I encourage residents and businesses to attend the June 26th continued hearing. Speak if you can add more to the pedestrian/cycling/driving traffic concerns as well as the Air/Water/Coastal impact.

    Please note: Our comments need to match the actual regulations that the Commission has regulatory authority over:
    Zoning Article 140, Section 118-1451 and the Coastal Site Plan Review process also found in Section 118.

    No matter what you’ve heard, a Site Plan Review process is not a slam-dunk automatic approval. The Commissioners must believe that the information presented is correct. They also have discretion when it comes to the environmental impacts, per one of the Site Plan Review Standards and the Coastal Area Management Standards.

    Please note that folks can still send in letters, photos, videos to Chair Lou Shulman and the Planning and Zoning Commission c/o Steve Kleppin [email protected] and also copy to [email protected] before 3 pm Weds. 6/26

  4. Fred Wilms

    O&G’s proposal is one the absolute worst P&Z applications I have ever seen – it should be treated as dead on arrival.

    This is about going backwards – back to a time when Norwalk had lots of factories and industrial uses. That era has long passed.

    Instead we need to move forward by adding green space, parklands, walk/bike lanes and recreational uses along the Norwalk River.

  5. John O’Neill

    I agree with all of the above…The big issue is O&G has hired the best in the business to represent them. She never loses in Norwalk
    Guessing best outcome with be some kind of negotiated settlement.
    Maybe this will finally wakeup ALL of Norwalk to our Zoning rules and regulations.
    Just ask East Norwalkers or West Norwalkers on decisions made over the past 5 years by P&Z.
    We welcome Central Norwalkers to our Club……Welcome!

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