By Thane Grauel
WESTPORT — A six-foot-high chain-link fence bisects all but the roadway at the final leg of Hiawatha Lane Extension, where several houses are slated for demolition.
Some yards in the ghost town beyond the fence are getting shaggy, with tall grass going to seed. Demolition signs are fading or have fallen down, but new, red-black-and-white asbestos warning signs are posted, along with plastic sheeting.
A crew with white utility vans appears to be readying the post-war homes for razing.
It appears that clearing out the old dwellings and construction of a new, three-building, 157-unit housing complex by an outfit called Summit Saugatuck LLC is impending.
New challenge prepared by neighbors
But obstacles remain.
One is a lawsuit challenging the legality of replacing homes neighbors assert are deed-restricted as single-family with the proposed multi-family structures.
A trial court judge in Hartford Superior Court ruled against the neighbors May 31, and days later denied their effort to reargue.
But the group said Friday an appeal would be filed Monday.
Second is the lone holdout renter in the overgrown ghost town, Mark Lazar.
Sued to vacate his rental home at No. 42, Lazar has refused. He also was dealt a recent court setback.
On June 9, a Norwalk Housing Court judge ruled he had five days to vacate the premises, or file for a stay of eviction, which could give him up to six more months. His lawyer did that the next day.
The Hiawatha neighborhood is one of the last intact middle-class neighborhoods in this very wealthy suburb. It’s wedged between Interstate 95, the Metro-North Railroad tracks, the Norwalk city line and a busy state road, Saugatuck Avenue.
The man behind Summit Saugatuck is Felix Charney, a successful developer. Those in the neighborhood lack his deep pockets.
Still, Carolanne Curry, of the group Save Old Saugatuck and one of those fighting the development, said Friday that enough money has been raised for the new legal appeal, which would be filed by the neighbors’ lawyer Monday.
“Single-family” homes’ deeds disputed
The neighbors’ initial lawsuit had contended many homes in the neighborhood were deed-restricted as single-family 70 or more years ago. Though the trial-level judge ruled against them, the appeal will be heard by another.
“In my estimation, it’s going to set a kind of a precedent if those deeds are respected,” Curry said of the single-family restriction, and what should still be considered in affordable housing cases.
“I am tremendously confident in the attorney we have,” she said of Joel Green of Bridgeport.
A lawyer for Summit Saugatuck, Timothy Hollister of Hinckley, Allen and Snyder in Hartford, said after the trial judge’s ruling that it’s possible for the plaintiffs to make an appeal at the next level.
But he sounded confident as well.
“There are no grounds for any appeal,” he said. “The ball is in the plaintiffs’ court.”
State’s affordable housing rules entangled in controversy
The housing complex ultimately was made possible by the state’s 8-30g legislation, which gives developers extra leverage to build in towns that lack 10 percent or more of their housing stock deemed affordable by a state formula.
The Summit Saugatuck project, as currently proposed, would include 30 percent of the 157 units set aside as “affordable” under state criteria.
Neighbors have fought the project about 19 years. The town settled with Summit Saugatuck last year, allowing a scaled-down, three-building development to move forward.
The town is anxious to increase its affordable housing stock to ensure another state-granted moratorium from the 8-30g legislation. The irony is that the “affordable” housing planned in the Hiawatha neighborhood comes at the expense of a truly affordable neighborhood (Lazar’s rent was $1,900 a month, which he previously split with three housemates).
“Last man standing” fights eviction
Lazar, who lives in the middle of the block to be demolished, could not be reached this week.
The latest filing in the case against him, by Summit Saugatuck, argues Lazar’s stay should be terminated, “because the appeal was taken only for delay.” It also argues the development is best interest of the town.
The motion also indicates the town is taking action against him as well.
Included in the filing is a “Notice of Violation” from the Planning and Zoning Department, stating Lazar is running an automotive repair business in a residential zone. It requests voluntary compliance.
Beyond the lawsuits, Curry noted neighbors have environmental concerns about the project.
Curry said the homes to be demolished were built in the 1940s and ’50s, and have asbestos and lead paint.
“There will a lot of dust,” she said. “Other residents are still in the area so the demolition procedure must absolutely be respected.”
Thane Grauel, the Westport Journal executive editor, grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond more than three decades. Learn more about us here.