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West Rocks soccer field construction inspires angst for Norwalk neighbor

Construction behind West Rocks Middle School, on Wednesday. (John Levin)

NORWALK, Conn. – The neighborhood Peter Di Salvo bought into 12 years ago is gone because Zoning allowed all the woodlands to be destroyed over the past seven years, he said.

Di Salvo thinks of the West Rocks Middle School soccer field construction as an unpleasant surprise, the icing on the cake of unhappy development on Aiken Street, although it’s years in the making. Other neighbors allege more trees have come down than planned and they have more to complain about than just the view, as Monday’s rains created flooding.

Although Zoning regulations require that neighbors will be notified of pending projects, Di Salvo said the first he heard of the West Rocks soccer project was when a Sunrise Hill condominium Board member sent an email in March, “just as Covid-19 was striking.”

“For various reasons I did not think much of it at the time, perhaps thinking there’d be plenty of time to object if this was ‘big’ – plus I could not even fathom that what I see now was actually deemed a good idea,” he wrote.

Zoners unanimously approved the project in March, despite opposition from neighbors.

“I think this is a great project for the city,” Commissioner Frank Mancini said.

The school’s upper terraced lot will be replaced by an artificial turf field with LED lighting, a concession stand, while the lower field will remain as is, Andy Soumelidis of Landtech told Zoners. The new parking lot off Aiken will provide 57 spaces in addition to the 150 spaces already onsite, and will include handicapped parking, while now there is none, he continued. A staircase will connect the upper and lower fields, replacing a “pretty unsafe” dirt path.

The project has been authorized for a total $2.4 million in capital budget funding.

It’s a wake-up call for Di Salvo, who was unaware of City government machinations. The pink signs on Aiken Street trees in October alerted him to the issue, but, “As I’ve learned this step in the project process comes way too late.”

(Peter Di Salvo)

“If the pink signs on trees were posted two years ago, I can assure you that I would have attended every meeting to object to the West Rocks Soccer complex and I know others would have too,” he wrote.  “Had I known seven years ago that woodlands across the street would be laid to waste for yet another condo complex, I would have been there to object. If that failed, then I would have been there to object to its zoning as a non-conservation development.”

The Planning Commission approved the All Saints subdivision in 2018, allowing the Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocese to split its 26-acre lot into a 20-acre lot and a 5.5-acre lot and sell the latter.

Construction has begun, Di Salvo said Monday.

Although the Zoning Commission voted in 2016 to give neighbors more time to object to applications, sending out notifications when the application comes in rather than waiting until a public hearing is scheduled, Di Salvo said the measures don’t go far enough.

“In this day and age, I feel the city must change its ways and send a letter to every address within a mile of a proposed project and they must do that within days of that project being initially listed on any city agenda, budget proposal, etc.,” he wrote. “Regular citizenry is not proactively told of these things.  It is only if we monitor every item that is posted on the city website, if in fact it is, not to mention having these items converted to understandable English. .i.e. ‘conservation development’ does not mean what it sounds.”

Di Salvo has made a new friend in Audrey Cozzarin, an activist and Oak Hills Park Nature Advisory Committee Chairwoman, who also decries the loss of trees.

“{K}nowing ahead of time about a project such as this is difficult because the city makes no real attempt to reach out to the wide public. Instead, you might hear about a public hearing through a passing conversation, but even if you attend a public hearing it is after a decision or vote is made and the public hearing is a show only,” Cozzarin wrote. “Residents have to dig for info on the city website and/or don’t have basic knowledge that this info exists at all. Some CC meeting agendas don’t specify what will be discussed at upcoming meetings, again hard to determine when to attend for public comment.”

Construction behind West Rocks Middle School, on Wednesday. (John Levin)

Di Salvo said multiple attempts to get information from the City netted no response, that “only one member from the Tree Advisory was very thorough in following up with me.   I will temper my thoughts and be open to the idea that maybe it is not so much that duties are being neglected, these are Covid times, and perhaps this lack of communication is recognized and part of the reason the city is taking applications for a customer service manager.  But since this soccer project was years in the making, I will suggest that it is the system that is broken.”

The City is looking for a new customer service manager because Connie Blair, who held the position for years, recently took early retirement through the incentive program offered this fall in response to the pandemic.

Although eye catching, the demolition has only inspired a local homeowner’s association and one other resident to reach out to the City, Norwalk Communications Manager Josh Morgan said Monday.

“Staff has taken time to explain why the trees are being removed, the scope of the project, and the fact that trees will be replanted,” Morgan wrote. “Just to be clear, a total of 16 trees were removed as part of the soccer complex project. There was also some underbrush cleared. All 16 trees will be replanted throughout the site once the project is complete. The trees were removed to accommodate on-site parking, which will relieve a major source of frustration for residents, as cars were routinely parking the street.”

