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Stonegate: Settlement would protect beleaguered Norwalk neighborhood

Stonegate Condominiun Association board member Israel Herskowitz
Stonegate Condominiun Association board member Israel Herskowitz urges the Common Council to accept the proposed settlement to the lawsuit filed against Norwalk by the Al Madany Islamic Center, last week in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – The word, from a layman who couldn’t be closer to the situation, is that Norwalk would be likely to lose the lawsuit filed by the Al Madany Islamic Center if it went ahead without a settlement or another location found for the proposed mosque.

Israel Herskowitz, who looked at last week’s Common Council meeting like he had been through the mill, said he was hurt by all the suspicions voiced online here and in other places. There has been no deal to get the Stonegate Condominium Association’s blessing of the proposed settlement, he said. Norwalk is very lucky to have Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola, he said. Norwalk needs to change its antiquated zoning regulations, he said.  

“The fact (is) that the U.S. Attorney and the Justice Department Civil Rights Division want a settlement or they are going to intervene in the case. This doesn’t spell success for the city,” said Herskowitz, a member of the Stonegate board, to the council and to the community room crowd.

Norwalk is between a rock and a hard place with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) bearing down on it, negating local and Connecticut land use laws, he said.

The 32 Stonegate homeowners, who are of modest means and fixed incomes, have spent much money in their battle with Al Madany, with only a $200 contribution for help, he said. While some NoN commenters – and people who spoke later in the meeting – say Stonegate was bribed into settling with an approximate $53,000 payment as part of the settlement to pay for a gate on the complex, Stonegate could have bought five gates with the money spent on attorney’s fees, Herskowitz said. The gate will probably cost twice as much as Stonegate gets in the settlement, he said.

“Frankly I am hurt by some of the stuff I read in the media, that we were bribed, and we were cut special deals. We weren’t …” Herkowitz said.

Stonegate requested intervener status at the urging of its former attorney, Herskowitz said.

“It wasn’t easy to get from the federal judge, but he said if there’s going to be a settlement you want to be part of it, and he gave me also some good advice,” Herskowitz said. “Eventually, something will be built on that property. Al Madany owns the property. So we pursued the intervener status. It was very costly to our association, but I’m glad we did because we were able to participate in the settlement agreement.”

Stonegate won important concessions that will benefit everyone in the neighborhood, he said, listing traffic calming, no prayer calls and no amplification on the property, which he said wasn’t in the original settlement proposal.

“And excuse me to anybody who says that it won’t be upheld. We have our own counsel from a major Connecticut law firm and he has assured me that it’s going to be ironclad. So there are no deals. We weren’t cut any special deals. The other neighbors could have had that opportunity to be an intervener. They chose not to,” Herskowitz said.

Someone said, “We didn’t know.” Herskowitz suggested they should have gotten their own attorney.

“I think Norwalk is very lucky to have Mario Coppola as its corporation counsel,” Hersokwitz said, prompting a murmur from the audience. “It would be easy just to not settle and blame it on Moccia and Bob (Maslan), but (Coppola) had the political courage, and that’s rare in today’s world from government officials, to make the difficult choices because this thing is not going away. If Al Madany loses they’re just going to reapply tomorrow and we’re going to have to go through another five or six years.”

He continued, “We sat down with the city’s attorneys and we were briefed, and with our own counsel, and we made a risk decision that it’s probably a significant risk that the city is going to lose this lawsuit. And why is that? Because Norwalk has antiquated zoning regulations. There is something wrong in the regulations when you can put a 20,000-plus-square-foot institutionalized building on an acre and a half lot and be within all the zoning regulations.”

There was applause.

“If there’s anything, once the ink is dried on this settlement, modernize the zoning regulations. Don’t let this happen to another neighborhood like it’s happening here,” Herskowitz said.

Herkowitz’s comments came at the beginning of the meeting, sandwiched between a lawyer representing the association and Brian Bisceglia, board president.

Bisceglia said he represents dozens of the homeowners, 90 percent of whom agree that the settlement is the best deal for everyone involved.

The gate will create problems with access for visitors and delivery people, and there will be future maintenance costs, he said, and there’s the issue of raising the other half of the money. But Stonegate, which has been involved with the issue since 2009, is willing to do it to get the deal done, he said.

“This is a very carefully negotiated term and it’s integral to the acceptability of the deal,” Bisceglia said. “… We made the investment to be part of this process and we believe this settlement deal is the best for all parties, not just Stonegate but all the neighborhood.”

Attorney Adam Mocciolo of Pullman and Comley focused on the real risk of “unacceptable consequences” if the lawsuit proceeded and there was a “catastrophic loss,” to which Stonegate and other neighbors have a “special outsized concern,” beyond the expected tremendous legal payout.

“In the frustration of a drawn out and unpredictable lawsuit, brinksmanship can be tempting, especially when you are in effect playing with somebody else’s property and somebody else’s interests, but it’s rarely a prudent course,” Mocciolo said. “It is not a prudent course this evening. This is, in all likelihood, the last chance to settle this case before it goes to trial. My client respectfully invites any member of this body considering voting against the proposed settlement this evening to consider what he or she will say to Fillow Street residents if your decision tonight forces this case to trial and the city loses. It will be too late at that point to do anything to protect Stonegate and the other residents of this neighborhood.”

The council tabled voting on the settlement to its next expected meeting on Sept. 23. It may be tabled at that meeting as well, members said.

Comments

2 responses to “Stonegate: Settlement would protect beleaguered Norwalk neighborhood”

  1. EveT

    This is what so many of the naysayers can’t get through their heads: “There is something wrong in the regulations when you can put a 20,000-plus-square-foot institutionalized building on an acre and a half lot and be within all the zoning regulations.” Combine Norwalk’s out-of-touch zoning code with RLUIPA and you have a recipe for exactly what is happening.

  2. Greene has to go.

    Eve T, agreed, and guess who’s laughing all the way to the bank in all of this? Why it’s Michael Greene, the Planning and Zoning Director, who is responsible for helping create the ridiculous zoning code over the decades he’s been in charge, but still gets raises every year from the taxpayers of Norwalk for basically for doing nothing to fix it. And he’s not even a professional planner nor does he even live in Norwalk, yet still makes $160,000 a year with 8 weeks paid vacation, all paid for by the taxpayers he’s working against. He’s basically screwing Norwalk while we are paying him a king’s ransom for doing it. The broken zoning code created this mess. The anger of residents would be best directed at the Planning and Zoning Department. Remember what the mosque representatives said at the hearing last week, which was that Michael Greene actually helped them figure out how big they could make their building based on the existing code.

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