Residents raise concerns over Norwalk Waterfront Industrial Study

Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin presents a summary of the Norwalk Industrial Waterfront Land Use Plan, Wednesday on Zoom.

Following up on opposition letters sent by Norwalk’s water-related commissions, many Norwalk residents voiced their questions and concerns about a draft Norwalk Industrial Waterfront Land Use Plan. 

On Wednesday, Sept. 20, the Planning and Zoning Commission opened a public hearing on the plan, where about 10 residents questioned some of the recommendations. Some questioned the decision to allow more density and development in a flood zone, while others said they didn’t trust the City to follow through with enforcement in the area.

“I don’t want Water Street to turn into dock-o-minimums—we have a very vibrant marine services industry,” Chris MacDonald, a resident who sits on the Harbor Management Commission said. 

MacDonald said that many of the small water-related businesses, like companies that fix boats, aren’t allowed in other communities, but were essential water-related industries like marinas and shellfishing operations.

“We’re one of the last bastions of the boating economy here,” he said. “We’re speaking up to support water, marine commercial industry.”

John Palladino, who said he and his family own property on Water Street, asked how infrastructure capacity was being factored into the plan.

“How much forethought is really going into the development of the waterfront properties? It always seems like it’s a catchup situation,” he said. “What goes into that infrastructure part of it?”

He said that he’s seen challenges for city buses to make turns in the area and sewer systems that back up, so while he wasn’t necessarily opposed to the plans, he wanted to make sure infrastructure improvements were factored in.

The Planning and Zoning Commission did not vote on the plan, with Chairman Lou Schulman stating that they were waiting for a letter from Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) weighing in on the proposal plan. 

“We’re very cognizant of the fact that the potential for additional sea level rise in the future and what that means. I don’t think it’s a wise idea to just simply say, ‘Well, we’re not going to develop in the flood zone.’ … It’s how you develop in the flood zone that matters,” Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said.

What’s in the Waterfront Industrial Plan?

Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin gave an overview of the study, stating that it came from recommendations in the 2019 Plan of Conservation and Development calling for an evaluation of they city’s industrial zoning districts. As that work started, they realized the waterfront was unique and pulled it out separately to take a closer look at existing conditions and make recommendations for future zoning. 

As a part of the plan, Kleppin said that they conducted multiple public engagement sessions where residents and business owners stated that they wanted to see the city address contamination, water quality, and flood resilience issues, and improve public access in the area. 

There were also points of “disagreements and differing opinions,” Kleppin said, that the plan tried to work through, particularly on the future of the Water Street Marine Commercial area and the upper harbor sections. 

Kleppin said that they were asked “why are we building near the flood zone and recommending adding density in a flood zone?”

“Some of our most important and most valuable properties are in that flood zone,” he said. “We’re very cognizant of the fact of the potential for additional sea level rise in the future and what that means. I don’t think it’s a wise idea to say, ‘we’re just not going to develop in the flood zone. It’s how you develop in the flood zone that matters.’”

He pointed to the redevelopment of Washington Village into Soundview Landing as an example, but many of the participants said that development has made problems worse, not better. 

Resident concerns

The Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commission meets Wednesday on Zoom.

“My problem with this amendment—I don’t think it’s a bad idea to revitalize the waterfront,” Donna Smirniotopoulos, a resident in Shorefront Park who is running as an independent District B candidate for Common Council, said. “I just don’t think I trust this City Hall with this particular tool given the history of Soundview Landing. What has happened so far has not been well executed.”

She added, “Soundview Landing is the number one example of bad coastal development.

The roofs of those buildings are pitched to drain onto Water Street.”

Others, including Diane Lauricella, an environmental activist in Norwalk, and resident Katherine Price Snedaker, said that they had concerns about potential contaminated sites in the area. 

“I would like to see on the plan where the toxic waste sites are, where the contamination is,” Snedaker said. 

Kleppin said that they checked with DEEP and the federal Environmental Protection Agency and found no active sites in the area on their lists, although there could be contamination on sites based on prior uses.

