Rowayton sanctuary not quite out of the picture yet

NORWALK, Conn. – The effort to keep Rowayton’s old trolley line from being built upon isn’t necessarily over, even if the Norwalk Land Trust (NLT) has voted to terminate its contract with architect Bruce Beinfield to purchase 2 Nearwater Road.

Two Sixth Taxing District commissioners, new NLT President John Moeling and Dan McHugh of Save Farm Creek all expressed optimism Wednesday that perhaps there is a different route to make open space out of the half acre property that protrudes into Farm Creek.

“I don’t know who is necessarily going to rise to the occasion, but I think there are people who hope this can somehow be salvaged. I am not sure how that can happen,” Taxing District Commissioner Mike Barbis said. “We just have to wait and see. I think this has been a very circuitous road and it’s not necessarily over.”

Beinfield’s take? H says his alternative plan to build two structures on the property would protect the critical parts of the peninsula.

“I’m sorry that the original initiative didn’t work out,” Beinfield said. “I have a great deal of respect and support for the Norwalk Land Trust. I also understand the issue with the Pine Point Association and I think there are other things that can be done in the future to provide the kind of protections to the land that are appropriate.”

Last fall, Beinfield withdrew his plan to replace the existing cottage on the old trolley way with a significantly larger structure after hundreds of emails were sent to the Norwalk Planning and Zoning office in opposition to the plan. The Land Trust entered into a contract to purchase the property for $1 million, with an Oct. 1 deadline to raise the cash.

The Land Trust was planning a bird sanctuary with public access. That plan has since hit opposition that Moeling called “unprecedented.”

The Pine Point Association on June 22 expressed a majority opinion against the plan with a non-binding vote. NLT President Kathy Siever subsequently resigned. The NLT postponed a decision on further action to allow Sixth Taxing District commissioners to take the pulse of the community, inviting public comment at their monthly meeting. More than 130 people jammed the Rowayton Civic Center for that meeting, the vast majority in favor of the NLT plan.

On Tuesday, the NLT elected Moeling as Siever’s successor, through January. The NLT voted to terminate its contract with Beinfield.

McHugh and the taxing district commissioners say they are disappointed.

“I’m not surprised by the Land Trust decision last night,” Commissioner John Igneri said. “It’s been a very difficult time with three or four different groups seeking slightly different resolutions to the issue. But I am very surprised that the Pine Point Association was not in favor of a bird sanctuary there, which would be open space that was not open to the public because it was a sanctuary for birds. I think it would have been a win-win situation for everyone.”

“I am not totally surprised,” Barbis said. “After everything that has happened, there have bene so many ups and downs I find it hard to believe that it’s over but there was a small group of people that felt very strongly about this.”

“Ultimately we were persuaded that at the rate things were going we were going to spend most of our time in litigation,” Moeling said. “We have hundreds of members who have paid to be members of the Land Trust and I really don’t they expected that’s where their money was going to go. … We are still devoted to the concept of open space and protective space and well-stewarded space, especially near the waterfront, throughout Norwalk. We need to figure out what the best way it is to work toward that goal. We just came to believe that the contract wasn’t getting us there.”

Moeling said it would be an overstatement to say that anyone has given up on the concept of open space and “maybe even open space there.” There are people working on preserving the little peninsula now owned by Beinfield.

“Individually and collectively if we can find ways to help them we will because their objective is the same as ours,” Moeling said. “I don’t believe that we’re giving up at all. I think that we had reached the point where the contract itself was more of an impediment than anything else. We would have loved to have seen some kind of consensus that we could have contributed to within the framework of the contract, but when it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen we looked for that consensus in some other way.”

“I think it’s not over until it’s over,” Barbis said. “I think there are still some people that think there are some other ways of proceeding with this. Is that going to get some momentum? I don’t know.”

There was strong public support for the NLT purchase but the legal threats were too much, Barbis said. The Land Trust works on a small budget, he said. “They were in no position to get caught up in some legal battle,” Barbis said.

McHugh, a neighbor to the property who is head of SaveFarmCreek.org, said he is deeply, deeply disappointed.

“It really seems as if there is a lot of people who really, really worked hard on this,” McHugh said. “I frankly think Mr. Beinfield was trying to do the right thing at the end, with the public access issue. I think he got shall we say put in a pincher move with some of the very well-heeled money people in Rowayton who are very concerned about their deed restrictions. These people threatened to sue him if he dropped the public access. That’s my understanding… I think there are still going to be some efforts to see if there is a different resolution. I know the community at large still has concerns about Mr. Beinfield’s plans to build a house in the creek.”

Taxing District Commissioner Tammy Langalis also said she is disappointed. “I think there were people who were working behind the scenes after the taxing district meeting to facilitate some sort of compromise but apparently that didn’t come to fruition,” she said.

“I think it’s too bad that Bruce was either unwilling or unable to modify the contract” to please the Pine Point residents who against the Land Trust acquisition of the property, she said. “I think if Bruce had modified the contract a compromise could have been met,” she said.

Charles Schoendorf, namesake of the Charles Irwin Schoendorf Preserve at Farm Creek, called it a “sad day” for the neighborhood.

