NORWALK, Conn. – Rowayton residents turned out in force Wednesday to express overwhelming support for a new nature preserve in their midst, slam the Norwalk developer they said is dividing their community, and come together to take positive action.
More than 130 people jammed into the Rowayton Community Center to attend Wednesday’s meeting of Sixth Taxing District, the vast majority expressing support for the Norwalk Land Trust’s effort to purchase 2 Nearwater Road and turn it into a bird sanctuary. Taxing District commissioners were urged to step in to mediate the situation, but progress was made without their direct intervention — the meeting ended with the spontaneous formation of a committee to find common ground among the differing factions and come up with a solution to the controversy.
Bruce Beinfield, who has signed a contract to sell the property to the Land Trust, was not there to hear people suggest that he never wanted to sell it to begin with.
The meeting came against the backdrop of threats of a lawsuit against the Land Trust should it attempt to go through with the deal. On June 22, a strong majority of Pine Point Association residents voted against endorsing the sale in a non-binding expression of opinion with no legal value. That was fewer than 40 votes.
About 40 minutes was devoted to people speaking in favor of the Land Trust. Commissioner John Igneri methodically went through the names of people who had signed in; many of those who chose not to speak did so with a variation of, “I agree with everything that was said,” “my sentiments have been shared” and “likewise.”
“I’ve had a house on McKinley Street since 1978 and I’ve the seen the town literally walled in with out-of-scale housing, huge houses that block views of the river, more and more development,” Priscilla Ferel said. “What I really cherish are the few spaces left that have been so brilliantly preserved by the Land Trust … It’s my hope that the commissioners and the city will give strength to the leadership of the Land Trust so that they have the courage to press forward, and really fight for the right thing even if a lawsuit is threatened. I think non-profits can and do stand up to these challenges and interventions.”
“This property we are addressing reflects the uniqueness of this community,” Kevin Herold said. “There were some very peculiar things that came up in the emails that went back and forth before the Pine Point vote, including the possibility of man-eating birds and raising taxes. But, if anything, I find it counter intuitive that preserving a beautiful location would lead to higher taxes. If anything, this will enhance the property value here, it will preserve people’s interests in moving here. I’m not saying it’s all good but … the fact that this would be an economic hardship I find to be very strange.”
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” Mary Verel said.
Christian Langalis, son of Commissioner Tammy Langalis, asked anyone who disagreed with the overwhelming sentiment to speak out so that their concerns might be addressed.
Spencer Hempleman, who lives at 11 Nearwater, took him up on it.
“As a parent of three children under the age of 5 and knowing there are 18 other kids under the age of 5, one who is deaf, that live within a few hundred feet of the preserve, parents and myself are concerned that that would open up traffic flow within the community. Now, the possibilities of something happening are very low, but as a parent, why take an increased risk of something happening in that area?” Hempleman said. “So what I would say is I absolutely support nature and I support what everybody is saying here, but I think access to the public of a public parking spot is something of a concern of all the Pine Point residents – not all of Pine Point but a good majority of Pine Point – that’s really why the majority voted against that. I would encourage everybody to work with Pine Point so we can allay those concerns that we do have so we can make it better for everybody.”
Commissioner Tammy Langalis said the three commissioners were interested in trying to facilitate public sentiment and trying to help the two groups come together for a compromise, although it really is a contract between two private parties.
Commissioner Mike Barbis elaborated.
“We can try to facilitate a compromise, some sort of mediation,” he said. “I think there are some parties out there that maybe don’t want a compromise, but we can try. It’s not really necessarily in our charter per se. We have been threatened by one lawyer that we needed to stay out, that this was none of our business. So we are going to try, just like we facilitated stopping trucks on Route 136 even thought that wasn’t really our purview, and other challenges we have taken on. So we are going to try, but we can’t do it alone.”
Emails to the mayor stopped the BJ’s Wholesale Club proposal and put a halt to Beinfield’s pitch to the Zoning Commission last September, he said. Time to get organized and do it again, he said.
Susan Hurwitt said Beinfield had done nice things in the community. “The nicest thing right now is to have that land as it is pristine, beautiful, one of the last estuaries in that area,” she said. “How can we possibly put a shovel to that land?”
But Amanda Faulkner said Beinfield had built a “monstrous house” next to her. “I lost my view of Pinkney Park and Five Mile River. He showed callous disregard for everybody on my street. He did not care about the scale and the scope. I urge people to look at what he has done,” she said.
“I personally am very disappointed in Bruce Beinfield,” Nora King said. “I think he has profited greatly over the years in Darien and in the Norwalk community. He should come to the table and be much more negotiable in helping this process through. This should not be looked at as a profit center, something that you want to name a park after, getting your name on a park. It should be listening to the concerns of Pine Point. … Farm Creek is a wonderful, wonderful part of Rowayton and it’s time that one or two selfish people don’t stop the whole process.”
Lisa Thomson said Rowayton should “not allow a developer to divide this community over what we all believe should be open space. So I believe the Pine Point Association and those folks who have genuine concerns – I believe this community wants to work to make this deal happen. We should not allow side deals and side conversations and promises allow wedges to be created in this community. … Do not allow us to be divided and conquered.”
Several people suggested that someone should get Beinfield to drop the clause in the contract that requires the Land Trust to provide public access and three public parking spaces. But Pine Point Association President Leah Hogan said that had already been tried.
“Before leading up to the vote, we did approach Bruce Beinfield and ask him to drop the public access part of the deal,” Hogan said. “As of right now as we understand he is not willing to do that. That’s where we are right now. So if that’s something that we need to have happen, we’re going to need some help. Through his attorney he has said ‘no,’ that the contract the way it is is going to stand.”
“He’s playing all of us,” Shirley Nichols said. “How could he stipulate that it had to be public access when it’s within a private association? He didn’t have the right to demand public access from the Norwalk Land Trust. You know, unless he doesn’t want this to happen.”
“There you go,” someone said.
Lori Pasqualini said she is on the board of the Pine Point Association. “The board tried to negotiate with the Land Trust and Mr. Beinfield. The Land Trust was willing to accept all of the things the residents wanted. Mr. Beinfield said he was not going to modify the terms of the contract. That’s where the sticking point is.”
She added, “There are a group of residents in Pine Point, a significant number of people, who have hired an attorney to oppose, to the extent we know, at all costs. It’s really that group that needs to be brought to the table to convince them to ease up, along with Beinfield. It’s not just Beinfield.”
As the crowd filtered out to let commissioners conduct their regular business, one group stood in a corner, hashing things out. Igneri said in a midnight email that they had formed a committee to try to broach a compromise. The group included residents of Pine Point, Bell Island, greater Rowayton and members of the Land Trust, he said.
A compromise would make Pine Point resident Lynn Oliver happy. She said that was necessary “so that Pine Point can live as an association and as friends and neighbors and all of Rowayton doesn’t hate us and the rest of Norwalk doesn’t hate us. It’s really difficult. I have to say it’s been very stressful for the last several weeks.”