In Your 'hood
July 29, 2006
State auditors have been investigating the DEP and a private contractor for months
By Sharon Bass
When a neighborhood of Yale professors got a report from the state late last year saying their homes are sitting on contaminated soil, they got suspicious. They didn't believe it. They knew properties in the abutting Newhall neighborhood were deemed contaminated and are under a consent order to be cleaned up.
But their homes, in middle-class Prospect Hill, are not within the consent order boundaries and they felt there might be some hanky-panky going on in Hartford.
"The reason they gave us [for looking beyond the boundaries] was there was no reason to expect the contamination in the consent order to stop cold on a line," said Mark Yeckel of Morse Street. The state reported that high elevations of lead, hydrocarbons, PCBs and other contaminants were found in their part of the 'hood, he said.
So Yeckel and his Yale teaching peers went hunting. They studied state documents and contracts and had their own soil analyses done. What they came up with countered the bad-soil findings of the state contractor, Loureiro Engineering Associates, said Yeckel. They say they also discovered the state Department of Environmental Protection gave LEA several no-bid contracts, extending the amount of the original agreement from $48,000 to $1.48 million.
Now the Connecticut Auditors of Public Accounts is investigating.
"There were some questions as to the authority to conduct certain soil samples outside the consent order. There was some concern about incorrect [soil] testing," said Republican state auditor Bob Jaekle. "Whether the entity that was hired [LEA] was appropriately hired. Whether their findings were accurate,"
Messages left yesterday at LEA and the DEP were not returned.
Yeckel and company sent their findings to state Rep. Peter Villano (D-Hamden) and state Sen. Martin Looney (D-11), who then sent the auditors a letter asking for an investigation.
A few years ago, LEA was awarded a contract for $48,000 to do "emergency spot remediation," Villano said. But the work and money mushroomed as areas outside of the consent order perimeters were tested and deemed contaminated.
"The contention of the neighbors is that out of that $48,000 [LEA] got renewals without bidding and without authorization from the DEP commissioner, and that was parlayed into multiple contracts close to $1.5 million," said Villano. "DEP obviously thinks they did nothing wrong. And that's for someone else to decide."
The "Prospect Hill" report was also sent to the Attorney General's Office. "They're fully informed and will see what the auditors uncover," said Villano.
"Our property was considered to be on contaminated waste fill by the DEP," said Yeckel. "It isn't. We found that out of the 43 reports that we've looked at -- out of a total of 63 houses -- there isn't a single example of subsurface contamination that might reflect historically deposited waste fill, which was the point of the DEP's investigation."
Jaekle said his department's inquiry is still ongoing and could not release preliminary findings. "We don't have a report ready yet," he said. "We've been reviewing the documents, the records that might have led to the awards and amendments of the contracts with LEA and the subcontractors."
Villano agreed with the Yale teachers. He said the streets in question -- Morse, Goodrich and Bryden Terrace -- have no history of being a dumping ground, as the Newhall area was by the former Winchester gun factory and others. As a result, Olin Corporation, which bought Winchester, and the state are largely responsible for the remediation, which has been in the testing and thinking stages since 2000. The DEP just announced last week that it has a cleanup proposal.
"They [Prospect Hill residents] were mystified by the actions of Loureiro," said Villano. "These are substantial homes on Prospect and Morse. They never had any landfill activity. These were always established homes on solid ground."
Villano said LEA employed more stringent standards than the Prospect residents did (they used a private lab) when doing their analyses, making any amount of pollution seem harmful and in need of a costly cleanup. "You have contaminants in your back yard and so do I," the Hamden state rep said.
In June, LEA got another state contract. "I'm told it's $5 million to do some soil testing wherever DEP thinks it might be required," Villano said, adding that the state is also paying LEA to promote "public participation activities." About $400,000 has also been spent on public relations for the remediation project, which has gone to subcontractors.
"They're [LEA] getting a big chunk of the pie," said Villano. "One of the things we're asking the auditors to check is their current contract."
To: Richard Kehoe, Special Counsel, Legislative Liaison
Date: March 24, 2006
We refer for your review and evaluation a copy of a comprehensive report comprising the research efforts of a group of property owners in Hamden's Prospect Hill neighborhood on DEP's soil sampling activities that raise, in the residents' view, "scientific, ethical and legal concerns." The authors are all Yale-affiliated professional persons, well informed, and have undertaken impressively painstaking and thorough research.