“I think we spent way too much talking about it,” he said. “There very well could be brownfields and contaminated sites in this study area—it’s really not a relevant point whatsoever. We’re not talking about city property, we’re not talking about existing parkland. We’re talking about properties that are already developed with something.”

He said that if a site was to be redeveloped and contaminants were found along the way, the developer would have to report it and figure out how to address it, as is the case with other properties throughout the city. 

“I’m not going to recommend putting a site into any document if we don’t have it as a documented site,” he said. 

Kleppin said that they were not taking the issue of water quality lightly and in fact hoped that the recommendations in this plan would help address it. He said that if a site was redeveloped, the stricter regulations would make sure there were buffers or treatments put in place so that way stormwater was treated on site before draining into the Sound and Norwalk Harbor. Right now, many sites with a lot of impervious surface were built up before regulations came into place so they aren’t required to have those protections. 

Kleppin presents a summary of the Norwalk Industrial Waterfront Land Use Plan, Wednesday on Zoom.

Public comments and letters

In addition to the public comments received at the meeting, the Commission also received multiple letters in opposition, including from the Harbor Management Commission, Shellfish Commission, and Mayor’s Water Quality Commission, along with some from residents, like Lisa Brinton, Jessica Garnett, and Lynnelle Jones.

Jones’ letter became a point of contention in the hearing. She said that the reason she sent the letter was to ask for it to be read.

“When I found out it would not be read, I canceled what I had this evening because I feel it’s important to be read for the public that’s listening,” she said.

However, Schulman asked her not to read the letter verbatim, since it was already sent to the Commission and part of the record.

“Ms. Jones, we have your letter on file, you’re more than welcome to speak, but I ask that you not reiterate what’s in your letter since that’s already on file,” he said. 

Jones asked if he was “going to cut her off?” and he said, “Yes I am, if you want to make other points that were not in the letter, we’ll be happy to hear them.”

Other members of the public who spoke said that they were upset Jones didn’t get to read her letter and wanted the Commission to better engage with the public. Some said that the letter wasn’t posted online before the meeting so they couldn’t read it, even if they wanted to.

“I’m shocked, but I shouldn’t be, that Mr. Schulman didn’t allow Ms. Jones to read her letter into the record,” Diane Cece, a resident and East Norwalk Neighborhood Association (ENNA) Board President, said. “It’s a new low in terms of public engagement for the City of Norwalk.”

Cece said that she would like to see existing regulations on stormwater management be enforced on properties in this area before getting into plans for future development. 

The Commission held the public hearing open to wait for the letter from DEEP on its opinion of the plan. Kleppin, however, told the Commission to keep in mind that it’s a nonbinding opinion.

“While DEEP is a regulatory agency, their decision is not binding on you at all. It’s an advisory opinion, advisory recommendation,” he said. “There are differing visions of what these areas should look like. What we tried to do was strike the best balance we could between those two visions to make as many people happy as possible—it’s a very tricky thing to do.” 

Kelly Prinz, formerly Kelly Kultys, is the founder of Coastal Connecticut Times.


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3 responses to “Residents raise concerns over Norwalk Waterfront Industrial Study”

  1. Lynnelle Jones

    This public comment is from Lynnelle Jones, 10 Point Road, who represents and speaks for a growing group of other Concerned Coastal Citizens.

    Norwalk’s vision to increase density in the coastal flood zone, rezone our Marine Commercial District, is a billion-dollar disaster risk, a billion-dollar planning mistake.

    The CT Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaption (CIRCA), a UConn and DEEP collaboration, federally funded, has warned Norwalk City leaders to prepare for sea levels to rise 3-4 feet. CIRCA identified Norwalk, as one of the most vulnerable zip codes in CT. Norwalk City leaders did not invite CIRCA here; CIRCA identified Norwalk following tracking data and being funded by a federal grant to warn municipalities of known coastal flood risks and rising sea levels. CIRCA has told Norwalk City Leaders to plan and prepare for much higher water levels, establish evacuation routes for communities at risk now, which do not exist, create education for vulnerable citizens, and do a better job at stormwater management.

