NORWALK, Conn. – The battle to stop architect Bruce Beinfield from building on Farm Creek made its way Wednesday to the Harbor Management Commission, to the surprise of Commission members.
“It’s not in our purview,” Commission member John Pinto said before the meeting even began. Environmental activist Diane Lauricella later told him that it was. While Commission members indicated that they respect the power of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), they also said they couldn’t do much about Beinfield’s proposal for 2 Nearwater Road.
DEEP is at issue because of a letter written by DEEP Senior Environmental Analyst Marcy Balint slamming Beinfield’s plan.
“If you haven’t read that letter, I urge you to do so,” Charles Schoendorf said. “… Our state-hired professionals in these matters went to great lengths to analyze the situation and I urge you to take their comments to heart and to mind in their work on this project.”
“Our relationship to DEEP, they are the regulatory agency,” said Pinto, chairman of the Application Review Committee. “We make recommendations to them with regard to anything consistent or inconsistent with the Harbor Management Plan. We are not a permitting or a granting agency. We do not have that authority. But what we do do is to review the plan in light of those tools in our box, which represents the Harbor Management Plan.”
The Commission was asked by Planning and Zoning staff to review the application to see if it is in compliance with the Harbor Management Plan, Pinto said before the meeting.
He rephrased the limitations of the Commission over and over again during the meeting.
If Beinfield’s new house were planned for the Farm Creek peninsula that was built as a trolley line, it would be in the Commission’s purview, he said.
“We really have no ultimate authority, the DEEP has the ultimate authority. We can only provide guidance to the DEEP with regard to consistency with the Norwalk Harbor Management Plan,” Pinto said.
Lauricella served as “lead-off batter” for the four people who had come to make an impression on the Commission.
“The impact of this building on the trolley way as well as the estuary is part of your purview in my opinion, just my opinion, about the Harbor Management Plan,” Lauricella began. “So I do think that in you, much more than recommend to DEEP, I would like to see a referral of your opinions back to the Planning and Zoning Department.”
She had been busy tending to a sick family member, she said, but would forward specific reasons why the application is within the Commission’s purview.
“I think the city has misused its role in not only protecting the shoreline and the coastal area but also balancing the coastline and development with not only nature but also public health and safety,” Lauricella said, urging that the Commission hire a specialist to review the plan if it was not going to follow Balint’s guidance.
Pinto said the Commission has an expert – Coastal Area Planning Consultant Geoff Steadman.
“Geoff Steadman, who is one of the best in the state, is going to comment but it’s going to come down to what authority we have,” Harbor Master Mike Griffin said.
“I ask that DEEP experts not be ignored this time,” Lauricella said. “It’s because the construction equipment will be on the line or close to the line and can also have impact with spills of oil or gas.”
She asked that the existing cottage be removed from the peninsula.
“That will create even a bigger impact,” Commissioner John Romano said.
The next batter, Lynnelle Jones, also attacked the city’s process, dropping the name of Director of Environmental Services Tom Closter.
“Tom gave me permission to use his name to let this Commission know that no one has come to his office,” Jones said. “It’s not on septic; the property has sewer, but there are other areas where Tom said he was surprised it didn’t come to him.”
Griffin agreed there were issues that Closter could be concerned with, but said that would be done under the Shellfish Commission.
“Ask him to lose the cottage,” Jones said. “That cottage is going to be a problem in the next storm, maybe the storm that’s going to come this weekend.”
The peninsula is built on unstable rubble and shifts with every major storm, Lynne Pratt said.
“If the cottage is removed by nature that could be more impactful and harmful to the surrounding ecosystems and the fragile nature of Farm Creek,” Pratt said. “… If a storm should come and damage the cottage it would be within Mr. Beinfield’s purview to have it raised and I understand it’s just an over-the-counter permit. Then that cottage would be in essence the home he fully expected to build the first time around.”
“It is what it is,” Romano said.
“Any amount of work down there could be detrimental to the ecology down there, to the tranquility, to the visual of the nature of the spot and that is what a great many neighbors are concerned about,” Schoendorf said.
“I am afraid that in all of the years working on the Harbor Management plan it’s not going to give the commission, this body, much wiggle room to support the passion of the people who have spoken here tonight,” Griffin said.
“It’s going to come down to DEEP and how they feel, if it fits their language and authority overall. They’re not easy. If that gives the group any comfort, I am sorry I couldn’t say more that was positive,” Griffin said.
Attorney Bill Hennessey, representing Beinfield, said that Farm Creek is the site of very aggressive development, with lawns up to the water’s edge, seawalls and 20-odd docks. Beinfield’s house is designed to maintain the view of the creek as much as possible, he said.
“Frankly, you drive down Nearwater Lane and you don’t know Farm Creek is there. This will be a different experience,” Hennessey said.
The proposed garage would be the only structure to touch the ground as the actual house would be built on piers, he said, calling it a “Very light development and very respectful development and a development that is completely 100 percent, A, out of the jurisdictional line, the high tide line. I would argue all the activities take place out of your jurisdiction.”
Schoendorf said the “unobtrusive house” would be 96 feet long by 47 feet high.
That would make it one of the smaller houses on the creek, Hennessey said, stopping abruptly.
“I am not arguing about that. It complies with zoning,” he said.
Lauricella said she was on the Harbor Management Commission when it was first formed under former Mayor Bill Collins. Former Mayor Frank Esposito wanted to reappoint her but she was traveling to Hartford for work and declined, Lauricella said.
“The ecology, it could be said, is under your purview,” Lauricella said. “You are supposed to balance the environmental harm of land use with access.”
“We do take that very seriously,” Pinto said. “We can take it just so far.”
“We struggle all the time with dock applications, if you will, and yet our comments are, I guess you would say, overlooked by DEEP because of a property owner’s right to (have a walkway),” Griffin said. “If you look Farm Creek, as Attorney Hennessey pointed out, at there’s proliferation of docks all around Farm Creek area. We weren’t able to prevent them so there is a limited amount of responsibility that we have with regards to the agency that permits these projects. That’s DEEP. We can be passionate and supportive, but that doesn’t make us, I guess you would say, uncaring or unfeeling.”
The matter would have been acted on by the full Commission, but there wasn’t a quorum for the full Commission meeting that followed the committee meeting.
Griffin said he would bring it up at Thursday’s Shellfish Commission meeting, staffed by Closter. He said, “Even if the area is not harvested for shellfish product, at the same time, as John pointed out, the entire area that supports the nutrients and the shellfish resources obviously becomes a concern of theirs.”