The charges are raised principally against a DEP contractor, Louriero Environmental Associates of Cheshire (LEA).
The report raises the charge of "unauthorized" soil sampling activities by LEA, which they further characterize as flawed and as having reached invalid conclusions, raising the question of lack of proper state monitoring in the expenditure of public funds.
More troubling is the award of contracts without required bidding. The report documents that an initial limited contract with LEA in the amount of $48,229.95 to provide "rapid, short-term response to hazardous spills" ultimately resulted in payment to LEA of $1,488,614.31 through unauthorized addendas to the original contract. It adds: "When LEA was tasked by DEP to solicit bids to perform emergency remedial measures in the Consent Order boundary, the contracts were awarded to LEA's wholly-owned subsidiary, LEA-Cianci." Moreover, in the adjacent Newhall Consent Order neighborhood DEP spent thousands more through multiple contracts to outreach consultants with uncertain results.
We are concerned about the questionable and perhaps improper use of public funds. As legislators we believe strongly that the actions of DEP staff and of its contractors and subcontractors in this matter require an investigation by your offices.
Martin M. Looney
Peter F. Villano
July 27, 2006
Neighbors Strike Back
"As a resident of the Town of Hamden, Connecticut, I am requesting that the Mayor and Legislative Council start eminent domain proceedings immediately to acquire the property known as the 'Maselli Farm' located at 390 Gilbert Avenue, 390 Gilbert Avenue Rear and 225 Dunbar Hill Road to be set aside for public use, such use to be specified at a future date by the appropriate town authorities.
Story and photos by Sharon Bass
The battle is not over. After all.
Those fighting a residential developer from chopping up a Gilbert Avenue farm into 72 housing lots remain tenacious and passionate. Even after a court recently ordered the town to allow Baker Residential to put up a subdivision on the so-called Maselli Farm, opponents are still full of steam.
They have another idea.
They're circulating the above petition. They want Hamden to use the power of eminent domain to buy the property. They sent a letter to 600 neighbors about it. They also sent a letter to the mayor.
Now the town is drumming up ways to stop what seems like the inevitable. Eminent domain is a possibility, but a slim one.
"It's a very big story," said the mayor's Chief Administrative Officer Scott Jackson. "We're on the wrong side of a court decision. What does eminent domain mean? Where does it apply? We're trying to look at a broad range of options." He didn't want to disclose what else the administration is considering, so the Pleasantville, N.Y., developer "doesn't get a leg up."
"We're not ignoring the issue, but for obvious reason we can't make the town's strategies public," said Mayor Craig Henrici, who once lawyered for the Maselli family.
"Basically, what we're trying to do is be creative. We have a problem here," said Jackson. "Our problem is that our citizens are upset and when that happens, we try to do something about it."
Upset, indeed. Many who live near the farm, which is in the 7th Council District, say they will do just about anything to keep those houses from going up. They went to the Planning & Zoning Commission meetings in 2004 to try to defeat Baker's proposal. They yelled over and over that it would add too many kids to the school system. More cops, firefighters and Public Works employees would be needed. It would create unmanageable traffic conditions. That the loss of open space would decrease the value of their homes.
And they were successful. All commissions turned down the Baker plan.
But the real estate developer took it to New Haven Superior Court, and on May 19, 2006, Judge Thayer Baldwin Jr. ruled the development did not violate the town's subdivision ordinance, so the commissions that denied the project must now approve it -- with conditions. The Planning section of P&Z did so last week. Only Inland Wetlands & Watercourses has to sign off. Chair Steven Sosensky said that should happen at the Aug. 2 meeting.
Then Baker would be free to build its 72 three- and four-bedroom homes on the 34-acre farm. The firm is under contract with the Maselli family to buy the land, John Horton of Baker said at the July 18 Planning meeting.
"I do not expect that any of the conditions [set by IWW] will surprise the developer," said Sosensky. They'll deal with sedimentation and erosion control, storm-water treatment, setbacks, re-vegetation, and so on, he said.
"This is a precedent-setting issue because of the other farms in town," said Derrick Pommills, who lives on Gilbert Avenue with his five children. "They just jamming everything they can into that space. They don't care about the community."