    Have Norwalk city leaders shared with P&Z Commissioners that it is not a question of, if, but, when, water levels are 3-4 feet higher? As mentioned by a single Commissioner, before the Chair interrupted, saying that he just needed a 2/3 vote to override Harbor or DEEP concerns, never discussing them, shouldn’t you be considering raising roads that regularly flood now? Today, on a regular basis, flooding cuts off access, emergency services, to my and other coastal neighborhoods; there are no evacuation routes, no emergency exits. Neighborhoods that were built before flood risks were known and when billion-dollar natural disasters were less common, are at risk now, losses will already be in the hundreds of millions, which is why Resilience Planning is now mandatory in CT. CIRCA does not support increasing density in coastal flood zones and Resilient CT does not support increasing density in known coastal flood zones. Putting more people and property at risk, what you will vote on, is a billion-dollar disaster risk, a billion-dollar mistake.

    Why not increase density up-land, on dry land? Is this “Vision” of increasing density in the coastal flood zone the desire of an informed Common Council? Who is giving them information? Is it possible they are not aware of the warnings from CIRCA, UConn, Resilient CT? You are now, and this is your vote. Do not be confused about how important this is, how you may be being set up to ignore facts, warnings, physics, and science for a political goal of increasing apartments, which can happen on dry land.

    A serious liability exists when risks are great and well known. Courts have held municipal governments liable for negligence or nuisances when governments issue regulatory permits for buildings, other structures, that cause increased flood hazards. Cities have been found liable by courts for having poor flood maps and not having hazard mitigation planning. The timing of CIRCA identifying Norwalk, the exact area being discussed to be rezoned to mixed-use residential, means that Norwalk City Leaders are aware and, as a result, potentially liable should anyone be hurt, or property harmed, as a result of poor decision making, like not fully sharing CIRCA’s warnings. CT DEEP’s municipal training videos have been shared, by me, including a video about legal liability, with staff, so there is no excuse for anyone in P&Z to not know a serious liability exists, to not know it makes zero sense to increase density in coastal flood zones in 2023.

    Courts ask, so ask yourself: Is the Conduct “Reasonable” Under the Circumstances? Here, Norwalk staff and City Leaders have knowledge of potential flood problems, shared by CIRCA, UConn, Resilient CT, funded by the Federal Government, who knows FEMA is out of money.

    The staff memo refuting the Harbor letter shows Director Kleppin fully supports the “vision of a vibrant mixed-use waterfront development on Water Street.” Developers build and leave. Who insures this? Taxpayers? FEMA is broke. The Harbor Commission spent two meetings discussing the Utile report. The lack of discussion at this Commission of the 187-page Utile report, that forgot contaminated sites, and did not at all address rising sea levels, the CIRCA warning, is peculiar. No Sustainability or Resilience consultant recommends building in a known coastal flood zone in 2023. Director Kleppin writes that the Harbor Commission was “not considering”, “was ignoring”, “went beyond their jurisdiction”, “commented on something not in their charge”, and stated his disappointment about the lack of water quality concern, pointing out his planned regulation of impervious surfaces, something that will not matter when 3+ft of flood waters arrive, something already required by our existing MS4 permit.

    Because I do not believe Director Kleppin shared what the Chair of the Water Quality Committee wrote him, I share the Water Quality Chair’s comments and wish him a speedy recovery from the hospital.

