Protect the Partrick Wetlands
and our Community

ARS, Sewers and Future Concern F.D. Rich Neighbors

By Kirk Lang
Printed in the Westport News

Although ARS Partners has not submitted a new application for developing the former F.D. Rich property since its latest proposal was denied by the Planning and Zoning Commission in August, area residents in both Westport and Norwalk are concerned about the uncertainty of what the future may bring.

While Norwalk residents will not live next to the almost two dozen homes that ARS sought to build, and could perhaps eventually have approved, they worry a proposed sewer extension from Norwalk could lead to over-development of their neighborhood. Some Norwalk homeowners have joined together to form the Save Cranbury Association.

Gail Wall, a co-director of this group, is also on the Norwalk Cranbury Task Force, a committee appointed by Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp to research and evaluate the concerns of the rural neighborhood regarding the sewer and "further build-out." Wall added that part of the task force's job is to evaluate whether the sewer extension is necessary.

"There are no reports of septic failure in the area to justify extension of the sewer," said Wall, who added the task force is roughly halfway finished with its research.

While ARS is waiting on Norwalk for a decision on the sewer issue, as well as numerous legal appeals related to Conservation Commission, Representative Town Meeting and P&Z decisions on ARS Partners' proposal, Wall said ARS doesn't have to wait around to see what Norwalk's eventual decision on extending its sewer line into Westport will be.

"ARS has a choice. They can put in a private [on-site community waste system]," she said. "Of course it's very expensive and would also limit the amount of houses they could crowd into that project."

Sean Timmins, co-director of the Partrick Wetland Preservation Fund, agrees.

In a recent letter to the editor, Timmins said: "The sewer is specifically desired by ARS because it allows for greater density (22 houses on nine acres) than an on-site community waste system would allow.

"Without the sewer as the basis for development, five to seven houses would be viable on this property."

ARS Partners is in the midst of a legal battle with neighbors but so far, ARS has emerged victorious with decisions that have been rendered by the courts. Last month, an appeal of the development by Arthur and Claudia Cohen was dismissed by Stamford Superior Court Judge Dale Radcliffe. The Cohens had filed a notice of intervention during Conservation Commission proceedings on ARS Partners' proposal. The petition listed 23 specifications concerning allegedly unreasonable pollution of the "air, water or other natural resources of the states." The Cohens also tried to intervene in Representative Town Meeting hearings but the RTM, based on the recommendation of the RTM Environment Committee, decided not to exercise its power of review concerning a Waterway Protection Line Ordinance permit that had been approved by the Conservation Commission and the Flood and Erosion Control Board. Town Attorney Ira Bloom, before the RTM decided not to exercise its right of review, informed the Cohens that intervention was premature. However, the Cohens appealed the decision of the RTM to refuse to exercise its power of review. Radcliffe stated in court papers that the "failure of the RTM not to review the actions of the Conservation Commission and the Flood and Erosion Control Board is not an appealable decision."

According to a member of the Partrick Wetlands Preservation Fund, Radcliffe's ruling is being appealed to a higher court.

Matthew Mandell, a co-founder of the Partrick Wetlands Preservation Fund, said prior to Knopp's administration, the Norwalk Water Pollution Control Authority agreed to extend the sewer with conditions but last October, Knopp set up a task force to review the need for the sewer.

Mandell surmises that the effort to hook up to the sewer through Norwalk was done because it was believed it would be more expedient than trying to go through the Westport approval process. Timmins said there have been no requests to justify extending the sewer under the Norwalk Town Plan, the Westport Town Plan or the Connecticut Town Plan.

"The State Plan seeks sewer avoidance rather than extension as a core principle of Smart Growth," said Timmins, adding, "Westport town officials have reiterated that the Partrick area is outside the designated town sewer area for at least the next 25 years."

"Sewers are the instigator to overdevelopment," said Mandell. William Wrenn, president of the Norwalk Land Trust, agrees.