Pommills belongs to the Dunbar Hill Civic Association, the main opponent of the Baker development. On a recent evening, he and others in the association sat in Michele Mastropetre's Ingleside Drive living room to talk about their latest strand of hope: eminent domain.
Councilmen Mike Colaiacovo (7th District) and Ron Gambardella (at-large, and lives near the farm) came to talk. So did Mike Crocco, 7th District Democratic Town Committee chair, Bill Burns, president of the civic group, Patrice Watson of Ingleside, Barbara Calabrese, treasurer of the group, and Patricia Younger, who lives on Gilbert.
"We're not objecting to the development," said Gambardella, "but to the size of it."
"A third-grader can tell you it would be cheaper to buy it now than what it will cost 10 years down the road!" roared Burns. "They [developers] missed Dunbar Hill in '65 and went to West Woods. And now they're here!"
Assistant Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez and Superintendent Alida Begina did not return messages left yesterday seeking comment on the project's likely impact on the schools. Burns, et al, say the subdivision would produce over 150 new students and another elementary school might have to be built, and the new middle school and high school would need additions.
Jackson said he has no data to determine if the dollar amount of extra municipal and school services would exceed the property taxes collected from the subdivision.
"It can be difficult to quantify," he said.
"We're looking at numbers. We want to see what the property is worth. It's worth more now with municipal approvals," said Henrici.
Either the Legislative Council or the mayor would have to initiate the eminent domain process, he said. There's no mention of it in the Town Charter.
Depending on how much the town would have to fork over for the Maselli farm, the eminent domain question could be answered by the voters in a public referendum, instead of by the Council, said Finance Director Mike Betz. That's because Hamden's debt service -- not its total bonded indebtedness -- cannot exceed 10 percent of the current $163 million budget without voter approval.
"Debt service is your mortgage payment, it's not the amount of the debt," said Betz. Hamden's debt service is now $11.7 million, he said. So it can't go beyond $16.3 million without a referendum. It's the charter's way of keeping the bonding in check, he said.
Talk about eminent domain and other measures to kill the proposal is speculative. There is that May 19 court judgment.
And IWW Chair Sosensky said developers have the upper hand in these battles. They have more money to fight them and judges are ruling in their favor.
"Recent court decisions involving land use commission discretion, specifically the River Bend and the town of Wilton cases, have raised the bar considerably for municipal land-use agencies, to the extent that towns are now required to have experts counter the evidence of developers' experts," he said. "Without commenting on the fairness of that, it amounts to an un-funded mandate from the court system. Developers are better prepared at garnering expert evidence than struggling municipal budgets allow."
A message left for Horton at Baker Residential's New York headquarters was not returned.
According to its Web site, Baker has developments in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Connecticut -- Danbury, Middlebury, Canton, Torrington and Wallingford. The new Fieldstone Farm at Wallingford has 95 three- and four-bedroom houses priced over $400,000, developed in a cluster as proposed for Hamden. The company has built over 14,000 homes in 106 communities.
July 25, 2006
Opponents of a completed Mix Avenue condo development say they're still wary
Story and photos by Sharon Bass
Patty Dest and Roberta Held were among many to fight -- and fight hard -- a Mix Avenue condo development that had been in the works for about 30 years. They lost. And now they're afraid they might lose again.
The condos aren't selling well. There are 128 of them. The women, who live in the adjacent East Gate Condominium, say they're afraid universities will buy the one- and two-bedroom units for student housing.
"It's going to be an option, probably," said Dest. "And not just Quinnipiac, but Yale and Southern, too." Owner of the Mix Avenue condos Frank Perrotti could not be reached for comment.
The three-building complex is at 720, 740 and 760 Mix Avenue. The first was built at 760 in 1967 and called Sutton Towers. It has 98 condos -- originally apartments -- and it is unclear how many are vacant. The other two buildings, The Views at Sutton with a total of 128 units, were recently completed. And no sales. Until now.
According to Jennifer D'Amato, a sales agent for The Views, two condos were just purchased and two more are expected to close this week. She also said 18-19 people have made deposits.
But, she conceded, it's been a slow sell.
"[Prospective buyers] would say, 'Where is everyone?'" said D'Amato, referring to the entirely empty buildings. So prices were slashed a month and a half ago, she said. The cheapest unit was originally going for just under $200,000. Now that one-bedroom, 591-square-foot condo is listed at $169,900. The largest two-bedroom at 1,030 square feet costs $264,900.
