NORWALK, Conn. – The recipe is not quite right for baking when it comes to a new Norwalk sidewalk ordinance.
“I think it is more than obvious that we are not prepared to move on this,” Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) said last week after a problematic public hearing and prolonged discussion on the new draft sidewalk ordinance, attached below.
The meaning of “shall” versus “may” or “authorized,” the implications of telling people that they have to shovel their sidewalks and the status of pre-existing non-conforming driveways were among the topics of concern expressed by council members and one member of the public.
Not only that, but the idea that the director of the Department of Public Works would have discretion on fines that might be levied was a problem, according to East Norwalk resident Deb Goldstein.
“It feels exceedingly punitive that someone could wind up losing their home at the discretion of someone who is neither elected nor totally responsible to elected individuals because you took out all reference to the Common Council,” she said.
Only Goldstein and Mary Therese “Missy” Conrad addressed the committee at the hearing, held in City Hall on the same night as the West Rocks Middle School graduation, with a jammed parking lot.
If anyone wanted to attend they would have been hard-pressed to find a parking spot, Goldstein said. The proposed ordinance was not well publicized, she said. The blight ordinance crafted in the last council session had gone through vigorous public debate, as council members visited the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA), she said, but there appeared to be no outreach to the city with the sidewalk ordinance.
“I don’t think you’re going to get the full feel for how people feel about this,” she said.
Conrad said she thought cigarette butts, spit and “dog doo” ought to be included as littering in the ordinance, but Goldstein’s concerns involved the city pushing snow onto her sidewalk while plowing.
“Right now for me to maintain my sidewalk I’d have to hire somebody for 24 hours straight to sit there and keep shoveling my sidewalk in order to be compliant,” Goldstein said. “I’d have to pay somebody or take a day off from work, over and over and over again.”
She suggested changing the word “snow” to “snowfall,” so homeowners would not be responsible for snow pushed onto the sidewalk by either the city or by neighbors.
Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) took up some of her concerns – the power given to the DPW director. He questioned section 95-11 of the ordinance, which says, “The Director is hearby authorized to control the size, location and geometry of all driveways in order to provide, to the extent reasonably possible, safe and efficient access to property. All driveways shall be designed and constructed in accordance with this chapter and the City of Norwalk Department of Public Works Roadway Standards, as amended and supplemented.”
“Maybe it’s the ’60s child in me, but I always have a cautionary things going with one person being given so much authority that it’s pretty much at their discretion,” he said.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann said that, although the ordinance was written to say “director,” it’s assumed under city code that the language means the director or his designee. “Authorized” was substituted for “shall” so as not to expose the city to liability. If it were “shall” and someone was hurt because of a sidewalk condition, it could be argued that the city should have known it was there and remedied the situation, he said.
Hempstead said there were many driveways in Norwalk that date back to, say, the 1920s, when there was no zoning. “I just want protection for homeowners,” he said.
Councilman Glenn Iannacone (R-At Large) took up the “snow” vs. “snowfall” comment. McCann advised being careful about liability.
“Be careful not to put yourself in a situation where you say the homeowner does not have to do something and then the city is liable,” McCann said.
Hempstead said there are many places in the city where there is no snow shelf along the road, where the snow goes straight onto the sidewalk when it is plowed.
“I guess by ordinance we are saying, ‘tough. Go find somebody with a payloader, whatever it has got to be,’ I guess,” he said.
Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said he had walked through South Norwalk last winter and been fine in most places, but some sidewalks forced people out into the road. The ordinance is written for those property owners, he said.
He also was focused on the fines mentioned in the ordinance for property owners who don’t fix their sidewalks. He said he had learned that approach makes the city liable.
The theory, McCann said, is that if the property owner doesn’t make a repair in a reasonable amount of time then DPW would then make that repair and a lien would go against the house.
Iannacone said there should be an appeals process written into the ordinance, while Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) questioned the ability of people to pay for fixing their own sidewalks and quesstioned the idea of city reimbursement. “I’ve got two schools of thought about that,” he said. “… It’s not fair to the person who pays for it himself and then his tax dollars go to pay for someone else’s repair.”
In response to Goldstein’s comment about a lack of public input, O’Toole Giandurco said Saturday that the sidewalk ordinance was discussed at the April, May and June meetings. “After our May meeting it was decided that we would take it to a public hearing in June with the understanding that we did not have to take action on it at that meeting,” she said in an email. “The committee has had a lot of good discussion on the ordinance and we heard from two members of the public on Tuesday and their comments will be taken into account as well.”
McCann is working on another revision based on last week’s input, she said.
“The ordinance will be discussed at our next meeting and however many subsequent meetings after that until we as a committee feel that it is ready to take it to the Council for a vote,” she wrote.