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Pine Point given alternative to Norwalk Land Trust nature preserve plan: House built by Beinfield

This photo of Farm Creek was posted on the Farm Creek Preserve Facebook page by Sixth Taxing District Commissioner Mike Barbis.

NORWALK, Conn. – Concerns about liability swirl as Pine Point Association members vote Sunday on whether or not to support the Norwalk Land Trust’s attempt to create a new nature preserve in Farm Creek. There is also a Plan B – while NLT invested its money in an attempt to save the view many Rowayton residents adore, architect Bruce Beinfield has an alternative plan he says will preserve the view while keeping the public out.

“This vote has become more about what kind of house Mr. Beinfield will build, and not that we are voting to let the NLT create a bird sanctuary,” one Pine Point resident wrote in an email to NoN. This, in spite of the legally binding contract Beinfield has with NLT, she wrote, asserting that some feel he is interfering with the contract by sending around drawings of his new plan.

Emails provided to NoN share the community dialogue in preparation for the vote about 2 Nearwater Road. Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) weighs in on the taxes for the area and the potential liability in inviting the public in. Attorney Peter Nolin, representing Beinfield, warns the NLT that they have been promising something that is not allowed in its contract with Beinfield. Amanda Kelly asks questions about the NLT’s deal and intent.

The NLT made the deal with Beinfield in response to public outrage that the architect was seeking zoning approval of a plan to build a house at 2 Nearwater Road, on the peninsula in the middle of Farm Creek, NLT President Kathy Siever said last month. Although there has been a cottage there for decades, the new house would be substantially larger.

Beinfield is now talking about a 3,500-square-foot house closer to the road with “minimal impact of view lines towards The Bell Island Bridge,” he said in an email to Siever, the Pine Point Association and others. The existing cottage would be replaced with a structure that would be at least 10 feet shorter in length and limited to 15 feet in height, a marked change from the 2½-story house perched on 7-foot pilings Beinfield was proposing last year.

Beinfield’s email continued:

“The concept for that building would be to blend into the surroundings, and feel very much at home in the estuary environment,” Beinfield wrote. “That building is not contemplated at this time, but the future rights to reduce the scale of the existing cottage are part of the Plan B option discussed, as the existing house is vulnerable to flooding in major storm events.

“This outcome would forever protect The Old Trolley Way from further development, as conservation easements would be put in place to assure that no additional buildings would be built on the northern 329 feet of the property.  The tidal estuary environment would be fully respected, and the views from The Farm Creek Preserve would be not be impacted.   The owner would work with The Norwalk Land Trust to remove invasive species and to replace them with native New England salt tolerant plants, that will provide additional natural habitat.

“This solution would protect the interests of the community members that do not want a house in Farm Creek, and keep the land in private ownership, so as to avoid the concerns raised by Pine Point members, about having a public component in the Association.”

“The property is under contract to NLT,” Beinfield wrote in an email to NoN Saturday. “The issue is that the sale is possibly being challenged by others.  If that contract is challenged, I have discussed with NLT other ways to provide permanent protections to the land.  That discussion involves the possibility of building a home close to the road and me offering conservation easements for the peninsula, the cottage would remain.”

The Pine Point resident described above said Beinfield would have to remove some trees currently used by heron as perches. NLT’s lawyer, D. Seeley Hubbard, is adamant that Beinfield cannot build a new house there and keep the cottage under Norwalk zoning regulations, she said.

“The idea of preserving land, which (Beinfield) agreed to by contract, doesn’t seem to be the concern any more. Very sad because the NLT would have been stellar stewards of this historic trolley line for all to enjoy for generations to come,” she wrote.

As part of the deal, the NLT signed a non-binding side letter stating that the preserve would be open from dawn to dusk, that signage would proclaim it the “Beinfield Preserve” and that three parking spaces would be in front of the gate.

NLT promised in the recent informational meeting that the parking spaces would be behind the gate, a discrepancy Nolin called the group on.