Perrotti still has some work to do before he gets a certificate of occupany for 720 and 740, said Assistant Town Planner Dan Kops. Instead, he has a zoning compliance certificate "which means people can live there and use the building but there's still some landscaping issues that haven't been completely resolved," said Kops.
He was referring to the way the trees were planted to make a buffer between The Views and East Gate. Dest and Held said instead of making the buffer run along the street as was in the plan, the trees travel through private properties. They want it corrected.
The three-decade battle between different Mix Avenue developers (the property changed hands a number of times) and the town ended in 2003, when the Planning & Zoning Commission approved the condo proposal.
"Different developers would come in. Submit plans. The P&Z would shoot them down," said Held. "One developer wanted to put up wooden buildings with 30 apartments in each. We fought and fought for years. They cut down 10 acres of trees. Ten acres."
The current owner is Perrotti, said Kops and D'Amato. According to Appraisal Vision, Sutton-Mix Avenue LLC bought 760 Mix Ave. on April 21, 2003, for $8,732,000 from Seven Sixty Mix Limited. On Dec. 1, 2003, the town bought the back of 760 Mix Ave. -- 3.6 acres of vacant land appraised at $164,100 -- from Sutton-Mix Avenue for one dollar.
Points of contention about the development were whether the application was outdated and therefore should not be heard by P&Z, and what the stipulations in a 1980's plan called for. The project became so heated that Commissioner Bob Roscow said he was asked not to vote on it.
"I was so adamant about it, the town attorney wouldn't let me vote on it because I was biased," he said. The reason Roscow was against the development, he said, was "because I felt that the applicant wasn't giving sufficient information to the commission on the economics and how this was going to work."
Roscow said the 1980's proposal called for 10-story buildings. And he wanted to keep it that way. As a way to try to snuff it out.
But he said the then town planner disagreed, saying it had been originally approved as two six-story buildings identical to the structure that was already there [760 Mix].
"But I disagreed. It was for one or two 10-story buildings as I recall. They were much higher. That was my maneuvering," said Roscow. "It would have pushed them [developers] into a much more expensive construction. For a 10-story building, you have to have materials that are noncombustible, a steel or concrete building," which would have been cost-prohibitive and the condos wouldn't have gone up. The new four-story condo buildings are made of brick veneer on steel studs, the commissioner said. Sutton Towers has six floors.
"It was baiting them. Calling their bluff," said Roscow. "It's done and over with. The only thing I can say is that it never should have come before the commission." The application had expired.
"There were a lot of people who didn't want buildings two and three to go up," said Holly Masi of the Planning Department.
"Our biggest complaint was in 1967, there was nothing up here," said Dest, who moved into East Gate in 1975. "There were apple orchards then. There were solid blocks of wood. There were deer. All kinds of foxes."
"And we're worried about when they fill up -- if they fill up -- the noise and traffic back there," said Held. "Because no one's living there, it's quiet."
July 24, 2006
By Sharon Bass
When the state didn't come through with a remediation plan for the contaminated Newhall area by Dec. 31, 2005, as promised last summer. When it still didn't have one in January, as promised. That's when Elizabeth Hayes decided to put her own plan into action. She thinks it worked.
Last month, she launched a phone campaign to rattle some cages. "I called the governor, the attorney general, Lieberman's office, Dodd's office, Rosa DeLauro. I said we need to have a timeline. And then it [the state's proposal] came out the next month," said Hayes, president of the Newhall Coalition and a member of the Newhall Advisory Committee (NAC).
Indeed it did. The Department of Environmental Protection announced at last Thursday's NAC meeting that it has finally put together a remediation proposal for the 'hood on top of the former Winchester gun dump, where the soil is contaminated, folks can't garden, kids can't dig in their back yards and houses are literally shaking and breaking.
"This is politics. And we have to play the game, too," said Hayes. "I think they had a proposal for a long time [but withheld it] because they wanted the community to accept less than what they wanted." If people have to wait long enough, she figured, they'll be grateful for whatever they get.
Dennis Schain, spokesperson for the DEP, said the proposal will be unveiled to the public on Aug. 17. Meanwhile, mum's the word.
"We know people in the community have been waiting a long time," he said. In 2000, waste materials were discovered in the old middle school property, he said. The next year, the DEP ordered an investigation into the extent of the pollution. In 2003, a consent order was put in place.
