Threat of eminent domain brings Norwalk, New Canaan to table
NORWALK — Talks were at an impasse between Norwalk’s First Taxing District and New Canaan officials when the threat of eminent domain brought everyone back to the table to discuss the future of a 200-year-old house.
New Canaan residents in favor of preserving the 1802 Grupe-Nichols-Browne House — owned by Norwalk’s First Taxing District — asked town officials to intervene in negotiations to save the house at 1124 Valley Road.
Spurred on by a looming demolition deadline, New Canaan First Selectman Kevin Moynihan floated the idea of using eminent domain to obtain the four-acre property during a New Canaan Town Council meeting on April 19. Eminent domain is the government’s ability to acquire private property for public use, while paying fair market value for it.
The taxing district acquired the four-acre property abutting the Grupes Reservoir in 2006 for $2.25 million, according to tax records. The most-recently appraised value, according to tax records, is $1.6 million.
“(The First Taxing District) will tear the house down,” Moynihan said. “We want to preserve open space.”
A demolition application was filed in mid-February, but a Historic Review Committee meeting enacted a 90-day demolition delay.
First Taxing District General Manager Dominic DiGangi said the district will not tear down the house if negotiations are still ongoing at the end of the demolition delay on May 12. But he also said the district’s Water Department has an obligation to its customers.
“We can sympathize with the (preservationists) but we still have to do what’s in the best interest of the ratepayers,” DiGangi said Thursday. “We can’t give the house away, because the ratepayers paid for it. There is no mortgage on the house. We paid for it outright, so the ratepayers and the electors need a fair return.”
Chris Schipper, a member of the Land Trust and the Conservation Commission, said the Land Trust — along with the Historical Society and the Preservation Alliance — approached the First Taxing District to purchase the house and the land.
“We made a fair market offer of $1.2 million and they just rejected it and said it was worth more than that,” Schipper said.
DiGangi said the taxing district paid $2.5 million for the property and rented the house three separate times before determining it was a liability and trying to sell it. He identified maintenance and heating as the primary expenses. Heating the uninsulated structure in January, he said, can run more than a $1,000.
He said the land upon which the house sits has potential for further improvements to the district’s water-delivery system, which extends into New York State. A $3 million overhaul of the Grupes Dam is under design and will go out to bid in about six months. To the south, the district owns a filtration plant that was built in 1938.
“We’re right now considering the reconstruction of the filter plant,” DiGangi said. “It’s possible this property might be useful.”
In a letter dated Monday, April 23 and addressed to DiGangi, Moynihan made official the offer to purchase the four-acre property for $1.2 million.
“The Town has an interest in the property to provide open space and preserve and protect the Grupe-Nichols-Browne house,” Moynihan wrote.
Executing eminent domain would be a last resort if talks do not move forward.
According to Moynihan, to enact eminent domain would require two independent appraisals of the four-acre property, followed by legal proceedings. Moynihan said if eminent domain was indeed enacted, the Land Trust would sign an agreement to donate $1.2 million to the town, the amount originally offered by the group to Norwalk.
“The town would be the owner of the land,” Moynihan said. “We want to own open space and the preservationists want to maintain the building.”
Earlier this month, the New Canaan Town Council unanimously voiced support for the first selectman to negotiate with the First Taxing District on behalf of the town.
Town Council Chairman John Engel said any monetary offer made on behalf of the town by the first selectman is subject to approval by the funding bodies.
“In this case, the Town Council wanted to get on record as being 100 percent in favor of (Moynihan’s) efforts to secure the house and four acres,” he said.