Norwalk commission seeks legal counsel on housing access road request
NORWALK — Norwalk’s Conservation Commission delayed a decision on a request for a secondary access road on Norden Place after two attorneys gave opposing legal views on the proposal.
Building the road has been a key part of developer Summit Saugatuck’s plan to bring a 187-unit housing complex to Hiawatha Lane, near the Westport/Norwalk border, a plan which has also faced repeated denials by Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
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“The strange thing about this application is that, at its core, it’s not necessary,” said Tim Hollister, Summit’s attorney, at the Tuesday meeting. “We’re doing this to solve a problem created by the Westport Planning and Zoning Commission and fire marshal.”
The road, a main reason for the housing application’s denial in Westport, was requested by Westport’s fire department, although Norwalk’s fire marshal said it wasn’t required. To establish an additional emergency route in that area, however, the current road would need to be widened from 10 to 20 feet, a move prohibited by a conservation easement in Norwalk. Summit is seeking to change that easement, which Hollister argued was a property right of the applicant.
“The conservation easement that was granted to this commission was granted with Summit’s emergency access easement recognized as a pre-existing vested property right,” Hollister said.
Others, however, stated the commission still had a choice.
“You have a right to say no,” said Keith Ainsworth, an attorney representing Save Old Saugatuck. “There’s just no right they have to the amendment.”
He added the applicant had a right to apply for permits, not change the easement. Ainsworth also cautioned the commissioners on the message of changing a conservation easement.
“You shouldn’t amend a conservation easement unless there’s some corresponding environmental benefit,” he said. “In this case, they haven’t proven that.”
Matthew Mandel, a Westport Representative Town Meeting and Save Old Saugatuck member, echoed Ainsworth’s comments.
“You’re looking at a public trust issue,” Mandel said. “To do anything else but say no would be a breach of that public trust.”
Commissioners decided against voting, in order to seek legal counsel on whether the applicant had a property right to make a change. Chairman John Verel said he was torn on the application due to property rights being unclear.
“We have to obey the law,” he said.
Still, some commissioners said their early feelings were to maintain the conservation easement.
“I think our priorities should be for the conservation easement,” Commissioner Ed Holowinko said, adding he was leaning toward denial.
“This is not something we have to do,” he said.
The commission will review the item again at its meeting on Jan. 28.