"Historically, fill was deposited in the area from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. That's what people did" back then, said Schain. A big contributor to the dump was the former Winchester gun factory, now owned by Olin Corporation. The state and Olin are responsible for funding most of the remediation; the town of Hamden must cover expenses for the two area parks.
Schain said he couldn't estimate the cost of the cleanup, which will require replacing contaminated soil with clean dirt. Hayes said she's been told it would ring in at about $200 million. And that seemingly huge number daunted her. For a while.
"I was worried about the money, $200 million, and somebody said, 'Stop worrying about it. Think about the way they built up the University of Connecticut -- did it over 10 years for over $10 billion,'" she said. "So we're going to do it the same way."
Hayes said she believes discrimination played a part in the long wait for a remediation plan for the predominately black neighborhood. "We're going to pretend we're in Greenwich. So Greenwich is going to cleaned up," she chuckled.
"It is racism. They built a [new] middle school away from there so it doesn't affect the white folks," said Hayes. "The community wants 100 percent cleanup and we're willing to have it done in phases [like UConn]. We're not going to be victims similar to Katrina victims in New Orleans."
It's unclear how thorough the remediation will be. Hayes and other community activists insist that the contaminated soil be carted out of state -- not dumped behind the old middle school on Newhall Street, as the state has suggested.
Pamala Moore, an affected resident, said she was surprised by the DEP announcement last Thursday. "I'm glad. It's just good to know there is a proposed plan. We didn't have that before. It's good to have something out there. There's always hope when you have something," she said. "When there's no hope you start to die."
Four days after the Aug. 17 presentation at the Keefe Center, a 60-day public comment period will begin before a plan is finalized, said Schain.
"The important thing is to give people adequate time to review and comment," he said. "So really the night of the 17th is the beginning of the process. It's not the end of anything. We will work very hard to produce a final plan as quickly as possible."
He said he didn't have a timeframe for the project. "It will take some time. It's certainly a major undertaking, several hundred properties involved in an urban area," said Schain.
Moore and Hayes disagree on how seriously the state will listen to residents' suggestions.
"They took what we had to say into consideration. And I think they're going to make their best effort," said Moore. At the March 16 NCA meeting with DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy, Moore noted that McCarthy "took down notes" while people talked.
"She's a woman of her word. Everything she's told me is pretty on the money," said Moore.
Hayes is warier and said she's going to keep fighting for what she thinks Newhall needs and deserves. "This is predominately a black neighborhood and it's going to cost a lot of money [the state and Olin] are not going to want to spend," she said. "The way the consent order was written was clear they wanted to put contaminated soil behind the school. This is not acceptable."
July 21, 2006
Story and photos by Sharon Bass
Danielle Smith walked into her new home yesterday morning -- along with dozens of others. She seemed more than pleased. The last time she saw it, it was a long-abandoned dump. Now it's one of the nicest houses on tree-lined Butler Street.
It's also an experiment of sorts. It's Hamden's first so-called lead-safe shelter. Smith, a Yale medical student, bought 191 Butler with assistance from the town. She will live on the top two floors. The first floor will be rented to people who need to leave their home temporarily on account of lead, asbestos, a fire or other unsafe living conditions.
Smith's home was remediated by Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven. According to its executive director, James Paley, this is the first lead-free home his agency has done.
Hamden contributed $38,000 to the fix-up, and gave Smith $3,900 for her down payment. Economic Development Director Dale Kroop said Smith and the town signed a two-year contract obligating her to rent the first floor to low- and moderate-income folks who need to leave their environmentally challenged homes. He said the contract calls for her to charge fair market rent, but doesn't stipulate an amount. Kroop said it should be about $900 a month.
After the two years, he said, "we'll see how it's working out for us and for [Smith]" and talk about renegotiating another contract. Neither party is obligated to do so.
Most who attended the ribbon cutting yesterday are with the New Haven housing agency; the rest work for Hamden.
"I like the hardwood floors," said Mayor Craig Henrici as he toured the house. His Chief Administrative Officer Scott Jackson, Community Services Director Vanna Francia and fifth district Councilman Willie Mewborn also came by.
"The first time I walked through the house it was me, [Councilman] Curt [Leng], Councilman John Flanagan, some raccoons and pigeons," said Kroop. "That was about it." He said the two-family house had been abandoned 10-12 years ago. Taxes piled up, the owner bailed and the town sold the property to Neighborhood Housing for a buck.