“Why did they cut down what appeared to be 50-80 year old trees only to replace them?” Di Salvo asked. “Yes some weekends for some soccer events people park on the side of the street.  How about if families don’t arrive in separate cars plus the parking lot in the plans won’t be big enough.”

Di Salvo said he’d heard there was flooding Monday due to the construction.

The contractor “made no provisions for water like a hay barriers, silt fence or other protection,” Roberta Andreasi, one of Di Salvo’s neighbors at Sunrise Hill condos, wrote. “We are contacting the city and Andy Soumelidis from Land Tech as the muddy water is cascading down the hill and flooding the back yards and running down Aiken Street into the ponds.”

“We have been in touch with Ken Hughes from Parks and Rec about the complaints.  We’re going to inspect the site Wednesday,” Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said in an email.

(Peter Di Salvo)

“Today’s storm event has been significant which unfortunately caused some flooding,” Morgan wrote. “This is temporary until drainage is installed on the field and not a permanent or long-term issue. The contractor will be on-site ASAP (hopefully by tomorrow morning) to take additional measures.”

Andreasi also alleged that more trees had been removed than planned; Morgan didn’t respond to that allegation.

Mayor Harry Rilling and Council President Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large) didn’t respond to an email asking about Di Salvo’s suggestion that notifications be geometrically upscaled.

The soccer field project is on schedule and “going well,” Morgan said. “We are looking at completion in mid-May, weather permitting.”

Di Salvo said that in addition to All Saints and now the soccer field, the construction of the Silver Ledge Townhomes complex about seven years ago destroyed woods directly across from his Sunrise Hill complex.

“My once quiet neighborhood with woodland views, wildlife habitats, and peaceful surroundings has been destroyed by not one, but two housing complexes, and now a large soccer project,” Di Salvo wrote. “…Aesthetics aside, taking down large numbers of trees in areas that suffer regularly from water issues, replacing natural grass for swaths of artificial turf, adding about ten new driveways/roads ¬– to literally a one quarter of a mile stretch of once quiet school zoned road – all further contributed to my asking who is in charge and why did neighbors not know earlier so as to voice an objection.”

He wrote, “Hint to Norwalkers: Catch a sunset view from All Saints or West Rocks when you have time – it is stunning.  In the future you will see roof tops and a lit-up sports field.”

Updated, 2:36 p.m.: Video by John Levin, edited by Harold F. Cobin

Aiken Street a decade ago, according to Peter Di Salvo.

Aiken Street now, according to Peter Di Salvo.

Aiken Street, according to Peter Di Salvo.

10 comments

Tysen Canevari December 1, 2020 at 9:40 am

Kudos to the city for making West Rocks a new up to date facility for Norwalkers to enjoy. Soccer draws tons of kids in town and now they can play in a great complex. I am confident the city will make the neccesary landscape changes at the end of the job to create a buffer for neighbors. When the leagues are using the field residents can go there for some exercise. Be patient neighbors. I live nearby and dont mind at all

Rolling Ridge Resident December 1, 2020 at 10:55 am

While I will give Mr. Morgan the benefit of the doubt that the 16 trees he is referring to are trees with trunk diameters large enough to be designated on the plans as designated for removal, the harsh reality is that the contractors clear cut a tremendous swath of woods, including smaller trunk diameter trees and underbrush, between the soccer fields and Sunrise Condos. The loss of the woodland buffer between the soccer fields and Sunrise Condos is devastating.

Bruce Kimmel December 1, 2020 at 11:09 am

While I am not aware of the latest data on Norwalk’s urban tree canopy and the percentage of impervious land (which I assume includes artificial turf), it’s probably safe to say that the canopy is still too low, according to state standards, and the amount of impervious land is still too high. This, of course, directly impacts a variety of health and safety issues, such as air quality and flooding. The city, especially its land use agencies, needs to look into this problem and devise a long-term plan to protect its human and physical environments.

Concerned Neighbor December 1, 2020 at 11:17 am

I have lived in the neighborhood my entire life and what Aiken street has become over the last 8 years is a disgrace. While the project at West Rocks School seems like a very nice upgrade, they could have done it in a way that didn’t involve taking down so many trees. However, that could be overlooked had the majority of the woodlands on Aiken street not been cut down for multifamily housing. The developer who put in the houses across from Sunrise Hill just slammed cheap, identical houses next to each other in an effort to cram as many in as possible. Just up the hill across from West Rocks field is another development, albeit by a different developer, that will turn out almost exactly the same. Cheaply built houses or multifamily homes. Those two projects together destroyed much more of the quite, woodland feel the neighborhood had much more so than the West Rocks project.

Having lived in the neighborhood my entire life, I couldn’t agree more that more cheap multifamily housing crammed in on Aiken Street is the worst idea for traffic. Aiken Street and West Rocks Road are a nightmare on a “normal” school morning and if you are a neighbor that doesn’t time leaving your house right to get to work, you could be stuck in just that one area for 20 minutes or more.

