NORWALK, Conn. — Would-be operators of a distribution center in Norden Place, hotly opposed by a number of East Norwalk residents, promised Monday to provide a community hotline for complaints, 24-7.
They offered to pay for alterations to the northeast corner of East Avenue and Fitch Street to better accommodate tractor trailers and promised to be accountable for the operation as owner/operators, in the years to come. They also said it’s possible that Norden Place could be used as a logistics training center, as part of their pitch to bring jobs to Norwalk in this, the worst recession “dating back to World War II.”
Zoning Commissioners, in the first public hearing for the controversial application, pushed back on Attorney Carolyn Cavalo’s promise to have trucks avoid nighttime hours “to the extent commercially practicable,” and a limited number of residents finished up the four-hour part I with well-reasoned pleas for the Commission to deny the application.
“This application not only doesn’t benefit Norwalk, it actually impacts us negatively in at least a half dozen important ways, all of which you should take into account into the special permit standard, including an inevitable increase in air pollution,” Diane Cece said, speaking for the East Norwalk Neighborhood Association.
She went on to list the impacts.
“The introduction of new noise pollution regardless of decibel levels, the dramatic increase in truck traffic, including tractor trailers, a predictable decline in property values – also that will affect grand list, the impact on the public’s convenience and quiet enjoyment. The multiple components that impact our health and safety and effectiveness as an application in this application cannot be defined as being in harmony with the surrounding area, as 100 percent of the access to this site requires access through our residential areas,” she said.
Zoners are considering a proposed conversion of a 330,000 square foot portion of the existing building located at 10 Norden Place, to create a new warehouse and wholesale distribution facility with 19 loading docks and changes to the site’s existing parking lot and driveways. It’s estimated that the business will produce 180-190 truck trips a day; owners promise to keep them between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m., “to the extent commercially practicable.”
Zoning Commission Chairman Lou Schulman noted there were 137 people tuned into the Zoom meeting and warned that he would end the meeting at 9:30 p.m., continuing the hearing on Jan. 7. He took pains to address the many letters received by Planning and Zoning, some asking how the City could have allowed the application to progress this far.
“Neither the Mayor nor any elected officials play any role in the process of either approving or disapproving this project,” Schulman said. “The Commission members are appointed by the Mayor or approved by the Council, but we are to act independently. We are not supposed to have communication with any outside entities regarding zoning issues that we need to act upon.”
It would be against the law for elected city leaders to interfere in a Zoning application.
“Once an application like this is filed, we have no choice but to take action on it, we can’t ignore it,” Schulman said. “We can’t disapprove it out of hand, we have a process which, by law, we are required to follow in reaching a decision. And this is not a political process. The Commission operates under a series of laws and regulations that define what we can and cannot do. In fact, for many applications, our hands are tied.”
The project conforms to Norwalk’s noise ordinance and “conservative noise calculations predict no adverse noise impact to the existing community conditions,” said David Greenberg, an acoustics expert.
Tim Kucab of Tighe and Bond said air emissions would “fall virtually right in line” with previous business on the site and pointed out that it’s right next to the emissions-producing Interstate 95 in an industrial setting. And, “as you move in time, naturally, vehicles and trucks are getting cleaner and cleaner.”
“The roadways are designed for truck traffic,” said Craig Yannes, a traffic engineer. “…The proposed warehouse is not expected to significantly impact traffic operations within the study area.”
“A detailed review of safety within the study area and along Strawberry Hill Avenue was conducted and did not identify any significant pollution patterns or concerns with bicycle pedestrian and truck collisions,” Yannes said. “…And although the study concludes that there’s no significant impact, the applicant is prepared to complete improvements.”
The applicant, Norden Place KB LLC, is willing to install adaptive signal control at the Strawberry Hill Avenue intersections with Beacon Street and Norden Place which would allow for real time adjustments to the signal timing, the City’s peer review consultant, WSP, explained in a Monday letter to Zoning. The applicant “would install radar detection on Strawberry Hill Avenue to monitor the speed of traffic… within the three school zones and include the speed limit and the vehicle speeds.”
WSP, however, expressed continued safety concerns about trucks on Strawberry Hill Avenue during school arrival and departure.
WSP traffic engineer Stuart Gordon told the Commission the applicant has “followed the industry standards.”
And Cavalo had an economist to promote the potential economic benefits.
“What people are not aware of, is that the state of Connecticut right now in are the latest data officially from census shows that we’re losing 424 people per week, on a net basis to other states,” Donald Klepper-Smith said. “… These are numbers I never thought I would see as a professional economist in my 40 years. What people are not aware of is that it over the last 10 years on we created basically 103,000 jobs in the state of Connecticut. All of that job growth was wiped out in the month of April.”
He called the Bridgeport Stamford labor market area “one of the worst performing labor markets in the state” and said, “In a recession of this magnitude, it’s important to remember that every job counts because of the linkages to income spending, consumer confidence and tax revenue. The projected gain here of 164 direct and indirect jobs associated with this development represents good paying jobs that are much needed in this recession.”
“We’re not building big new structures, we are utilizing the existing structures that are on this site, between the rail line and 95,” Adam Altman of KABR Group, principal of Norden Place KB LLC, said.
