Correction, 2:20 p.m.: John Igneri is not on the Land Use Committee and he wasn’t at the meeting.
NORWALK, Conn. – Good causes collided Thursday night as about 40 Norwalk homeowners descended upon a normally sleepy Norwalk council committee meeting to protect the quality of their neighborhood and see that a promise made 30 years ago was kept.
The intervention by neighbors of Norwalk Community College (NCC) halted what appears to have been an enthusiastic reception to a request from Habitat for Humanity to acquire city property to build affordable houses. After listening to the pleas from the neighbors and sympathetic comments from his fellow council members, Common Council Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Rich Bonenfant suggested that the proposal to build three single-family houses at the rear of 194 Richards Ave., fronting on West Cedar Street, be dropped and alternatives sought.
That won’t be easy.
“We did extensive search of city-owned property and we didn’t find anything else that would be appropriate for the program,” said Adam Bovilsky, director of the Human Relations & Fair Rent department.
Habitat prefers to acquire city property, Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County Co-President and CEO Bruce Berzin said.
The neighbors used glowing terms to describe the neighborhood that Habitat homeowners won’t experience.
Boulder Circle resident Debbie Colon said it is “our little piece of heaven,” which a family of deer walks through “like they own it.” A woman sitting next to her winced and nodded when Colon said it would be destroyed if homes were built on the property, also known as Magrath Park.
Her neighbor, Bob Robinson, spoke of declining open space in Norwalk.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that my family and friends and neighbors don’t talk about this issue. I never thought it would affect my neighborhood,” said Robinson, a resident for 30 years.
The neighbors had seen surveyors and called council members to see what was going on, Bonenfant said.
“It’s great when we get a sense of how a community feels about a project at the beginning of the process not at the very end,” said Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large). “… Here we have two interesting issues — affordable housing on the one hand and open space on the other. Two very, very important issues and people have different feelings about them, but they recognize that we have two good things, so something we should try to figure out.”
Councilman Jerry Petrini (R-District D) said he had researched minutes of 1984 council meetings and that the neighbors were promised that land would remain undeveloped when the city allowed what had been the Magrath School to be transformed into NCC.
“I am kind of old fashioned in that respect. You really don’t go back on a promise,” he said.
“It’s a disgrace to the tax-paying homeowners of this city that this open land would just be given away to be developed with total disregard for the promise that was made by the city 30 years ago,” Robinson had said.
Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) was there, not as a member of the committee but as half the neighborhood’s representation on the council.
McCarthy had newspaper clips from 1984. Then-council President Mike Lyons (now Board of Education chairman) had worked to seal the NCC deal, he said.
Lyons confirmed that in an email:
“Even though it was 30 years ago (!), I do recall that a selling point for the deal (the City transferring Magrath School to the State as the new NCC site) was that the surrounding neighborhood would be buffered from the college by the tree-filled surrounding land. I’d need to review the old Council minutes and the legal documentation to see if that was legally mandated by the documents or not, but that was undeniably the intent.”
McCarthy said, “I do think there was a promise that was made that potentially wasn’t documented in the deeds sufficiently and we should actually look into changing that so this isn’t happening to people 10, 20, 30 years further down the road when somebody doesn’t have ready access to the minutes and these news stories, because I do believe, and I think that most people here have said, that the promise to the neighborhood wasn’t a buffer for 30 years, it was a buffer in perpetuity.”
McCarthy took the time to defend former Mayor Richard Moccia from what he said was a belief among some of the neighbors that Moccia had approved the project. McCarthy said he had called Moccia, who praised Habitat but said he hadn’t talked to anyone from the organization in his last two years in office.
“He felt that he had only talked to them about some of the ideas that had come up as far as tax sales and redeveloping properties that already existed,” McCarthy said.
However, a letter included in the packet for the meeting claimed otherwise. A March 24 letter from Bovilsky to Bonenfant explains the origin of Habitat’s interest in the property; Bovilsky said that the inquiry came through local United Way CEO David Kennedy, that he was impressed by a tour of Habitat’s Bridgeport endeavors and approached then-Mayor Moccia (no date given). The project had the full support of both Moccia and current Mayor Harry Rilling, he said.
Rilling had this to say in a late-night email to NancyOnNorwalk:
“Habitat provides much-needed opportunities of home ownership for families who otherwise could not afford their own homes. They build workforce housing units in many cities and towns in Connecticut. Housing that enables families to live in communities where they work and attend school.
