P&Z hearing on East Norwalk proposal revealed plenty

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I attended four-plus hours of last night’s P&Z Commission meeting via zoom.

Although friends had clued me in about the planned development on the Mill Pond site some time ago, I mostly ignored it, due to a mix of cynicism and my own immediate concerns. My cynicism stems from the fact that not long ago the public had to beat back the Commission’s apparent intent to approve a freight distribution center at the Norden site by Strawberry hill which would have routed freight trucks through various local neighborhood streets.

My wife insisted we attend and I’m glad she did because it was very informative. The proposal does not fit existing zoning guidelines. The developer is seeking a variance. The Commission is perfectly capable of denying this, and it’s very important that they require significant changes before considering approval, for this neighborhood and all other coastal neighborhoods in our city, which I’ll explain later.

The first thing that struck me was that this project seems to be being engineered to be approved by some members of the Commission. Yesterday morning an East Norwalk Neighborhood Association (ENNA) email informed us that at 5:28 the prior evening Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin had informed ENNA that he had just posted an Environmental Impact Study, though he had previously asserted was not applicable to the project. This of course left very little time for the public to evaluate the study.

At the meeting’s outset the first Commissioner to speak informed us that the clock was very close to running out for them to make a final decision “due to the law.” But who is more aware of the legal timeframe than the Commissioners and Developers? If they are now pressed to rush a decision, it’s no accident.

The second thing that was very obvious is the inherent power asymmetry of the situation. For almost the entire time I attended we heard from people whose job is to sell this project to the Commission. They are paid to prepare a convincing argument. The public have to do whatever research and advocacy is involved to understand this stuff in our personal time. If the Commission approves this project the pros will move on to their next project in the next neighborhood while the homeowners and renters who actually live here will deal with whatever the actual outcome is.

As I listened and viewed the sales pitches it was clear they know their jobs; cherry-picked photos of the area from I-95 to the area surrounding the intended project. Large structures shown to justify their request for a variance to the zoning regulations. But of course, they failed to show or note that their examples are well back from the street.

Watercolor paintings are beautiful, and we repeatedly saw lovely renderings of their proposed block of buildings from drone’s eye views as if anyone driving or walking could ever actually see over the top of their proposed structures to the water beyond unless they were floating 50 feet or more off the ground. At street level their proposed block would be very imposing due to height as well as proximity to the street.

It wasn’t until the last segment of the presentation that they got to what I would have thought would be the first priority in terms of local impact. Traffic. A couple of ideas were described, each with many parts related to reorganizing the adjacent portions of East Avenue, Gregory Boulevard, and of course Cemetery Street. Maybe they would turn some into single lane roads and put street-side parking spaces. Maybe they would play around with the contours of the edge of the cemetery lot and existing green-space triangles, traffic lights, change of direction. Maybe a whole lot of stuff, but no actual defined plan at this critically late stage. One of the most shocking comments I heard from one of the Commissioners was, “We’ll live with either one.” I doubt that whoever that person is would be “living with” any of this, but my family and neighbors certainly would.

Sometime after 10, public comments were allowed. The first speaker spoke at the request of ENNA. She pointed out that there are many missing aspects of the proposal that are typically required by the Commission, but for unknown reasons are not required in this case. One of her concerns relates to FEMA guidelines and flood insurance costs. The speaker explained that years ago a previous Commission had the foresight to include FEMA flood guidelines into zoning policy which resulted in unusually low flood insurance rates in Norwalk, and that every 10 years FEMA evaluates all relevant municipalities and reassigns a risk value. Apparently, if the variance this developer is seeking is granted, all our coastal neighborhoods can expect their flood insurance to increase. How could this possibly be a fair risk to take for the benefit of a single developer?