That was about four years ago. Today the exterior has freshly painted tan siding with a burnt orange trim, and the inside is all dolled up.
Danielle Smith explores her new digs for the first time.
Smith roamed around her living quarters. She seemed overwhelmed by all the people packed in her new home, but very happy. Reaching the third floor, she walked into a room with slanted walls and said, "This will be my study."
"I live in this neighborhood," Mewborn addressed the group. "I hope you will come back."
Paley said fixing up the house will hopefully inspire others in the 'hood to spruce up their homes. Someone noted that a woman who lives across the street recently steam-cleaned the exterior of her home.
By Sharon Bass
After waiting years for the state to come up with a cleanup plan for the Newhall neighborhood -- part of which sits atop an old contaminated dump -- last night residents were informed that a proposal has been drafted. Reps from the Department of Environmental Protection made the announcement at the monthly Newhall Advisory Committee meeting.
On Aug. 17, the DEP will unveil the proposal to the public at the Keefe Community Center. That will be followed by a 60-day comment period.
Here's the written information, copied verbatim, NAC members received Thursday evening:
State of Connecticut
Newhall Proposed Remedy Selection Plan: Timetable of Events
DEP will Present Newhall Remedy Selection Plan Aug. 17 - 60-Day Comment Period to start Aug. 21
The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is planning to present its proposed remedy selection plan for Hamden's Newhall neighborhood Aug 17.
The Department is requesting that the Keefe Community Center, 11 Pine St., Hamden be made available at 6:30 PM to discuss the proposed plan. Property owners and others affected by the proposed plan will receive the proposal in the mail in the days just prior to the presentation.
At the presentation, DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy and staff of DEP will review the proposed plan, provide details of it and respond to questions .Before the start of the presentation that evening, DEP staff will be available to answer questions about individual properties.
The official 60-day period to submit comments on the proposed plan will begin Aug. 21. DEP will accept written comments on the proposal throughout the comment period. Comments can be sent to: Newhall Remedy Selection Plan Comments, DEP - Remediation Division, 79 Elm Street, Hartford, CT 06106. Comments may also be submitted electronically through the project's website: www.newhallinfo.org. DEP will consider all comments it receives in developing a final remediation plan for the Newhall neighborhood.
During the comment period, DEP will designate office hours at the Keefe Center project office. During these hours, DEP staff will be available to talk with residents and answer questions about the overall proposed plan and the status of individual properties. DEP will also schedule another evening public meeting to discuss the plan during the comment period.
July 17, 2006
More trees to go in Whitneyville?
By Chris Clark
Whitneyville residents are upset that the town recently cut down three spruce trees at the corner of Whitney and Putnam. The largest hung over a bus stop.
"This is just the last straw," said Kelly McCarthy of the Whitneyville Civic Association. Planting new trees and shrubbery along Whitney Avenue is one of the group's primary projects.
"It's a trend," said McCarthy. "They cut the trees down and they don't replant new ones."
Public Works Director John Busca insisted the trees were cut down for safety reasons. "You walk out there and they're going to poke an eye out," he said referring to the branches reaching out onto the sidewalk.
"I got everyone calling me about this," he added, sounding flustered. "We're not going to cut trees for no reason."
McCarthy agreed that the trees were causing safety problems, but she doesn't believe that making them history was the best solution. "There is a big difference between trimming a few branches and cutting down an entire tree," she said.
"It has been very frustrating to us to have such a disconnect between the town and the [Whitneyville Civic Association] in mistakes like this, the cutting down of healthy, lovely trees," said Lane Driscoll, vice president of the neighborhood group. He said the WCA green work adds quite a bit to the area.
Several cherry trees that line the sidewalk on Whitney -- across the street from where the spruces once stood -- have also been threatened with the saw. The association is fighting to save them.
July 14, 2006
Angry the daycare center got town permission to expand, opponents contemplate a legal run
By Sharon Bass
Refusing to take no for an answer, Alphabet Academy kept going back before the Planning & Zoning Commission -- five times this year -- to get approval to grow. The Benham Street daycare's first proposal was solidly shot down. It went back to the drawing board. On June 27, P&Z said yes.