“The organization has expressed an interest in building workforce housing units in Norwalk. I do support their mission and hopefully we can partner with them on future endeavors.
“After review of the current plans and hearing concerns of many neighbors, it would seem the property bordering Norwalk Community College is not the ideal location. When Norwalk Community College was built, the neighbors were promised the wooded area would remain as open space to act as a buffer to the campus.
“I look forward to working with Habitat to find a more suitable but equal parcel on which to build.”
Kimmel, McCarthy, Bonenfant and Councilman Glenn Iannacone (R-At Large) also praised Habitat.
Iannacone said he was “torn,” and suggested that Habitat might be able to pick up “some pretty cheap property” in the tax sale scheduled for July 21.
“If you guys want Habitat for Humanity affordable housing, find a way to lower my taxes. That makes it more affordable for me,” one neighbor said.
Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said his first term on the council followed the one that approved the sale of the Magrath School.
“What puts me in a little bit of a head quandary and a little frustration is why we are even here in the first place,” he said.
The city puts aside money every year for open space, he said, and $250,000 in the capital budget for affordable housing.
Bonenfant said, “If land become available to become open space we try to jump on it to save open space. To turn around on the other end and give it away for a dollar, well, that’s kind of like the two hands aren’t talking to each other, if you ask me.”
“This is in our inventory in our master plan as open space,” Hempstead said. “I am trying to say that I am frustrated we are here having a conversation trying to put something good against something good, as you said Mr. Kimmel, that open space is open space. This is how it was acquired, as a school site, and how it was given away to NCC as a college and this was open space. It shouldn’t be on anybody’s list as up for grabs, just like Taylor Farm should not be up for grabs. It is open space. The beach should not be up for grabs. Cranbury Park should not be up for grabs.”
If anything, it shows there is a flaw in the ordinance, he said.
Bovilsky’s letter to the council explains the devil in the details to find city property for Habitat:
“Unlike Bridgeport, which takes over numerous properties each year, Norwalk’s tax lien sale generally transfers delinquent properties into the hands of other private entities, so the city owns relatively few properties for residential development. One of the only properties that the city owns that could be put to this use is 194 Richards Ave. When the city sold the land to the state in order to build Norwalk Community College, 194 Richards Ave. was carved out of the excess land around the site that the state did not acquire. Although the portion of the property that fronts Richards Avenue is not easily buildable due to typography and wetlands, the portion that fronts West Cedar could support three or possibly four residential units within the existing zoning code. … although the 1994 master plan did advise that this land could be restricted as open space or park land, that advice was never acted on and this land may be put to any use the zoning code allows. Further, the slightly larger portion of this lot, the portion that fronts on Richards Avenue, could still be restricted at a future date.”
Bonenfant put the idea to bed.
“I don’t want to string these people around any longer than they have to be strung along,” he said. “I don’t get the sense that this property is desired by this council and I also think that Mr. Hempstead raised a point that we might be able to tighten up some ordinance. … in other words to lock them in, and there would be no fights like this and scare neighbors.”
No one objected. Kimmel and Petrini agreed. Petrini said the committee would try to work with Habitat, that there are “pockets of land all over this city that could sustain a house or something.” Kimmel suggested a progress report at the next committee meeting.
NCC neighbor Georgene Schmidt immediately thanked the committee.
“It isn’t about Habitat for Humanity,” she said. “As everybody has said, you’ve done wonderful things in other towns and there were some homes that, gosh, if I had known, there was a property that sold — it would have been great property for Habitat for Humanity to really clean up. It’s in the process of being done now, but had we known we could have recommended it to you.”
Birzen said during the meeting that he was impressed by the quality of the discussion.
“I totally get what you are saying,” he said. “Habitat is not an organization with sharp elbows. OK? We want our homeowners to be in neighborhoods where they are welcome.”
Afterward, he said the organization has never bought houses to fix up. Although they have done some rehab work, “Generally that ends up being harder to do for the simple reason you don’t know what you’re signing up for when you start to do it. The other problem is it often involved lead paint, which is a challenge.”
An “old house” is older than 1978, which doesn’t leave much, he said.
“Generally speaking, we either get or buy vacant lots,” he said. “… We’re open to any suggestions. I’d like this to evolve into something more than good feelings about Habitat — in other words, a specific discussion.”