Torrano, RTC doing Norwalk disservice with partisan attack

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(Bruce Kimmel is a second-term at-large Democratic Common Councilman who caucuses with the Republicans, ran with the Republican endorsement in 2013 and endorsed the entire Republican slate in that election.)

To the Editor:

Although I have long been a proponent of bipartisan politics, I appreciate the need for the leaders of our local parties to occasionally take a partisan potshot at the opposition. However, when a town chair, on behalf of his local executive committee, takes partisanship so far it endangers the well-being of a community, I believe it’s time to speak out.

Peter Torrano, the Republican town chair, recently wrote a column that slammed Mayor Rilling for selling out Norwalk by agreeing to a settlement between the city and the Al Madany Islamic Center. Nothing could be further from the truth, nothing could be less accurate.

First of all, the settlement was the result of mediations with a Federal Court magistrate, which Zoning Commission chairman Joe Santo (Republican) and vice chairwoman Emily Wilson (Republican) attended on behalf of the commission. Throughout the negotiations, the city’s lawyers, including corporation counsel, took direction from Santo and Wilson as to what changes in the plans the commission wanted. Santo and Wilson indicated that the commission’s first priority was to provide more on-site parking, and Al Madany agreed to the city’s suggested changes

For the most part, Al Madany agreed to the other changes Santo and Wilson requested, such as reducing the usable square footage of the back building by approximately 47%, and the traffic calming and landscaping measures that were proposed by the city.

Secondly, the lead lawyers for the city, the renowned Marci Hamilton, from the Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University, and Joseph Williams, from the firm Shipman & Goodwin – both of whom have praised the agreement – were retained by former Mayor Richard Moccia in 2012. Hamilton, perhaps the foremost attorney on religious land use issues in this country, said of the agreement: “… it’s a remarkable settlement. It’s very good for the city, it’s good for the people of Norwalk.”

Thirdly, Torrano ignored the most basic aspect of the current brouhaha: the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act, known as RLUIPA. This law forms the overarching context of what’s been going on between the city and Al Madany, and is the reason this case is so complex.

RLUIPA provides that if a religious group can demonstrate nothing more than a “burden” on its ability to practice its religion, it is then up to the municipality to prove that the zoning denial was based on a compelling governmental interest. Hamilton, who has argued that RLUIPA is unconstitutional, called the Norwalk agreement “remarkable” because it was based on zoning issues, such as reducing the size of the project by 26% and significantly increasing the on-site parking, and not on religious issues.

Finally, Mr. Torrano, in his column, ignored the fact that the city is faced with only three options:

First Option: Norwalk settles, in which case our payment to Al Madany is $145,000 and the approved plan for the mosque is much smaller and incorporates virtually everything the Zoning Commission requested, such as significantly more on-site parking, appropriate landscaping, traffic calming measures proposed by the city’s traffic expert, and no amplified calls for prayer.

Torrano vehemently rejects this option, but does not address the possible consequences of the other two options, both of which present the city with a no-win, costly situation.

Second Option: The city does not settle, goes to court, and loses, which could cost taxpayers – according to the lawyers hired by former Mayor Moccia – about $10 million and would lead to the construction of the original, larger version of the mosque with not enough on-site parking and none of the critical conditions of approval that are part of this settlement

Third Option: The city does not settle, goes to court, and wins, which could cost taxpayers $4 to 5 million in legal fees and costs. However, even if the city wins in court, shortly thereafter Al Madany would most likely file an application for the scaled down version of the mosque. Should that happen, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to deny that application.

The city is in a difficult place. Elected and appointed officials are not happy with the options before us. Now is the time for responsible officials, especially Republicans, to step forward and stop playing partisan games. We still have over a year before the next municipal election. Now is definitely not the time to go irresponsibly negative and jeopardize the welfare of Norwalk.

Bruce Kimmel


10 responses to “Torrano, RTC doing Norwalk disservice with partisan attack”

  1. peter parker

    Councilman Kimmel,

    I’m sorry but I do not agree with your analysis of the situation. I am also not sure why you find in necessary to always defend this mayor, he should be capable of defending himself, after all he is the mayor.

    This mosque is a bad deal for our city, it’s a monstrosity and should not be built. It will cause traffic problems and is much too large for the proposed area. Cost should not be a factor in whether or not we continued the fight. It’s about right and wrong and the principal.

    In my opinion the mayor took the easy way out, and that appears to be what his governing style consists of on all his decisions. He continues to let the city down and is not fulfilling the promises he made in his campaign. I guess the voters will decide his fate in the next election, he can’t hide from them.

    The previous mayor was correct in trying to block this mosque from being built, Moccia had it correct, and I applauded Peter Torrano for his opinion and say Bravo!

  2. LWitherspoon

    @Bruce Kimmel
    You write that “virtually all” of the Zoning Commission’s concerns were addressed by the settlement. What requests from the Zoning Commission were not addressed?

  3. Jeff

    Again Mr. Kimmel, since when was safety and maintaining the peace not governmental interests? You keep wrongly insinuating that Norwalk has no legs to stand on and the settlement is the best thing since sliced bread. How can Marci Hamilton’s “remarkable settlement” ever be taken seriously when she was retained and paid by the city? We are opening the floodgates for out of scale structures to be erected on our quietest streets. Property devaluations and a resulting eroding tax base will be far costlier than taking this to trial. Please see the forest through the trees. There are no such comparable structures of this size and scope on just 1.5 acres of land in any residential areas (last I checked)

    I support Peter Torrano and believe Norwalk should not settle.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Jeff, et al

      Focusing on the size of the structure would be a non-starter, as it is within the zoning regulations that permit a structure to cover 25% of the lot (not sure how the minaret height figures in, but my guess is the city cannot show a compelling safety reason to NOT allow it and it is a traditional part of the religious expression, covered in the law — my guess, don;t take it to the bank).