The next public speaker was former Mayor Alex Knopp. He pointed out that the traffic study the developer is relying on was done in March, and that the traffic in the other three seasons of the year is significantly greater. Think beaches, restaurants, boat clubs, golf courses, special events at Taylor Farm. In a moment of tragicomedy I saw the look of confusion on Director Kleppin’s face as Mr. Knopp pointed out that one aspect of the variance sought is a 70% increase over the allowable number of units. I say tragicomedy because tragically, it looked pretty clear that in all the many months he’s been reviewing this, Director Kleppin had not noticed this rather significant detail, and it was comical to see him trying to run the numbers in his head.

I doubt any of our neighbors is opposed to sensible and tasteful development of the area between I-95 and the Mill Pond site. This is why the ENNA campaign very reasonably asks the developer to “Scale it Back!” Time will tell whether or not the Commission will act on behalf of the city at large or simply gift a variance to the DiScala group. Either way I am left with a lot of questions as to why the Commission is so inclined to accept radically disruptive proposals.

Mark Stephenson


Roberta DiBisceglie March 3, 2023 at 5:20 pm

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this remarkably cogent letter. It is unconscionable that the Commission forced residents to listen to a bloated sales pitch when most of this information has already been made available to us. Three hours of our time that could have easily been condensed. The citizens of Norwalk are being taken for fools. Scale Back! Put the public back in public hearings!

Diane Cece March 4, 2023 at 1:07 am

Outstanding recap Mr. Stephenson and your observations are spot on. Welcome to the world of P&Z and land use decisions in Norwalk (um, to be fair, elsewhere as well). Though I haven’t used this forum in years to comment due to its prior policies, may I make a simple, but important clarifications here? (Especially as Mr. Kleppin, Commissioner Mushak and now applicant attorney Blank seem to be accusing me and ENNA of allowing false or misleading information to stand).

The first is that this application is being filed as a Special Permit, as opposed to “as of right” and not as a variance request to a conforming use. As-of-right usually requires simple site plan reviews by staff and Commission and don’t require public hearings or rigorous scrutiny.
The Special Permit opportunity here, which DOES require a Hearing and specific scrutiny related to quality of life and impact on city, exists in this new zone (TOD/EVTZ) because P&Z built it in to the regulations to allow for special, but otherwise not allowable uses.

In the case of TOD/EVTZ, a developer may request additional height and density under the Special Permit should specific site conditions apply (parcel size,setbacks for example), and in consideration of them providing certain Public Amenities which qualify them for different height and density levels. The ala carte menu of items was compiled by Mr. Kleppin, TOD Consultants Harriman, and wait for it…. developers! The bonus amenity points were widely rejected by residents. The TOD/EVTZ was widely rejected by residents.

This is the permit type that Mr. DiScala and Mr. Fowler have applied for in order to maximize number of residential units for profit. It has been in the works behind closed doors at P&Z for 3 years, and is the development that became the basis for the edited, final version of the EVTZ zone. Hmmmm, can you spell spot zoning? I do.

It is also this type of permit that Mr. Kleppin gives a FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY to the public by suggesting we shouldn’t worry about size density appearance traffic etc because the Commissioners MUST review 13 Special Permit Standards and determine which, if any, concerns and objections can be mitigated by simply applying “conditions”. For example, let’s say Commissioners, Staff and the public are all concerned about a development’s noise impact on abutting neighbors. Mr. Kleppin would have you believe that the permit can be denied or reduced because of the noise. BUT that’s not what actually happens – instead, the Commission will approve the application on the Condition that sufficient noise attenuation is achieved (say by natural or artificial buffers). Same with concerns of odors – a condition can be placed that specific vents and purifiers are utilized to mitigate odors. And so on.

When we start to see Special Permits get approved that require 10, 15, 20 conditions, though, we go “whoa, wait a minute!” If that application needs that many conditions to mitigate that many problems, then why is it being approved?!
If it were just a case of dealing with approvals with a dozen minor and ridiculous conditions, it would be one thing.
BUT BUT BUT – When you have even ONE condition as massive, as dramatic, and with such far reaching implications as the one this Cemetery St development requires to modify a State Route from 2 lanes to one, alter an established flow of traffic, put parallel transitional PAID parking in front of a residential structure while telling us they have plenty of onsite parking, well then it is time to say hit the pause button, something is wrong, and in what parallel universe would these even be considered for the sole purpose of maximizing profits for a private development?!

