The 2021-22 Norwalk City budget debate continues. Our mill rate is set to rise again, with a +/-4 percent property tax increase and $8 million Rainy Day fund drawdown necessary to fund local government. All this despite high-density commercial development everywhere throughout the city.
Urban development has been occurring throughout the United States for the past 20 years. Good or bad, one need not look any further than Norwalk or Stamford to witness changes to our cityscapes. Density can benefit communities by increasing social, convenience, economic factors and walkable spaces with lively places and amenities. Norwalk has benefited from some of the commercial construction in terms of grand list growth, but not enough. Density has also brought increased local and highway traffic, empty storefronts and a loss of the sense of community for many. In 2019, the Hartford Courant published an American Transportation Association report, ranking Norwalk 47th in the nation for city bottlenecks and road congestion.
Density isn’t a partisan issue. Discussions should be driven by common sense and the common good. Norwalk’s current administration – the Mayor, Council and BOE (24/25 Democrats) have bought into Hartford’s agenda of doubling city populations. The problem is who is paying, or even helping? Residents continue to bear the burden of increasing rents and property taxes.
Antiquated zoning regulations, cronyism and special permits explain much of what has happened. We have seen zoning crises in every part of the city, followed by expensive lawsuits and payouts funded by residents. City Hall still cannot streamline small businesses permits, but a special zoning one for a distribution warehouse was almost a fait accompli. Residents mobilized against the absurdity of 18-wheelers rolling past three schools on Strawberry Hill or Norwalk’s most accident-prone street – East Avenue. Since 2013, thousands of housing units have been added, many with years of tax credits. Schools are overcrowded and a “regional” high school threatens K-8 maintenance. Budget talks pit road, sewer and sidewalk maintenance against education.
Local elections should be about good city management including the funding of schools, police and fire, preserving neighborhoods, with zoning and ordinance enforcement, paving roads and sidewalks, picking up garbage and keeping parks and beaches clean. Fiorello LaGuardia once said, “There is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets.” City operations should not be politicized but they are, especially here in Norwalk.
For nearly a decade, I have advocated for smarter local government. After the last election, I created UDRIVENorwalk.org, a non-partisan PAC focused on tracking and benchmarking Norwalk’s data against other municipalities aimed at better policy making. We don’t help our city’s residents when money is wasted. Following are a few recommendations focused on improving land management and quality of life in our city:
- Put a moratorium on tax credits and oversized development until city expenses stabilize or Hartford helps.
- Stop gerrymandering political boundaries. Only two of our five State Reps solely represent the interests of Norwalk.
- Address slumlords with buildings in disrepair, charging a fortune and cheating tax rolls, as well as illegal proprietors operating in residential neighborhoods. Consult Danbury, the state’s model combating health, housing, zoning and fire code violations. City Hall must put as much effort into building inspections as issuing parking tickets.
- Take care of our own K-8 schools before bonding Norwalk money out for a state driven regional high school.
- Streamline permitting processes for small business so they do not leave Norwalk from exasperation waiting for approvals.
- Add commercial real estate expertise, so taxpayers stop paying developers’ legal teams to manipulate property values.
Norwalk, with our ~23 square miles of land, ~13 square miles of water, six miles of coastline and 1,050 acres of parkland is a jewel. Funding our city and quality of life depends on how Norwalk zones, develops and utilizes its land. As Mark Twain said about land, “they’re not making it anymore.” This November, isn’t it time residents vote FOR Norwalk?
Former Mayoral candidate (2017 and 2019)