“It is a sad day in the history of Rowayton when an important piece of raw land comes so close to being spared from development and then does not,” Schoendorf said in an email to NancyOnNorwalk. “Two Nearwater is not just any half-acre of waterfront.  By projecting some 500 feet into the Farm Creek tidal estuary, it is a unique combination of historic, visual and ecological importance.  Rowayton has a long tradition of showing wisdom in conserving such space as Bayley Beach, Pinkney Park, the Community Center and the Hart property.  Maybe this space is a few clicks less significant than those, but it is clearly important.  We were so close on 2 Nearwater, with a signed contract in hand, and it unraveled.  Truly sad.”

Schoendorf was involved in an earlier preservation effort that was written about in Forbes magazine, helping to save a 2.2-acre parcel at 34 Sammis St from development. In 2011, the Land Trust completed at $4.5 million fundraising campaign to purchase the land from Schoendorf, who had bought it to hold until the Land Trust could raise the money.

He tried to shed some light on the current situation from his perspective.

“Readers may or may not know that the sales agreement with (Beinfield) called for the land preserve being open to the public, which absolutely horrified some Pine Point (PP) residents,” Schoendorf said. “On account of that, a few of us tried to facilitate a dialogue in order to achieve a compromise that could have worked for everyone, or at least some maximum number of people. Our compromise solution was for (Beinfield) and the opposition within PP, and the NLT, to all accept the space being made into a strictly private land preserve with no access to people or cars.  Unfortunately, the staunchest opponents within PP of the land preservation trivialized our attempts to dialogue with them and we got nowhere. Nor could we get a commitment from (Beinfield) that he would be truly on board with a non-public land preserve.

“But worse yet,” he said, “there were serious threats coming out of PP that litigation would be brought against the seller and the buyer if the sale proceeded.  That, in my opinion, is why the NLT withdrew from the purchase, because the NLT is essentially a group of conservationists who preserve land through peaceful means, not in a courtroom. …  I have no doubt the Board and the membership of the NLT are very disappointed with this outcome.”

Beinfield said no one from the Land Trust’s board of directors approached him to modify the contract.

After withdrawing his plan from Zoning, Beinfield has come up with an alternative plan that calls for two structures. One would be smaller than the existing cottage and be off the spit of land that juts out into the creek, and serve as a guest house. The other would be a 3,500-square-foot house, closer to the road, for Beinfield to live in.

“That was considered by the Norwalk Land Trust as a win-win, in that it would provide permanent protections to critical areas of the peninsula. That wouldn’t involve them spending the million dollars,” he said. “That is the kind of thing that could happen and I guess that could happen and it would respect the commitments that were made by the Land Trust to the Pine Point Association  and the underlying interests of the Pine Point Association in not having a public entity in the association. That’s the reason the contract was terminated because of the challenges made by members of the Pine Point Association.”

What now?

“I have not considered what the next steps would be in terms of what I would do with the land at this point,” Beinfield said. “I think that a scenario like what was described as totally reasonable but for some reason I think there are other people who have other agendas, but they haven’t seen fit to share them with me.”


16 responses to “Rowayton sanctuary not quite out of the picture yet”

  1. Yankee Clipper

    Bruce, Please don’t lie.

  2. M. Murray’s

    Couldn’t a bunch of them get together and create a foundation where they raise money and purchase it from the developer and keep it any way they want?

  3. Suzanne

    Obfuscation is always entertaining when it is so transparent if it weren’t so sad in this case: Mr. Beinfield is apparently on a mission. In what universe would two structures with all of the attendant construction and debris plus required utilities show little impact to a delicate one-half acre eco-system? He can’t see his nose to spite his face as some would say: he wants to develop as he sees fit and has successfully reached such a “compromise” in his own vision, the ecosystem and environment be darned. I am sure in his mind as an architect some dandy passive solar or maybe some nice LEED materials will fix or compensate for the complete destruction of habitat.

  4. Casey Smith

    Personally, I think it would be a great spot for a Taco Bell! Parking would be a bit of a drag, but just think of the view!
    Seriously, I’m with you, M Murray. If Pine Point is so opposed to the bird sanctuary and they are so well heeled as to keep the Land Trust in court for a lengthy period of time, then they should pool their resources and buy the property. Why they didn’t do that when it first came on the market mystifies me, but they put themselves in this position because they didn’t do that and they didn’t want the bird sanctuary. Now it’s time to pay up or shut up, guys.

  5. Ark

    Eco nuts out of control. McHugh lives in a giant house right on Farm Creek so of course no one else can build next door. This is not a pristine environmental site. It was a trolly line built artificially years ago. The little house which is there has been there sixty plus years. Now Beinfield has offered to keep the old house as a studio, restrict further development on the trolly line, and build close to the road the same way all the other residents have on Farm Creek. What is the problem? His new house next to the road will be smaller than many of the monstrosities already built or recently expanded by these false friends of Farm Creek. No one who lives along the creek now or who profits from sales of such houses (commissioners/brokers Barbis and Langalis???) can claim to be protecting or preserving Farm Creek. These hypocrites are all just protecting their own financial interests. Take the compromise and let Beinfield build his house along the road and keep the historic house in Farm Creek. Or we can tear down all the houses that border the Creek and return it to a natural setting for all to enjoy. That would be real preservation

  6. One and Done.

    Taco Bell? Arthur Treacher’s would be more appropriate. Don’t eat the local catch after a hefty rainfall. That’s all.

