Eminent Domain Amendment OK'd: Norwalk (CT) Citizen-News, 6/29/06

By Leslie Hutchison

Hoping to level the playing field between property owners and developers, the [Norwalk] Common Council on Tuesday added an amendment addressing eminent domain to the resolution for the West Avenue Corridor Redevelopment Plan.

The amendment was proposed by the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and approved in a 12-1 vote with council President Michael Coffey, D-At Large, in opposition.

The amendment states that the NRA has "no present legislative approval" to "exercise the power to condemn private property without such approval first being obtained by an affirmative vote of the Common Council. The Common Council shall review on a case by case basis each request made by the Redevelopment Agency to use eminent domain and upon such review may approve or deny any request "

Coffey had presented a separate amendment on June 13 that placed restrictions on the taking of private property through eminent domain. His amendment stated that the redevelopment plan "is approved without the granting of authority of the [NRA] to exercise the power to condemn private property within the redevelopment area unless expressly authorized by further action by the council."

At that time the council declined to vote on Coffey's amendment until a legal opinion about how it would effect the status of the resolution could be obtained. NRA Executive Director Tim Sheehan had voiced concern that Coffey's amendment would represent a substantial change to the resolution and force the agency to begin the approval process all over again, causing months of delay.

In response to Coffey's amendment, the NRA amendment was drawn up in an effort to give the council the authority it sought to review eminent domain issues on a parcel-by-parcel basis.

Attorney Neal Rogan, who represents the agency, said the amendment allows that the "NRA may identify properties [slated to be condemned], but approval rests on an up or down vote by the Common Council." He added that Coffey's Amendment "eviscerates" the state law concerning eminent domain. He said a local legislative body couldn't legally reduce the role of redevelopment agencies. "The change should be made in Hartford," he noted.

To add any amendment, the council first had to vote to reconsider the entire resolution because it had been approved at the June 13 meeting.

Coffey made a motion to table the resolution for two weeks while the corporation counsel reviewed the wording of the NRA amendment. Immediately after that motion, Mayor Richard Moccia called for a five-minute recess.

When the council reconvened, Coffey withdrew his motion to table the resolution and added, "as to the proposal, there is some progress." The council is "beginning to understand the seriousness of eminent domain," he said. "It's a step in the significant direction of providing more rights for citizens."

The West Avenue plan covers 48 acres in three distinct areas, A, B and C. The so-called Area B has received the most attention because it contains 52 privately owned properties. The boundaries of the three-block area are the western side of West Avenue, Chapel Street to the north, Butler Street to the south and Academy Street and mid-block properties to the west.

According to Sheehan, Area B is the first section to be slated for redevelopment. The plan notes that the size of the area would permit the construction of a mixed-use project with a maximum of 535,750 square feet of retail space, 350 new residential units and 75,000 square feet of office space.

A handful of residents of Area B addressed the council Tuesday to express their concern about the plan.

"The developers shouldn't be able to come in and take our property unless we get a fair deal," said Lou D'Acunto.

Anthony Savas asked, "How much diversity will remain if the project goes forward? We won't be able to afford to live in Norwalk. Your concern should be that you'll become the next New London," where an eminent domain battle has been national news.

Council member Nicholas Kydes, R-District C, noted that "passing the resolution is not the last resort. We must have open dialogue."

Douglas Hempstead, R-District D, added, "Until the state gets its act together on eminent domain, we must move forward. We know what a success story can be" with the South Norwalk redevelopment. "This will be the rebirth of this section of Norwalk."

Moccia then announced that the city has "a good chance to get $1 million from the federal government" to support the West Avenue redevelopment. "We will have affordable housing and historical districts," he assured the public.

The approved plan will be taken up in September by the council's Planning Committee. At that time, Sheehan has said previously, "the point of discussion will be eminent domain, affordable housing and minority contractors."

Norwalk developer Stanley Seligson, who is likely to be designated the developer for the West Avenue project, told the council on June 13, "I will try to work as hard as I can, in a fair manner, to relocate or compensate as best we can" property owners whose buildings would be slated for demolition.

Area A contains 8.8 acres of commercial property on the west side of West Avenue, running from the YMCA to the south and Berkeley Street to the North.

The 12.25-acre Area C is designated as a Neighborhood Preservation Area. It is generally bounded by Chapel Street to the north, Harbor Avenue to the east, Butler Street to the south and several blocks of Quincy Street going east to Academy Street.

Norwalk Citizen-News: http://www.norwalkcitizen-news.com