Noah Wilker March 4, 2023 at 12:04 pm

Thank you Mark for so thoroughly articulating the raft of concerns around this project. Rita and I share your sentiments. I hope you have sent this letter to the commission as well.

Patrick Cooper March 4, 2023 at 7:33 pm

@Mark Stephenson – wonderful to have your analytical perspective shared with such clarity. Movie quote – “welcome to the party, pal”

@ Diane Cece – your tenacious advocacy is a model for other residents who love Norwalk.

The silver lining in all of this is – as a result of your work (ENNA), and other tireless advocates for that neighborhood, you have exposed exactly what this city administration desperately tries to hide (poorly) – they are not here for the taxpayers. That’s just the spin.

It has to be infuriating to residents in East Norwalk that this “deck is stacked” against the very taxpayers who pay for it. It sure felt like the POCD was rigged, right? Lift your eyes just a tad, and you’ll see a mass-developer friendly process affecting virtually every single neighborhood. Doing them 1 at a time. Same theme: Hartford demands density – bodies equals revenue. Harry needs a billion in grand list growth just to keep pace with his spending. It’s quite unsustainable.

The indisputable fact is – this is 100% Harry Rilling. He controls the DTC, and they control the city. I’m sorry if that offends anyone. Every single person on this P&Z is a Harry appointee. Kleppin is Harry’s, not ours. Paid for by Norwalk taxpayers – but working exclusively for Harry – who does what Hartford wants. It’s 3-card monte – who’s really behind it. It’s really impressive control relative to our charter – it’s also equally impressive capitulation by those who should have it.

Oh, and commissioners are appointed. Fixable.

The residents of East Norwalk – and every other area of the city – do have the ability to affect change. But year after year, we “elect” not to.

Vote differently. Or accept the consequences, and blame yourselves.

Alison Hartmann March 4, 2023 at 10:42 pm

Thank you for sharing your sharp observations of the recent P&Z meeting.connecting some dots I am concerned about Mr. Kleppin. He came from New Canaan which seems to be struggling with the aftermath of his tenure. I applaud ENNA for providing some balance to the Norwalk P&Z; public involvement with the public impacted in mind.

Victor Cavallo March 5, 2023 at 2:55 am

An indisputable fact is that despite all these nimbys clutching their pearls,getting their knickers in a twist and exhausting themselves with breathless virtue-signalling, they will still re-elect Harry in November and nothing will change.

David Muccigrosso March 5, 2023 at 7:59 am

So let me get this straight… we’re tens millions of housing units SHORT as a nation, which comes out to tens of thousands for Norwalk alone… and you are all upset about *VARIANCES*?

Myopia is a hell of a drug.

But hey, at least You’ve Got Yours. No need to worry about the rest of us who are struggling to pay insane rents, as long as you can keep that pristine neighborhood of yours frozen in amber.

Tom Farrington March 5, 2023 at 1:56 pm

It is abundantly obvious that the P & Z Commissioners serve at the whim and pleasure of the Mayor. At the “public” meeting on Thursday March 2nd, the commission went out of its way to disrespect and ignore the public so the developers could present a 180 minute sales pitch full of misrepresentations and stupid attempt to put lipstick on their pig.

I was shocked the chairperson of the meeting could have the nerve to tell the citizens of Norwalk that their (the taxpayers) comments are not for the commission, but the developers. COW PIE!! The entire reason for the commission and the meeting is to serve the community and citizens – NOT the campaign contributing Mayor’s buddies.

The chairman owes every Norwalker an apology. But I am not holding my breath.
However, the chairman’s sucking up to the developers only serves to highlight the fact the developers are in charge of City Hall. I guess they paid for the right.

The chairman repeatedly admonished the standing room attendees to be quiet. SHAME ON YOU!! There is a reason the full house to laughing at the stupid and nonsensical remarks by the project’s sales reps.