This was not good news to some of the school's neighbors, who showed up at the commission meetings to speak in opposition of the expansion. They objected to having such a large building in their quiet residential neighborhood. And they complained existing traffic problems will worsen with more children enrolled.
So they met with Mayor Craig Henrici two days ago and are considering legal action. They feel their objections were not heard. They say they felt invisible.
"It appeared that no consideration was given to the facts presented by the neighborhood residents and the approval was foregone conclusion," said Wayne Wallberg of Richard Drive. He and about 10 others went to Henrici to see if there was anything he could do about the commission's June 27 decision. That decision gave Alphabet permission to add 15 more children, for a total of 62; to build an addition onto the back; and a lay a 16-car parking lot.
"They thought that I as a mayor could overturn a commission's decision and I told them I couldn't and their only remedy is to file an appeal in superior court," said Henrici. "We had a very friendly meeting."
Wallberg said he and the group plan to speak to a lawyer before July 19 -- the deadline to file an appeal. But money is a big factor.
"There are definitely some sour feelings about the way it went down," he said, "but when it comes to dollars and cents you have to then start thinking about what's the benefits versus what the cost is going to be.
"I wonder if I'm even doing the right thing," Wallberg continued. "You feel bad picking on a daycare center. I volunteer at a daycare in Milford. But this one is a commercial enterprise and doesn't belong where it sits. The Dumpster and the blacktop is not what this neighborhood is all about. And I'm always fearful that kids are going to run out into the street or someone's going to back out of their driveway blind. I'm convinced 16 [parking] spots is not going to be enough."
Alphabet owner Amy Small was asked how she feels about her neighbors' discontent.
"I think that their voices were heard. I think that everything was addressed," she said. "They had a problem with congestion with the parking and the plan totally addresses and fixes that. I think they just don't want a daycare there. But 605 Benham St. has been serving children for over 40 years."
P&Z Chair Joe McDonagh said he's not surprised people are upset, but felt Alphabet's revised proposal was a better solution than the status quo.
"It should be less of a burden to the neighbors," he said. Traffic and parking problems should improve, he said, with the new parking lot. And a Dumpster in the back of the school, which the abutting neighbor objects to, will be moved closer to the building.
In response to complaints of feeling stifled during the proceedings, McDonagh said the public had "ample time to speak. I asked people to be brief, as I do at every meeting. We know what the neighborhood's feelings are, but our goal is to solve a problem. There's no doubt that we know the neighbors are upset with what exists there. I know they would have preferred we turned [Alphabet Academy] down again. But the situation was hazardous. You've got cars backing into traffic."
He said he didn't believe there's a basis for an appeal.
July 13, 2006
Blighted property owner says town was not straightforward with him; town disagrees
Story and photos by Sharon Bass
Rick Atkinson said he expected to hear from the mayor's office tomorrow to set up a meeting to discuss his ramshackle property at 102 Washington Ave.
The mayor said he knows nothing about any meeting. Besides, Craig Henrici said there's nothing to discuss. Atkinson wanted the town to buy the old place and according to Henrici he was told no deal.
"Chief Leddy said he wanted to put a firehouse up there. But we told him no," said Henrici. "I'm not in the market right now to build a new firehouse on Washington Ave." The mayor said about a month ago either he or his Chief Administrative Officer Scott Jackson told Atkinson it wasn't going to happen.
"Nobody to date has told me no," said Atkinson, who lives in Milford. He said he and the town have periodically talked about putting a firehouse or fire headquarters on the property, which is next door to his business, Duck Pond Day Care. Atkinson said he bought 102 Washington when he bought the day care property because the seller, Whitney Medical Group, owned both and insisted on selling them together. In May 2003, Duck Pond Day Care Inc purchased the properties for $399,000. That December, ownership was turned over to Atkinson's wife, Linda.
Meanwhile the two-story, long-abandoned house, which sits on slightly over an acre, has been used for firefighter training. Because the home, built in 1940, is in such deplorable condition with boarded-up windows and doors and shaky walls and an overgrown yard, neighbors have complained to the town. In addition to the eyesore it presents on the otherwise tidy street of modest homes, folks say kids break into the backyard barn and it invites squatters.
Atkinson said he's held off doing anything to the property because he hoped the town would take it off his hands. He said he's being unjustly blamed for the blight.
Police Lt. Tim Wydra said there was one complaint in March about four or five kids in the barn. When officers arrived, he said, no one was found.