Zoning and Mayor Rilling could care less about any of this. To them the main priority, which they have not been shy about, is growing the grand list and they have been remarkably successful at this over the last 8 years. Even with that grand list growing and tax dollars increasing, Norwalk still has one of the highest mil rates for personal property taxes (cars) in CT. Probably has something to do with the fact that the fastest growing part of Norwalk’s budget has been Education and it now takes up well over 50% of each year’s budget. Have you noticed any remarkable improvements in Norwalk Public Schools’ buildings or facilities to justify this? Me neither.

Its a disgrace and none of it will ever change while the same people still run the show.

Sunrise Hill Owner December 1, 2020 at 2:27 pm

I wish that I could say that I was surprised with the floodwaters that came pouring down from the construction site onto our property this week. You honestly have to see the pictures (and video) to believe it. It was certainly “unfortunate” to quote Josh Morgan; it was also completely preventable and whether or not this is an isolated incident remains to be seen. I suspect given our history with water issues, it’s not a one and done matter.

What I can share is that this is exactly what our community was concerned about when we learned of the project earlier this year. Approximately a dozen of our owners attended the zoning committee meeting, many of us providing testimony as to the extensive issues we’ve had with water run-off and the expenses our owners have incurred to remedy and mitigate the damage.

It was obvious that the testimony provided fell on deaf ears and the assurances we were given were no more than empty promises. There has been NO oversight of the work completed to date to ensure it was being done in compliance with the contract as it relates to protecting the Sunrise Hill campus. None.

The management of this project thus far has been, in my opinion, negligent and frankly instead of firing up the backhoe’s today, they should have pushed pause until the contractors remediated the issue.

So disgusted by the way that Norwalk is treating a community that pays almost $1 Million dollars a year in property taxes.

Audrey Cozzarin December 1, 2020 at 2:36 pm

Hello Bruce,
Data: Regarding tree canopy, go here to review page 10, document created by WestCOG, the “go-to” date site in CT: https://westcog.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Norwalk-Tree-Canopy-Analysis.pdf

Artificial turf is toxic to people, animals, and poisons the ground and water system. Here is an article with excellent sources: https://pprc.org/2015/p2-rapid/how-can-we-make-synthetic-turf-fields-safer/

There are permeable pavement products, too, that can be used instead of petroleum asphalt.

I think we all know that removing trees which clean our air and put artificial/manufactured surfaces on top of the earth is not good. Having the guts to stand up and speak up for the earth, which has no “voice,” is real strength. That is what is needed now. We have enough condos in Norwalk.

Let’s stop destroying and start restoring. We’ll all be healthier for it. Let’s help Norwalk be a leader on this, bottom-up and top-down.

Sunrise resident December 1, 2020 at 3:43 pm

I moved into Sunrise about 10 years ago and it wasn’t long before everything changed. My kids used to also play soccer at West Rocks and managed just fine without a 3M turf field. It’s a real shame they are allowing this area to turn into a congested mess. Not to mention the 6 new units they squeezed into the corner of Ward and Main. That is going to cause backups for people trying to turn onto Ward from Main. Nice job!

Marjorie December 1, 2020 at 7:41 pm

When you live next to an open field that you don’t own. Be Aware. Build your buffer before your field of dreams becomes a Nightmare. The condos have had years to build impressive decorative/lovely borders

Bryan Meek December 2, 2020 at 6:00 am

Just curious, when is the last time Josh Morgan has even set foot in Norwalk?

Also, was Connie leaving a surprise? Who is going to train the new hire we need to replace her? Who will tell that person who is who, what is what, and where to go to dispatch service? Will this new person be introduced to everyone remotely?

If no one caught this, please just think about this for a second. We let go our customer service director with decades of institutional knowledge in the middle of a pandemic with city hall closed now and for the foreseeable future and we still get to pay full nickel for all of it.

Paul Fancini December 2, 2020 at 1:38 pm

I actually hate to say this but Pete Disilva is right. Has anyone driven on that road from 8-9 or 5-6 on a weekday? The real issue is Aiken needs 2-3 speed bumps. The soccer field could be installed on westrocks property (facing the school if you go to the left there’s a pathway and parking lot going down to another small field to the left of the main field which could be converted into something nice) but more importantly, if we care about the safety of our children we wouldn’t let them play on turf fields which are actually awful for knees and ACLs. Additionally, they are bad for the environment.

The city is right people park on the st but only at the bottom of the street so I question their intentions there (there is a parking lot at the top of the st so no one parks on the side of the road up there because there is the parking lot). Please stop selling Norwalk off to contractors and leave it’s residential areas as residential. Sono is already practically Stamford how much more developer money could the city want?

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