"We would not be in favor of extending the sewer line because it would lead to more development pressure and eat up some more of the open space," he said. "Our goal is to preserve as much open space as possible."

The Norwalk Land Trust is trying to raise money to purchase a portion of the White Barn Theater, which is situated in both Norwalk and Westport. Months ago, trustees of the theater held a community meeting and showed some preliminary plans for development of the property.

"The vast majority that came were horrified by their proposal," said Wrenn. If the White Barn Theater can hook up to the sewer, there can be as many as 11-17 homes on the property, according to the proposal presented at the time, and if the White Barn is demolished, up to 23, according to Wall. The Norwalk Land Trust has applied for a state Department of Environmental Protection grant for help in trying to get the funds necessary to purchase part of the White Barn property and welcomes any donations anyone would like to make.

"So much of the White Barn property is wetlands," said Wrenn. "It's difficult to develop and makes it more valuable for wildlife. We want to prevent more traffic, air pollution and asphalt. It has more value if it remains as is. It will allow for greater bio-diversity of plants and animals." The Save Cranbury Association has also started a fund-raising campaign to try to raise funds to buy the property and donate it to the Norwalk Land Trust.

Diane Lauricella, chairperson for the Fairfield County group of the Sierra Club, said she wasn't surprised the sewer extension into Westport was initially agreed to by former Norwalk Mayor Frank Esposito and the City Council in the late 1990s.

"I don't think they met a sewer request they didn't like," she said. The Sierra Club has been working to make Norwalk's current administration aware of the pros and cons of sewer extension. The Fairfield County group has been talking to Public Works officials, attending town meetings and staying in touch with the Save Cranbury Association and the Partrick Wetlands Preservation Fund.

"Sewer extensions are a regional issue, not just a one-town issue," said Lauricella. "As soon as the ARS application was denied, the WPCA was formed by Knopp after he took office. The original extension agreement was set up in 2000 with the condition that the extension would be allowed if the Westport applications were approved.

"Since the P&Z denied the project in Westport, doesn't that null and void the agreement between ARS and Norwalk?" asked Lauricella. Larry Weisman, who the Westport News has been trying to reach for a couple weeks, was unavailable for comment. According to his secretary, he is out of the office until mid-July.

ARS appealed the P&Z denial last year. It remains to be seen when a ruling will be made on the appeal.

Lauricella is one of many people up in arms about the proposed sewer extension.

"I think an extension in this part of town would change the very nature and character of the Northeast quadrant of Norwalk," she said. Many Norwalk and Westport residents are worried a sewer extension will lead many property owners to subdivide their properties.

Lauricella believes ARS Partners can still have a profitable development with a stand-alone waste system, even if that means reducing the number of homes.

Mandell added, "The Open Space Residential District regulations say that an on-site community based system is allowed. ARS has never offered this as an option and it would allow for less impact and less development on the wetlands and for the community."

Before anything can be erected on the site, in the near future, or in the distant future, the P&Z, in its denial last August, said it wants further testing of the site for contaminants.

"If the applicant submits another application for the development of the property, an independent environmental consultant must be hired to review the environmental reports submitted, complete additional testing for contamination, formulate recommendations for remediation if necessary and prepare a report for the Planning and Zoning Commission," stated the zoning board, adding, "The commission has concluded that this application should not be finally decided based on the existing situation, without additional testing for contamination, and without the review and recommendations by an independent environmental consultant, and that a complete review of this application cannot be made at this time."

Timmins, in his recent letter to the editor, said of this issue: "Anything other than a third party, doing a comprehensive study, as mandated by the P&Z decision, would continue to cast a shadow over the efforts by the town to ensure the environmental safety of the site."

Mandell believes ARS Partners [edit - and Westport officials] would be wise to hold off on any future application until Norwalk has completed its work regarding whether or not to extend the sewer. There no clear answer on when that's going to happen.

"It's going to take some time," said Wall. "We have to review all the information, all the report and then submit the findings to the mayor."