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Who funds density?

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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?

Lisa Brinton

Former Mayoral candidate (2017 and 2019)

UDRIVENorwalk.org

7 comments

Stuart Wells February 19, 2021 at 7:29 am

State Legislative District boundaries are adjusted every 10 years after the census. This is done by the Legislature on a bipartisan basis and is next supposed to happen late this year, in time for the new district boundaries to be in place for the 2022 state/federal election. The results of the census are expected to be delayed because of COVID-19, which will likely present challenges to the redistricting process.
The only part of the process that involves local city government is the redrawing of the voting district lines within those newly configured Legislative districts. The new voting district map will be drawn by the Common Council, in consultation with the Registrars of Voters. Neither the Council, nor the Registrars, have any say in whether the Legislative Districts include portions of neighboring municipalities.
Stuart Wells, Registrar

Scott Vetare February 19, 2021 at 8:32 am

As always well said Lisa. Thank you for stepping up! How this opens the eyes of the Norwalk people who care about our city and realize there’s no transparency here in Norwalk.

David Muccigrosso February 19, 2021 at 10:50 am

Heartily agreed. Streamlining permitting will reduce the need for people to run illegal home businesses, and an across-the-board upzoning (including in retail/industrial) can make the room for those businesses to find “homes” in the legal market, without forcing massive spikes in density on any one place.

However, we can’t just NIMBY every project into oblivion. Sane rules – like broad upzoning, streamlined permitting, and removing silly requirements like setbacks – need to be instituted to allow a traditional, incremental development pattern to take hold, instead of structurally biasing our system towards subsidizing disruptive crony projects that we keep ending up having to shoot down. We can’t let the need to shoot the current bad things down convince us that NIMBY is the only way to ensure development happens in a sane manner.

Ginny Waters February 19, 2021 at 10:54 am

Well put! I’m a newcomer to Norwalk and it’s already obvious to me that Norwalk has done too little long-term planning and too much caving into developers.

Adolph Neaderland February 19, 2021 at 12:01 pm

Not only do I agree with Lisa, but to go a step further, in their questionable rush to approve unmanaged mixed use multistory residential property, P&Z, the Planning Commission and City Governance appear to totaly ignore the current Covit plague and warnings that similar plagues are certain in the future.
Still unbuilt units are, to my knooweledge, NOT required to include certification that quality anti virius features have been included in thier designs.
It seems to me, to be the bare minimum we should be doing for future Norwalk residents and, for once take the oppportnity to be ahead of the curve instead of playing catch-up.

Ron Morris February 19, 2021 at 1:37 pm

Looks like Lisa is getting ready to run yet again. The only question is will she be a Republican as in the party of Trump, Democrat , or an independent this time around.

Patrick Cooper February 19, 2021 at 3:12 pm

@Stuart Wells – informative but disappointing – why not just say – it’s not my job. Where are the advocates for Norwalk? Not a political party, but a place – our home. We need an alter-ego with some self-respect, because if we won’t fight for our city – who will?

Do a little homework. Look at all of the top 7 population “cities” in CT – Bridgeport, New Haven, Stamford, Hartford, Waterbury, Norwalk, and Danbury. Now go and look up – how many exclusive (only serve the city) state representative does each have? As example – Bob Duff doesn’t count for Norwalk – he serves two communities (equally bad).

Think this doesn’t matter? Well, if we were properly represented, ask yourself – would we have just rolled over on the Walk Bridge? The land to the Danbury rail line? Manressa Island? The total cannibalization of local schools immediate needs because of a shoe-horned regional high school project that primarily benefits a single persons political ambitions?

Agreed – vote for your family, vote for Norwalk – and forget national political parties.

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