The traffic “study” is an insultingly flawed work. The study was done in March of 2022?????? What idiot felt a day in March was a representative sampling?? It’s either criminally stupid or intentionally deceptive.

The developer’s traffic consultant is either totally inept or was purposely misleading. What is the traffic rate at 6 pm in June, July, August, September?? Boat Show?? Fireworks? Oyster Festival? Car Shows?? Movie night? Concerts at the beach??

The traffic increase will be more than 20 cars / hour exiting at rush hour. Stop this deceptive farce. All aspect of this “expert’s” traffic report are suspect. The developer paid the traffic “expert” for a favorable report. Sham job!

It was obvious some of the projects sales reps never visited the site. For example – The historical East Norwalk Cemetery has graves and headstones. It is not the pastural “green” as shown in the pretty renderings and sales presentations. There is more than one entrance to the cemetery.

The southern end of East Ave is a 2-way street for about 100 feet from Cottage Street to Van Zant Street. The notion that there is room for 2 lanes of traffic, a bike lane + parking is dreaming and not based on reality.

Is the street side parallel parking going to free, paid or a time limit? Who gets the revenue?

The commission decided to ignore the dozens of citizens and shareholders who made the effort to attend the inconveniently schedule meeting. The developer gave their pitch for 3 hours while we were told to sit on out hands and shut up.
One commissioner asked the developer to repeat a portion of the presentation. The commissioner said he couldn’t hear because of the crowd’s expressed anger. This same commissioner then insulted the citizens of Norwalk during the public comments by stretching out in his chair with his head rolled back and facing the ceiling. I think he might have been awake, but not the proper display for someone so interested in every word of the developer (and apparently has no use for the public).

I think I saw the mayor was on the zoom call at the beginning of the meeting (no doubt in respect for his generous donors). But he was not shown on the zoom screen for the public comments (ignoring the wants and needs of the taxpayers). Perhaps he shut down his camera and was still listening, but the optics are horribly insulting to those us who missed dinner and sat through the developer’s 3 hr sales pitch / scam.

The attorney for DiScala was also not on the zoom meeting screen to hear what the homeowners and neighbors had to say. Perhaps he shut down his camera and was still listening, but the optics are horribly insulting to those us who missed dinner and sat through the developer’s 3 hr sales pitch / scam.
Scheduling meeting for dinner time was thoughtless if not intentional. Many people couldn’t attend or watch on zoom since they were still working or commuting.

This is the wrong project for this location. It is harmful to everyone who lives in East Norwalk (and all of Norwalk). It is widely opposed by neighbors and residents. There are serious serious environmental ramifications which the developer ignored.

Please, P & Z Commissioners, listen to the fears and concerns of your fellow Norwalkers. When that many people turn out for a meeting at an intentionally inconvenient time – the people are VERY concerned. You are supposed to be on the side of what is good and protect all of Norwalk, not just to enhance the profits of Harry’s campaign contributors.

Bryan Meek March 5, 2023 at 9:54 pm

Why stop at 77. Certainly a qualified architect could figure out another 1000 or so, even if it is 15 stories. Why go small?

Cheryl Warner March 6, 2023 at 6:36 am

Thank you all for attending, zooming, speaking and writing letters. Roberta your eloquence and knowledge is much appreciated. Now, we have to support ENNA by our contributions to save Cemetery Street. I understand waiting in the wings are developments at Ludlow Sq, 3 stories, Accension Beach site and the Masonic lodge.

Roger Shields March 6, 2023 at 10:55 am

A big thanks to former Mayor Knopp for pointing out the 70% housing density increase requested in this variance and to Mr. Stephenson for enumerating the many un-addressed consequences of thjs request.

I do not fault Director Kleppin for missing the 70% issue which in itself points out the P&Z commission members responsibilities as well. Director Kleppin is paid to manage P&Z which I have personally found he does well. If I understand correctly, it is the unpaid P&Z commissioners who give approval to zoning variance requests and though not paid, they should be thorough in their oversight.

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