Other town departments are hearing a whole lot more about the house at 102 Washington.
"We've had so many complaints about it from the people across the street in the condos," said Gail Weyel, Building Department secretary. "They say, 'Every time we come out of our building we have to see this.'" Weyel said most people report drug use and squatting on the property.
"The basic complaint is it's been abandoned for years and what is the town going to do about it," she said.
As Henrici said, nothing. The parcel belongs to Atkinson.
And Atkinson said the town has been misleading him about its interest in building a firehouse there. He also said the Fire Department used the old house as recently as a month ago, while the town claims that activity ceased three months ago.
"One of the reasons the building is in such bad shape is the Fire Department has been using it for training," said Atkinson. "It's frankly a good thing to let them practice. They cut holes in the roof and the windows. They were there last month using it. They had five trucks out there and pretended the building was on fire."
"I've been waiting for [the town] to get back to me," said Atkinson. "This started with [former Mayor] Carl Amento. He thought a firehouse would be a good idea. Everybody told me it would be a good location for a town ambulance service." Including "my friend" Acting Fire Chief Jim Leddy.
"I don't know [that] he was told no. If he said he wasn't told no, I believe him," said Leddy. "The town never said anything to me about a meeting."
102 Washington was considered a possibility for a new firehouse. But Economic Development Director Dale Kroop said a Fire Commission subcommittee scrapped that idea about two years ago, when it discussed where to put a new headquarters and replacements for the Circular Avenue and Memorial Town Hall firehouses. The Dadio Farm, 102 Washington and other sites were looked at. (The town is currently negotiating the sale of the Dadio Farm, Henrici said. The Legislative Council has approved the bonding.)
Still, Kroop said no one at the time actually told Atkinson his site was nixed.
"Basically they didn't want to offend Mr. Atkinson so they didn't tell him absolutely no, but they never really had any intention of going forward with Mr. Atkinson," Kroop said. "I've always been totally upfront with Mr. Atkinson about the unlikelihood that we would build a headquarters on his property."
However, Kroop said he just told the property owner last month -- around the same time the mayor said his office did -- it was a no-go.
Atkinson said if the town's not interested he plans to put up a medical building. He said Kroop called him a few days ago and "basically said let's set up a meeting. I have doctors who are interested. The town's not going to do anything." Kroop confirmed the conversation. Atkinson said it would cost $27,000 to knock down the house and barn, and he doesn't have the money.
The Planning Department has gotten complaints about the wildly overgrown yard and blight at 102 Washington. Assistant Town Planner Dan Kops said three or four anonymous grievances have been filed to date.
He said he mailed Atkinson a notice of violation on March 20, 2006, per the town's anti-blight ordinance, passed in 2000. According to the ordinance, if violators fail to respond within10 calendar days -- plus three days for mail delivery -- the town can do the cleanup at the owner's expense. Kops said it could also put a lien on the property.
An inspection was to be done on June 15, he said, but wasn't. "Looks like it didn't happen," said Kops, reading information on a complaint form.
According to the written complaint: "[Town Planner] Leslie [Creane] spoke with owner Rick Atkinson on 4/18/06: The Fire Dept. will no longer be using the building and they will begin to clean up the site this weekend."
The next notation on the form is dated May 15: "Observe no improvement to the condition of the property, an abundance of rainy waether [sic] may have deterred efforts to comply. I will reinspect on 5/29/06."
The final entry was made on June 1: "Only grass in immediate front yard & planting strip cut, rest of property in same or worse condition."
Kops said the assistant zoning enforcement officer recently sent Atkinson another citation "and if the violations remain we'll have to go through the Town Attorney's office. But we will be seeking permission to have the property cleaned up."
"I get letters [from the town] and half the crap is being done by the Fire Department. I would have done something with that property a year ago if I had not been waiting for the town to do something," said Atkinson.
Frank Baldino said he's one of many in the 'hood who has complained to the town about the property.
"It really sticks out like a sore thumb. We have a site that's blighted and stuff in the center of Hamden, not one and a half miles from Town Hall," he said. Baldino, who lives at 220 Washington, said he expects to see such conditions in inner-city neighborhoods, but not in his suburban back yard.
"There's been a lot of vandalism by young people [at 102 Washington]," he said. "I've called the police. I called Planning & Zoning. But we haven't seen any movement in over a year."
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