NORWALK – The fate of open space at the property slated to house South Norwalk Elementary School remains in flux, as zoning officials debate whether to preserve the 2 acres or install solar panels.
For over 50 years, SoNo has gone without a neighborhood school. But after a 2021 facilities study projected that districtwide elementary enrollment would increase by almost 5 percent in the next six years, the city purchased a 12-acre property at 1 Meadow St. Ext. for $14 million to build a new school.
Aiming to start construction in spring 2024, the Planning and Zoning Commission conditionally approved the $76 million project at its Wednesday meeting. But a question remains: Should the city affirm its commitment to implementing solar power, or should it preserve a rare piece of open space in the densely populated neighborhood?
At the meeting, the project team said it plans to power the entire 54,100-square-foot school using solar panels on the roof and panels spread across a 1.7-acre parcel of the site.
Sitting at an elevation of almost 90 feet – about 64 feet higher than the proposed school’s elevation – the northernmost parcel where the project team plans to mount solar panels currently holds greenhouses, rows of vegetation and an access path.
Commission member Jacquen Jordan-Byron said she likes the idea of the new school setting a standard for energy efficiency, but worries about covering the little green space left in South Norwalk with solar panels.
“I love the idea that the South Norwalk school would be a flagship school …” Jordan-Byron said. “But I certainly would not want to sacrifice having some nature for people.”
Green energy or green space?
At a commission meeting last month, member Tammy Langalis requested that city staff instead consider converting the vegetation into a public park for South Norwalk residents, as the city had pledged to identify potential space for public parks in its Plan of Conservation and Development.
But at the Wednesday meeting, Adam Blank, a real estate attorney hired by the city for the project, said Police Chief James Walsh nixed the idea.
“Chief Walsh had very strong safety concerns about any plan to make that public access, and would not support public access in the rear of the site,” Blank told the commission.
Walsh was concerned that the “huge elevation change” made the site completely hidden from public view, Blank explained, making it difficult for emergency personnel to access. But the city could still leave the land as green space that’s inaccessible to the public, he said.
Langalis backed the idea, suggesting that Norwalk fence off the space and leave it alone.
“If the police feel we should not have that area for the public, completely fence it off and let it be a natural air conditioning with trees, a habitat for birds, animals, wildlife. It’s what the Earth is supposed to be,” Langalis said.
She added that the area was too densely populated to sacrifice any vegetation.
“If we were in Texas and had a lot of open space, have your big solar fields,” she said. “South Norwalk, in this particular area, is densely populated with both residential properties and business properties across the street on Meadow Street, and I don’t think we should just destroy green space for that.”
But commission member Galen Wells argued that the city’s goal of incorporating green infrastructure in new projects was too important.
“I just feel it’s very important for us to recognize … we are in a climate emergency,” he said.
Wells urged the city to embrace energy alternatives for the sake of young residents like the future South Norwalk students.
“For these children in the school, for all of our children and grandchildren, it’s of utmost importance,” he said.
But commission member Michael Mushak agreed with Langalis about preserving open space whenever possible.
“It just struck me as counterproductive to take open space that we just bought at a premium price and turn it into a solar field,” Mushak said.
However, he suggested the city could have both open space and a solar field if the commission gets creative.
While visiting New Jersey last week, Mushak said he noticed farms had attached solar panels to tall poles, leaving space on the ground for vegetation. Norwalk could close the land to the public to comply with the police chief, he said, and work with the Nature Center to implement educational programming.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here, and it could be programmed for the entire Board of Ed or public school system where this could be a place to do field trips,” he said.
More work to be done
While the project team expressed optimism about powering the school solely with rooftop and ground-mounted solar power, several outstanding issues remain – one being an upcoming contract with South Norwalk Electric and Water, a local utility company.
Blank explained that, per its policy, the utility company doesn’t allow more than 75 percent of a property’s solar power to be generated on the site, and the site plans anticipate 100 percent of the power to be generated at the school.
Still, Blank said the project team could work out an agreement with the utility company.
“We are confident we’re gonna get something worked out with them, and we will be able to put that in and have the site 100 percent electricity generated on site for our needs,” he said.
Additionally, the city is looking to acquire nearby properties to expand the South Norwalk Elementary School site, potentially providing more room for solar panels or green space.
The Land Use And Building Management Committee voted on Wednesday to authorize the city’s purchase of five neighboring properties – 28, 32, 36 and 38 Oxford St. and 16 Meadow St. Ext. The proposal now heads to the Planning and Zoning Commission and Common Council for final approvals.
Norwalk communications director Michelle Woods Matthews said the city has been negotiating with property owners and obtained appraisals, but would not share the total cost until the sales have closed.
“[T]he negotiations will remain confidential, including the contents of the real estate appraisals that have been obtained, until such time the subject properties have been acquired,” Woods Matthews told CT Examiner on Friday.
While final costs are still unclear, 2018 valuations of the five properties add to about $1.5 million.
Tabachneck said the commission needs more information about the acquisitions and utility contract before issuing its decision.
“I feel like having a list of options … I feel like that would be a little more helpful,” Tabachneck said. “I think the idea of them buying some other space, but then that maybe changes things [and] also makes it hard to make a decision at this point.”
The commission unanimously voted to approve the South Norwalk Elementary School site plans, as long as the city installs rooftop solar panels, works with the utility company to make the school “as close to 100 percent powered by renewable energy as possible,” and brings the final energy plan back to the commission for approval.