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Rowayton newbies look to transform potential City headache into ‘community asset’

(Harold F. Cobin)

City property once appraised for more than $95,000 has been sold to its neighbors for $1,000 through a process that included competitive bidding.

New owners Steve and Sally Adelman plan to involve Brien McMahon High School students in rehabbing the Rowayton quarter acre, thought to be unbuildable due to its wetland status.

An unnumbered lot on Sheffield Road, adjacent to property bought a year ago by Steve and Sally Adelman. (Harold F. Cobin)

Last week, Steve Adelman spoke of “turning an unloved piece of property into something which will be a community asset that we hopefully will all enjoy for a long time.”

It’s a community they’re both new to, having moved here from Arizona a year ago.

The .23-acre lot next to the Adelmans’ home at 8 Sheffield Road was listed in the 2021 tax sale, with a minimum bid of $24,525 and more than 13 people listed as owners. It had also been in the 2018 tax sale. Given no takers, the City assumed ownership.

It was appraised at $95,550 in the 2018 Grand List. That was recently dropped to $3,820.

An unnumbered lot on Sheffield Road, adjacent to property bought a year ago by Steve and Sally Adelman. (Harold F. Cobin)

Obviously, it’s not worth much considering the disinterest, then-Common Council member Tom Livingston observed in April, at a Council Land Use and Building Management Committee meeting, where the suggestion that the Adelmans might be given the property inspired pushback.

Nicol Ayers (D-District A) said she was “a little uncomfortable” with the discussion, objecting to “a procedural structural issue of the City giving property, regardless of the value.”

“At this point, we’re not looking to give it away,” Livingston replied.

An RFP (request for proposals) was subsequently issued. No one but the Adelmans was interested, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said in July.

“Right now, as the property stands, the City is responsible for maintaining it,” an expense “if somebody dumped on the property or tree fell and things like that,” Lo said. “They want to be the stewards of the property. And I admire that.”

The Norwalk Land Trust didn’t want it because it’s too small, he said. Assistant Planning and Zoning Director Alexis Cherichetti had visited the lot and agreed it’s unbuildable.

An unnumbered lot on Sheffield Road, adjacent to property bought a year ago by Steve and Sally Adelman. (Harold F. Cobin)

Council member Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said she was impressed by a plan outlined by the Adelmans.

“There is no ‘development’ plan for this wetlands lot,” the couple said in a memo. “Rather, our intention is to restore it to its ecological function and to make it attractive from both Sheffield Road and Meeker Court, which border the lot at either end. Under the supervision of local landscape architects Cindy Shumate of Cynscape Design and Allison Feuer of Allison Feuer Design, the project will initially focus on corrective landscaping in and adjacent to the inland wetland and watercourse, including removal of leaning and dangerous trees, invasive vines and perennials, non-beneficial stumps and plant materials, and trash.”
They want “to transform the look from an overgrown and abandoned lot to a peaceful garden that enhances the entire neighborhood,” they wrote.

The only cash payment for the lot in the 110 years before the Adelmans’ purchase was a transfer for $1, according to the couple’s research.

It was first listed in the land records in 1913, the Adelmans said. It passed hands in 1953 and again four years later, the 1957 transfer for a buck. The owner before 1913 was Robert O. Raymond; the new owners in 1957 were Richard F. Raymond and Elizabeth B. Raymond and in 1984, the estate went to Hope Raymond. In 2014, after she died, it made its way to the 15 people mentioned above, none of whom lived in Connecticut. Many were in California.

The lot’s $3,820 appraisal is the lowest the tax assessors can legally make it, Lo said. The Adelmans bid $1,000.

If the transaction doesn’t work out, the City’s wetland protectors could file a complaint against the Adelmans in a few years and retake the property, Lo told the Planning and Zoning Commission in October.

“I’m very familiar with the property and it’s wet 99% of the time,” P&Z Commissioner Tamsen Langalis said. At an abutting property, “There’s a serious sump pump drainage system in the crawlspace… The neighbors on Meeker Court were complaining how all the water ran off the hill behind their houses on Meeker Court and into their yards.”

Wetlands determinations are based on soil type, “not just the presence of standing water,” Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said. A scientist might allow a boardwalk on a wetland but not a structure, “you can’t expand your house into the wetlands or any of those kinds of things.”

“I’ve been in this business a long time,” Lo said. “I see many people that say what they say and never do what they do.” But with the Adelmans, “I think it’s a good faith effort. And they put it in writing to us already.”