  7. Lisa Thomson

    Be clear, it’s not all of Pine Point’s residents… But a few. I’d name them but then they’d threaten to sue me like they did the land trust. Shame some of these people would rather use their money to threaten folks trying to preserve open space than for a good cause. They probably steal candy from babies too! Like Barbis said, it ain’t over til it’s over. I believe a compromise will ultimately prevail. Bruce, please help us find a way forward.

  8. Lisa Thomson

    @Ark … Interesting you single out 6TD Commissioners Langalis and Barbis, who also happen to be realtors. The plot thickens with common councilman and resident Pine Pointer Dave McCarthy. Which side of this debate has he been on? As 6TD commissioners, they stepped in as did John Igneri to hear what the community had to say. After all, they were elected to do just that. Despite attempts to brandish this development a NIMBY situation amongst immediate, wealthy seaside neighbors, it really is a community and open space issue for the rest of town folk who live nowhere near the property.

  9. Haley

    Pine Point residents should be more civic-minded! Everybody knows bird sanctuaries draw huge, rollicking crowds. The hoards of birdwatchers who can be expected to descend day and night upon this international tourist magnet are exactly the people Norwalk needs to shop in the proposed mall! Think of what could happen if they turned their eagle eyes from egrets to upscale designer luxury high-end bargains! Maybe the trolley line can be reactivated to go back and forth! Metro-North could run special trains from New York! One can’t help but wonder if Rowayton Avenue has already been widened and improved for this very purpose!

  10. Bruce Beinfield FAIA

    Lisa Thomson
    I have not had the pleasure of meeting you, but would enjoy the opportunity. Please give me a call when you have a moment.

  11. Bartholomew Quint

    Most residents of Rowayton think that this would have gone through with
    no problem had there been a reasonable approach from the beginning.
    Unfortunately, from when the project was released, certain people
    created a lynch mob. The signs, the bullying, the banners. From the
    fence to the lawn signs to the few real interesting cases of entire
    houses covered in banners, both professional and home made.

    These are our neighbors, and no one ever had a civil dialog. No one
    asked Bruce Beinfield to modify the contract? The commissioner’s
    meeting was not a serious effort to bring people together. Shame on
    everyone who participated in this bullying. The real estate agents
    angling, the lawyers making money and nothing to show for it. The
    phoniness in this article is beyond belief.

    Bruce, please build what you need to build and do it quickly.

  12. kent van horn

    wake up grown adults…
    bruce beinfield never intended to have this land be a preserve. he orchestrated, with his thug lawyers, an iron-clad way to get him out of it, and come out looking like a hero. the “public access” clause he made the NLT agree to, along with the parking spaces and signage were obvious ways to stir up the in-fighting and fear in Pine Point, to make them hire their high balled lawyers with their endless pockets of money. money can buy lawyers, but unfortunately not good hearts. shame on you, and you know who you are!

    so now mr beinfield thinks he can call the end of his land a preserve? when he can access it at will, while no one else can, and he is the one to get the tax benefit, and try to call himself a hero and lover of nature? you have lost your way mr beinfield, please come back to hear the massive outcry from almost the entire community of rowayton.

    your version of “revised” plans are worse than the 1st set. now 2 buildings? when you take into account the 13′ flood elevation and add your 2.5 stories, that comes out to a 4 story house, plus the guest house? and i thought that was illegal to build 2 structures on a single property? how can you get that passed in zoning?

    seems like you are trying to win this for winning sake, and not listening to the town that used to think you were a level headed businessman in the community.

  13. Scott

    First of all Rowayton is not a town. Norwalk used to be a town but has grown to be a city of which Rowayton is a section of not unlike East Norwalk, Cranbury, Silvermine, South Norwalk and West Norwalk. Let Mr. Beinfield build what he wants within code on the piece of property that he lawfully owns. If the self interested neighbors want to protect their view let them spend their own money to buy the property. If public money is used in the God forsaken name of open space there had better be public access without twisted rules to keep the rest of the City of Norwalk tax payers out. Private road means private not public issue. Keep it that way.

  14. Pragmatist

    Out of all the online comments posted on this issue we applaud those of both ARK and SCOTT. We have lived in Rowayton for 33+ years and spent most of that time looking at the view of this property from our home. Their comments reflect our views exactly…….Bravo to you both! If you all want to do something to enhance the beauty of our town stop defacing it with your ugly GD signs & banners!

  15. spanner

    Give them all shovels and pick axes and let them fight it out.Like the one Beinfield had in his back seat a while back.How did that Norwalk police issue end up?

    The building they are fixing Beinfield designed how is that going in Sono?

    Yep a true Norwalker with the best of intentions when it comes to Rowyaton.

  16. liz beinfield

    Yankee Clipper, who are you? Are you insane?

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