“For the NLT to be advertising that it will place the parking behind the gate is itself violative of the agreement,” Nolin wrote on Thursday. “Given the way this matter is developing, my client will insist on strict adherence to his agreement with NLT.  Those seeking to compel Mr. Beinfield to modify his contract to suit the interests of themselves or others may be liable for tortious interference.  I trust that the NLT and the PPA will take care not to aid such conduct.”

Other emails in the conversation relate to liability, traffic and fees. Kelly said in a Friday email that “only about 20-30 feet of (Nearwater) road would no longer be private and would allow use of a few cars and foot/bike traffic.”

Wes Oliver, who lives just beyond the entrance to the proposed sanctuary, wrote to Scott McNulty that afternoon:

“Lest we weigh in too heavily on the discussion of the public use of our private roads relating to a nature preserve, let’s remember that much of the traffic on our roads, especially Nearwater, is non-PPA people. To me, the question is how much will the existence of the sanctuary ADD TO the public traffic on our roads?  I submit – not much. Scott, it seems to me our insurance liability for public use of our private roads is a moot point.”

McNulty wrote back:

“I believe that once we start attracting ‘the real public’ and bird watchers – the legal nature of an injury occurring changes dramatically. I don’t believe creating a single entrance will have any impact on a law suit against us. There is also serious security concerns. But as I mentioned in my last email, it seems only few of us feel this way.”

One resident asked if the NLT would pay property taxes or would it be picked up by Norwalk in general. On Saturday, McCarthy weighed in:

“I received questions from a number of you related to the impact on taxes of the change in status of 2 Nearwater.  In the short run, the answer is pretty clear, the removal of a ~$775K (assessed) property from the tax rolls will cause the base upon which taxes are levied to fall slightly and therefore the tax burden of everyone in Norwalk would proportionally increase….by some number well under a dollar. In the longer term, however, at the 2018 reval, I would imagine this impact might be reversed in that if the assessors have a value they put on Pine Point in total, (i.e. which reflects the collective value), and which will then be spread over one less property, therefore all properties in Pine Point would be adjusted upwards to share in the burden.  This will be compounded with the rise in assessment due to the continuing downward valuations in South and Central Norwalk, as Rowayton continues to bear more of the load on taxes.

“The other issue is liability. While it has been pointed out that people walk our streets every day, they are posted as private, and they have no expectation of any standard in that they are technically trespassing.  In my opinion, if we add a public attraction, our roads would be hard pressed to be called “private” but they would not be maintained by the city, either. Since that is the case, any identified defect would be a liability to the association in that now anyone whose car is damaged or has a slip and fall, etc. would have a claim against us as they would have against the city if it were a public street. We see about a dozen or more of these a year, so it isn’t a massive problem, but there would be the possibility and since the downside is huge, I have to agree the impact on insurance would be significant. I think the unknown is the bigger issue, as you just can’t predict what may happen and the unintended consequences.”

The conversation began Wednesday with an upbeat email from Pine Point President Leah Hogan. The informational meeting held Monday had been productive and resulted in more clarity, she wrote. The NLT will decide whether to proceed with the purchase pending the vote to be held Sunday, she wrote. “The NLT has no desire or intent to proceed unless Pine Point Association wants them to do so and will not proceed against the wishes of the Association,” she wrote.

There was a strong desire all around for simplicity on the ballot, to keep the focus on two key issues, she wrote. She said the ballot therefore says:

  1. Do you oppose the use of the property at 2 Nearwater Road as a public bird sanctuary that would be owned and maintained by the Norwalk Land Trust? (Vote yes if you oppose the use of this property as a bird sanctuary. Vote no, if you do not oppose it).
  2. Do you support use of this property as a public bird sanctuary providing that the Board can negotiate with the Norwalk Land Trust conditions that the Board deems prudent to protect the interests of the Association?

“We are optimistic that we can continue to work toward a solution that will be in the best interest of Pine Point and that will be agreeable to everyone,” Hogan wrote. “We look forward to seeing you on the 22nd.”

Comments

One response to “Pine Point given alternative to Norwalk Land Trust nature preserve plan: House built by Beinfield”

  1. M. Murray’s

    Couldn’t norwalk last trust be assessed property taxes on the property it owns and they could figure that amount into their yearly budget so that we don’t keep losing out on potential tax revenue?

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