NORWALK, Conn. — It’s official – the Common Council bit the bullet and has designated South Norwalk as a slum/blighted area in accordance with the guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“I am not happy with it, but unfortunately it’s a balance trying to figure out how can we bring more funds, outside of city of Norwalk funds, into an area and make it better,” Planning Committee Chairman and Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said at last week’s Council meeting. “… We have to accept that if we want to open the window of opportunity to bring in federal funding.”
The vote, after a discussion that touched on property values and eminent domain, was 10 to 4.
At stake in the 10-year designation is potentially millions of dollars that could be used to purchase property to use for affordable housing or to remediate environmental contamination, Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said.
The designation is based on a study done by the Cecil Group. In order to meet HUD’s “slum, blighted, deteriorated or deteriorating” standard, 148 of the 590 properties in the South Norwalk Transit Oriented District need to exhibit deteriorated or deteriorating conditions. The Cecil Group found that 443 of the 590 properties, or 75 percent, exhibit one or more of the following deficiencies:
- Structural age (pre-1978 construction – probable lead paint)
- Location in the flood zone (potential for flood blight)
- Included in the 2007 brownfields inventory
- Detrimental land uses incompatible with residential uses
The 1978 standard does not mean that a house is in poor condition, just that the feds think it might have lead paint, Sheehan said.
Council President Jerry Petrini (R-District D) said he owns an “impeccable” circa-1940 house in the district that HUD considers to be slum/blight.
“It’s not that they’re all falling down,” he said.
Some Council members said the issue should have gotten a more thorough public airing.
“We should have had a broader discussion about it,” said Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large), who voted against it at the committee level. “We never discussed the pros and cons, the objectives and the goals, and the ramifications and the unintended consequences. Whose input have we solicited for this designation? Have we asked the property owners, the businesses, the Realtors of Norwalk or the Board of Education?”
Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B), who is not on the Planning Committee, complained that there had been no public hearing.
“If somebody want to discuss it they certainly had the opportunity because I run my meetings pretty openly. I don’t watch the clock,” Hempstead said. “Nothing came up for any great discussion until this evening.”
“Whatever we want to say on the Council floor we can say as long as it’s relative to what’s being discussed,” Bowman said.
The Council recently voted to give the Wall Street area a slum/blight designation. There wasn’t much discussion for that either, Hempstead said.
“That’s neither here or there,” Minority Leader Travis Simms (D-District B) said.
Bonenfant wanted to know who would make up the difference if property values were lower in the next reval because of the designation.
“It’s almost like finding blight a good thing, it will bring us more funding,” Bonenfant said. “Some day, when a future Council wants to use eminent domain, what we are doing tonight will make it pennies on the dollar.”
“I live in South Norwalk and I really don’t appreciate the fact that you want to condemn it and call it a slum in order to get more money coming in,” Councilwoman Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) said. “I have a great concern about the eminent domain because once you guys start picking away and doing certain things you don’t show us everything and then all of a sudden you’re snatching stuff away and telling people they have to move, and I don’t appreciate that either.”
“I, too, live in South Norwalk and I would agree that there are many areas that are not blight,” Sheehan said. “But I think we also need to understand that there are areas of blight that exist in South Norwalk. At the end of the day, the impact of that blight is causing economic problems within the entire neighborhood. The concern ultimately becomes the longer we allow to continue and not do anything about it, and bury our heads in the sand and say it doesn’t exist, is basically costing the neighborhood, the community and the city as a whole.”
The vast majority of the properties involved are already part of four urban renewal plans, he said.
“I will take exception that we don’t bring everything before you with eminent domain,” Sheehan said. “The Redevelopment Agency has no authority to take any property in any of the plan areas without this Council voting to authorize us to do that. How can we possibly be doing something in terms of taking something by eminent domain that you don’t know about if you haven’t’ given us the authorization to do that? It’s impossible.”
“We are caught in this Catch 22,” Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said. “We have blight, we know that. We would like to improve a lot of areas in the city, South Norwalk, Central Norwalk, the Wall Street area. Funding, we cannot possibly produce with property taxes. It would bankrupt the city and especially the school system. The state is pretty tight-fisted these days and our only option essentially is to avail ourselves of HUD grants, which can be quite helpful.”
Simms asked if the Redevelopment Agency would have the power to take homes that are extremely blighted.
“(Building Inspector) Bill Ireland actually has properties that are deemed to be blighted,” Sheehan said. “We would be able to utilize that funding to bring resources to bear to help that property owner to deal with the blight that they have.”
Bowman made a motion to table the vote to allow for more public input. That failed 8 to 6. Voting to table were Councilman John Kydes (D-District C), Councilman John Igneri (D-District E), Bonenfant, Bowman, Stewart and Simms; voting against tabling were Councilman Glenn Iannaccone (R-At Large), Councilwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), Councilwoman Michelle Maggio (R-District C), Councilwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D), Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E), Petrini, Hempstead and Kimmel.
Voting to designate South Norwalk as slum/blight were Hempstead, Iannacone, Kimmel, Melendez, Kydes, Maggio, O’Toole Giandurco, Petrini, Igneri and McCarthy. Voting no were Bonenfant, Stewart, Simms and Bowman.
Councilman David Watts (D-District A) was absent.