“In addition to the 100 direct and 64 indirect jobs forecasted at this site, we are exploring the potential for an onsite logistics training program that would serve and hold his first priority the residents of Norwalk,” Altman said. “It would be an entrepreneurship and logistics training program with classrooms. We are currently engaging in a robust vetting process for the feasibility and implementation of this program, and hope and expect to have more good news for the Commission in the coming weeks… We want to be on the forefront of providing workforce training for the new technology jobs that are part of the future and should be part of Norwalk future.”
“This proposal will generate more property taxes for the city of Norwalk, and the property taxes will be paid upon this proposal going through. The logistics industry is booming,” Cavalo said. In addition to the radar detection and work at Fitch Street, the applicant will make a $10,000 donation to the Norwalk Police Department for crossing guards.
“We have satisfied and exceeded all of the applicable criteria for the issuance of our requested special permit,” she said. “Put differently, a denial of our application will be based on speculation, and potentially rumor. Though heartfelt, still speculation, and rumor, and not based on substantial expert evidence that we’ve put into the record.”
Commissioners Nick Kantor, Joshua Goldstein and Stephanie Thomas pressed Cavalo on the promise to limit traffic to normal waking hours.
No, the applicant couldn’t legally require tenants to limit truck traffic to keep it 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., Cavalo admitted.
But, as far as “commercially practicable,” she said, “most trucks will not come to a site, when there are no employees there to unload the truck. And although we are, just like any office building, proposing that the site be available to the tenants and their employees 24/7…that doesn’t mean that the tenants will be operating in terms of taking deliveries and preparing deliveries 24/7. That’s just not the way the industry works.”
But when there’s an accident on the highway or some other delay, a truck driver would want to pull in and wait for the employees to arrive to unload the truck, she said.
Commissioner Galen Wells pointed out that there are businesses that receive goods at night and ship them in the morning. “I’m sure Amazon has around the clock operations and warehouses, for instance,” she said.
Schulman asked if the time restriction could be built into the building’s leases.
“I think we’d have to think about that,” Cavalo said. She mentioned the potential 24/7 hotline.
Thomas, who has been elected to the State legislature and will likely be leaving the Commission, said that by the time people call hotlines like that, the beeping truck or the truck ambling north on Strawberry Hill is gone.
“I’ll just reiterate the fact that we do not see any adverse impact with regard to noise or traffic,” Cavalo replied, citing the expert reports.
Thomas, commenting on the proposal to make East Avenue more attractive to truckers by altering the intersection with Fitch Street, said, “At first, I thought that sounds like a good idea. But I think as soon as a truck driver sits in the traffic that we sit in on East Avenue, they will very quickly decide it is the least attractive route, even though it may be the most direct.”
Yannes pointed out that East Avenue is going to be improved as part of the Walk Bridge project.
“You’re talking, you know, 17,000 trips per day (now) on East Avenue, we’re only adding 25 in the peak hour. So, you know, it’s not a large increase in traffic in the scheme of things,” he said.
Commissioner Richard Roina asked if a ramp could be added to I-95, to keep the trucks out of Norwalk’s neighborhoods.
“It’s extremely unlikely that federal highway and DOT would determine that the site would warrant a new access point along this segment of 95,” Yannes said. “…It would also require the establishment of a public right of way, which is not currently owned by the applicant. For these reasons, you know, I-95 access is unreasonable as part of this application.”
That being said, the applicant would work with the City to pursue the idea, he said.
More than 20 members of the public got to speak before Schulman closed the meeting, half an hour later than he said he would.
“In addition to the hundreds of emails from our community, ENNA has a opposition project petition with over 1100 signatures, actually over 1200 as of tonight,” Cece said.
“Even if the application meets all the standards for a special permit, there are no conditions or quantity of conditions that you can impose that would make this a suitable, acceptable or desirable use in our community,” she said. “You have no means to regulate or enforce the number of trucks … nor the size style equipment of those trucks, including exhaust system options, nor can you condition only specific window of time for the trucks on public roads. You can’t condition the materials that the trucks will carry, nor the specific trucks, truck routes, and you also can’t condition a minimum number of jobs or the base salaries are how long those jobs would be required to be employed.”
Common Council member John Kydes (D-District C), speaking as a private citizen, followed Cece.
“If there’s ever a project that needed to be denied it is this one. And I implore you, the Zoning Commission members to deny this application,” Kydes said. “I do believe there’s legal grounds to do so.”
“They are going to face my property and shine their lights into my bedroom windows at night and add more sound, and the noise is going to be an ambient?” Jane Skeen said. “And like my fellow neighbors have stated the trucks will idle. They will keep the trucks going to keep whatever’s in the truck warm or cold or whatever.”
“They have not shown what the air quality is on the site or modeled what it’s predicted to be, after many, many years of use,” Farhan Memon said. “There’s ample information within the literature that shows that residents who live close to or budding sites that have warehouse type uses have increased rates of cancer, and increased rates of asthma. There’s literature that shows that schools that are along truck routes have increased rates of asthma amongst children. So I would submit to you that the expert testimony offered by the applicant and the consultants is lacking in so many respects as to the environmental issues in this application.”