    “My concerns for developing Water Street are on several levels:

    a) The plan involves developing in a designated flood zone. When most coastal locations have restricted building in flood zones, indeed, to the point that they have taken flooded property using eminent domain, I find it remarkable that we are even listening to a consultant that feels its ok especially since NOAA has been issuing warnings that more and more severe storms will happen and have been happening.

    b) The more construction that takes place on or near the water, the more thermal mass can impact water temperature. So, when it rains, the runoff from warm buildings can raise water temperatures and drop the dissolved oxygen level very quickly. Warm temperatures have an impact on dissolved oxygen levels, and when the Norwalk Harbor gets above 70 degrees, the dissolved oxygen is dangerously low enough that should schools of menhaden, blue fish or striped bass be here which often happens in July, August, September, and October, and we can have major fish kills. Winter nor’easters will not drop oxygen levels that much but will provide thermal shock to animals in instantly warmed water. If you don’t believe me about the effect of rapid thermal change of even 1 or 2 degrees can have on fish and invertebrate species – just talk to any of the aquarists at the Maritime Aquarium.

    c) Due to the shape of Long Island Sound, we at the western end know that any nor’easters storm surge is amplified in our area regardless of season of the year. If New London gets a 3-foot storm surge, we could have a 6-to-8-foot storm surge from the same storm.

    d) Tropical Storm Sandy provided the nearest to memory storm surge, and it was not a hurricane. We should expect a 14 to 20 ft surge depending on wind velocity and tide under a full-blown hurricane. We have had more than 5 100-year storms in just a couple of years.

    e) Looking at the list of brownfields, there is one area that was right on the water that I am well aware of and it was a petroleum storage area that had heating oil, gas, and diesel fuel if my memory serves me correctly, that is not listed at all on Water St. I talked to several of us old timers and they do not remember any major mitigation project that took place.

    f) There are several of us on the Harbor Commission and Water Quality Committee that have decades of local knowledge of what happens to this area during storms. I personally have over 50 years of studying the harbor and local waters. And, I have lived in areas that have been flooded so I have firsthand knowledge of what can happen.”

    Think before you vote. You have been warned by many, whose only agenda is public health and safety, that this is contrary to flood plain policy, contrary to good planning, and quite likely a serious future liability since Norwalk does not have proper stormwater infrastructure to support this increased density in the coastal flood zone. If you vote to increase density in Norwalk’s coastal flood zone, to change the Marine Commercial District to mixed-use residential, you are creating a billion-dollar disaster risk, making a billion-dollar mistake. Floods are acts of god. Flood losses are acts of man.

  2. David Muccigrosso

    >>where about 10 residents questioned some of the recommendations

    This is the key quote.

    Let’s not pretend this is anything resembling a majority here. Most of these people seem like incumbents with motivations for keeping things the same.

    And let’s be real: OUR WATERFRONT IS UGLY AF. Norwalk is no longer an industrial town. Literally every other coastal community in CT has cleaned up its waterfront and used its rivers for more recreational and retail purposes. We shouldn’t let a handful of owners of dying businesses keep us from seizing opportunity.

  3. Lynnelle Jones

    Leslie Kaufman, Bloomberg Reporter, published an article today called “Hurricane-Proofing Buildings Isn’t enough to curb Florida’s Storm Losses”. Florida’s building codes are some of the toughest in the country. The following is paraphrased from the article:

    A new report by Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest providers of reinsurance, finds that added risk from population growth and development in storm-prone areas dwarfs the benefits of new beefed-up building codes.
    Swiss Re used the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Ian, which hit the Fort Myers, Florida, area last September and caused $65 billion in insured damages, to analyze what was driving up damages from big storms. Ian was the third-costliest storm in US history.

    Their idea was to “disentangle” the various possible factors causing the price tag to go up. Excluding the cost of inflation, the researchers looked at how factors such as building codes, population growth and the frequency of storms had affected losses from 1975 to 2020.

    They found that stricter building codes had reduced the average expected annual loss in the US by 60% to 65%, but that change in hurricane activity had increased risk by 25% and the value of property exposed to storms had risen by over 120%, leading to a net increase of upwards of 80% exposure.

    The researchers didn’t specifically analyze the impact of hurricane-related flooding, which is worsened by sea level rise and increased rainfall and adds to storm losses, inland as well as in coastal zones.

    Population growth and development in more storm-prone areas “really matters,” said Junge, ”and I am not sure people are really aware of how much this is a problem. One option is to limit where people are living. But at very least, everyone along the value chain — from municipal planners to builders — has to be aware of the risk.”

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