P&Z granted the 8-24 referral approval that was needed for the transaction to proceed. In November, the Council approved the sale unanimously without further comment.

It’s going to be called The Lenox Hill Preserve, Steve Adelman said Thursday at a “celebration” hosted by the couple, on the property. “We found a document going back to the 1890s that shows that in fact, this area that we all live on is called Lenox Hill. So we’re gonna give this lot its name.”

Wetlands don’t exist in Arizona, he said.

“Sally’s from California. I’m from Westchester County,” he said. He wanted to be close to his parents and “Sally is a great sport.”

They bought their home with the “best possible help,” Barbara Sweeney from Coldwell Banker, and moved here “mostly without furniture” because Arizona-style furnishings would not suit their new digs, a “1955-style turned into this sort of California contemporary,” he said.

Wetlands consume half the backyard so the couple sought advice from Attorney Richard Roina and Cherichetti, who is also Norwalk Senior Environmental Engineer. Eventually, the Adelmans’ eyes looked next door.

“We both work from home, our offices look that way,” Steve Adelman said. The “most obvious thing” was to buy the lot from the City, even if Lo called the idea “crazy.”

“You guys were amazing in giving us the benefit of the doubt. And believing that we would actually do what we’ve always said we would do,” Adelman said.

The BMHS students are “basically going to do a longitudinal study of a lot that is essentially dormant from an environmental standpoint, to clearing out the things that shouldn’t be there, planting things that should be there. And they’re going to study the plant life, the wildlife over the course of however long there are students who are interested in studying this. So we think that’s a really cool thing,” he said.

Cindy Shumate of Cynscape Designs, left, shows off a concept design for the wetlands adjacent to Sally Adelman’s backyard. Adelman is at right. (Harold F. Cobin)

Landscape architect Shumate said she and Feuer are designing the property to fit the Adelmans, including an oak tree which couldn’t go in the front yard due to overhead wires. A weeping willow on the far side will create graceful movement and “makes a nice statement, but it’s also perfectly suited to the wetlands.”

Invasives will be removed and the streetside enhanced with native wildflowers and boulders, she said. “We really would like to enhance the fact that the waterway goes through,” removing leaves and a Christmas tree that have been dumped.

A concept illustration from Cindy Shumate of Cynscape Designs. (Harold F. Cobin)

“I’m thrilled about this opportunity to work with the kids at the high school,” Shumate said. “It’ll be a learning experience for me, certainly for the Adelman’s, and we hope for these kids, because the more these kids understand about wetlands, wow, our place will be a lot better. … Hopefully a year, two, three, from now, you will drive by and say ‘wow, this is just an incredible piece of property.’”

“This is going to be an amazing thing,” Mayor Harry Rilling said. “I can’t wait to see it.”

Adelman said the couple held the celebration to “publicly recognize the City officials who have been in our corner from the beginning. The reason that we wanted to do that is to kind of push back against a narrative that Sally and I feel like we hear too often, which is, you know, government does bad stuff, or they’re only there for themselves. Our experience has been so dramatically different than that.”

Comments

5 responses to “Rowayton newbies look to transform potential City headache into ‘community asset’”

  1. Susan Guerrero

    This is great news for a small parcel that has been too often used as a dumping ground. Congratulations to an inspired group of creative thinkers, including the owers and landscaper Cindy Shumate.
    It’s not 23 acres, however. I doubt it’s 2 acres. Please somebody find and insert a decimal point!

    1. Steven A Adelman

      Susan, the wetlands lot is 0.23 acres. That’s pretty close to the “Rowayton quarter acre” description in the second line of the article.

  2. Thomas Gabriele

    I’m glad to see that in this instance our elected City officials have done the right thing and listened to the residents. There are many people who live in this City that respect the area the live in and what to maintain it in the most ecologically sound way (without additional building). Kudos to the Adelman’s for their love and willingness to preserve this property. My only regret is that the City, having no other alternatives or buyers, still accepted $1,000 for this property when they should have transferred it over for a simple $1 knowing that it has no potential development use.

    1. Steven A Adelman

      Thomas, thanks for your kind words. We look at the $1,000 purchase price as a modest down payment on what will be several stages of clearing, planting, and beautification that will far exceed that figure. We are delighted to live in Norwalk and we love our neighborhood. If our small gesture inspires other people to do more for this community, then we will have been more than compensated.

  3. Tysen Canevari

    Make sure you dont use any gas blowers or the ordinance police will be after you!

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