      The safety question — the neighborhood traffic increase — would seem to be the biggest concern other than the “I don’t like it” argument which, we are told, is the argument used to try to block the Stonegate Condominiums when they were being considered (along with the added traffic).

  4. UN Envoy

    Mr. Kimmel has his facts straight. Most other commenters, not so much, or not at all. The ignorance of the law being displayed by some commenters is very disturbing. The original application and the settlement compromise followed our zoning code, so the city can’t just say we think it’s too big, or too bulky, or no other building looks like it so therefore we don’t want this. It’s as if most of the commenters think the city can just tell this particular property owner they can’t use their property the way our code allows, because we “feel” it’s not right, or because the angry mob with pitchforks outside that the RTC carefully organized (which can easily be proven) are demanding it. Sorry, but land use law just doesn’t work that way. The irony here is that many of the people commenting against the mosque are indicating a deep hatred of the mayor, revealing that many of are probably Republicans. The truth is the RLUIPA law is a Republican right wing response against those dreadful pesky zoning codes, by mega-churches who were choosing residential areas to build their huge edifices, using property rights as the reasoning. In general, it is Republicans who resent regulations and zoning codes, and believe property owners should have as little regulation as possible. Except in this particular case, if you are a mosque that bought property that our code said you could build exactly what they originally proposed. Oh, but this is different, and the laws really don’t apply anymore, there are no property rights at all apparently, and the city should just tell the owner to take a hike because a bunch of rabid neighbors and the misinformed RTC just don’t want you there, regardless of what the law says. And we can blame the mayor for all of it and win the next election-hooray! That childish reasoning will win the case for the applicant hands down, cost taxpayers millions, and get the original application built which is bigger than the settlement, as it will be easy to prove this applicant was treated differently than all others. Every single comment on these pages will become evidence, and it is clear most commenters at this point and the RTC are displaying clear discrimination in expecting the city to treat this applicant differently than all others, and that somehow in this case our laws and code just don’t matter. That is why top land use experts in the country are recommending acceptance of this settlement. All the armchair amateurs who think if they can get a mob to show up the city will just cave and deny the settlement are playing a very dangerous game here, as Mr Kimmel is wise to point out. To deny the settlement now is stupidity taken to a new level that will cost the city up to $10 million, and forever brand the Norwalk RTC as the most irresponsible and intolerant organization in the city’s long history. No amount of backpacks handed out to poor folks in South Norwalk will ever repair that damage. And history will show that Mayor Rilling will appear as the true leader in all this who used reason and the rule of law instead of fear-based emotion and angry mobs to base his decisions on. The experience of being a police chief all those years is paying off, in showing a calm and reasoned demeanor in the middle of the ugly circus the RTC has created, which may damage our city forever.

  5. EveT

    Doesn’t matter which political party you belong to or what you think of Mayor Rilling. What matters is RLUIPA and Norwalk’s zoning code.

  6. Suzanne

    UN Envoy, Didn’t the applicant self-select a different treatment in their development process when they invoked RLUIPA?
    I do not agree in anyway with Mr. Toranno’s letter but I am concerned about the Zoning Regulations that allow any number of developments in Norwalk, this Mosque not excluded. While I know they met the guidelines, I think it is an indicator that Zoning law must be changed.
    This, then, points to the reactive and aggressive statements on some of these threads. I think there will always be a pendulum swing in any community, from moderate to hysterical. Each person is allowed their opinion and I am guessing you would also believe that is true, whether we agree with it or not.
    Mr. Torrano has a reputation for incendiary and inaccurate statements. I would never take what he has to say under the umbrella of the RTC seriously. It is good that you clarified just how RLUIPA was founded for his sake, however.

  7. LWitherspoon

    The comment by “UN Envoy” reminded me of the time that a sitting zoning commissioner politicized the BJ’s application heading into an election season, whipping the community into a frenzy and using the incident to score political points against his opponents in the other party.
    My, it sure is distasteful to see political parties playing political games with zoning matters. I wonder how that same former zoning commissioner feels about the 29,450 square foot mosque and community center proposed for Fillow Street. Something tells me I may already know.

  8. anon

    @Chapman, a quick check, but seems Norwalk’s Fillow St will have the largest mosque in Connecticut. Only the Bronx and New York City are larger. That makes this mosque a regional destination.

    No objection to it being a regional destination, but this is about traffic. Where is the traffic study for something of this magnitude? With some of the worst traffic in the country already, how will this affect I95? Connecticut Avenue? The streets in West Norwalk?

    Zoning to blame here? Clearly zoning in its entirety is ripe for review.

    But how does interference with the neighborhood property owners legal rights to quiet enjoyment and use of land fit in here? Will Norwalk’s bad zoning laws be a good enough defense against a neighborhood class action suit? Wonder what that would cost Norwalk in legal fees?

  9. piberman

    Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to first hear comments on the Mosque issue from the City’s two senior officials – Mayor Rilling and Council President Hempstead appropriately vetted by the City’s attorney rather than from an individual Councilmen ? Or are our senior officials reluctant to make comments ahead of public hearings ? Just who speaks for the City ?

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