By Nancy Guenther Chapman
A controversial yet dormant project appears to have resurfaced, leaving an East Norwalk senior citizen to wonder where he will go once the state of Connecticut takes his home of more than 40 years.
Michele (Michael) Napoleone, 83, received a letter Sept. 24 from the state Department of Transportation that said he may be expected to vacate by Dec. 23 in the eminent domain process. But the offer made on his house --which he declined to specify -- would not allow him to buy anything comparable in the near vicinity to his property at 220 East Ave., he said.
Napoleon's house is one of three properties being taken by the state to make room for the East Avenue widening project, which was last discussed at a city meeting in 2011.
The goal is to lower the roadway under the Metro-North Railroad bridge, one door down from Napoleone's house, making it possible for trucks to go through. In addition to making the road four lanes wide, sidewalks will be added on either side and the platforms at the East Norwalk station lengthened.
East Norwalk activist Diane Cece, a longtime friend of Napoleone, called the offer for Napoleone's home an "insult." It's "below even the market and assessed values on which the city of Norwalk assesses him for property taxes," she said in an email.
The state's appraisal compared Napoleone's home to one on Sable Street, Napoleone said.
"I don't want to go to South Norwalk because they take my house on the East Avenue, not in the South Norwalk," said Napoleone, an Italian immigrant.
Napoleone's wife died in the house, Cece said. They raised their children there, and there are photos in every room to prove it.
Napoleone goes to the beach every day, Cece said. His front and back yards are full of tomato plants -- he got 200 jars of tomatoes from the plants this summer, he said. He has 10 peach trees as well as fig trees.
But Napoleone's slice of paradise will be paved and made into a parking lot, DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said.
Napoleone's property, as well as the properties at 218 East Ave. and 222 East Ave., will be "utilized for Metro-North parking at the adjacent train station," Nursick said. Before that, the property would be used as staging for construction equipment used to rebuild the Metro-North bridge and widen East Avenue, Public Works Director Hal Alvord said.
"It's going to be safer when this thing is done," Alvord said. "That's the whole purpose for this -- to try to improve the safety and the traffic flow, and eliminate a lot of the complications that exist down there right now."
The East Avenue widening project has been discussed for years. The Common Council approved a resolution supporting the project in December 2010.
The eminent domain property takings were originally expected to be just the front portions of the two yards at 220 and 222 East Ave. But the home closest to the tracks does not have a driveway. Napoleone currently backs onto East Avenue from his driveway, an unsafe and illegal situation that would be made intolerable if the road is widened to four lanes, officials said.
When it became apparent that the two properties would be taken entirely, the council's Public Works Committee voted in July 2011 against authorizing Mayor Richard Moccia to sign an agreement with the state, which Cece believed meant the project had been stopped.
Alvord said the state spent less money than it had expected on other projects, freeing up funds for the East Avenue bridge work. The bridge was built in 1895 and the only thing that's been done since then was some work in the 1920s, Alvord said.
"Whatever they do, if they come in and do a two-lane bridge, we're going to live with that bottleneck for another 100 years," he said. "This is our only opportunity to make that whole thing safer, improve traffic flow, and eliminate some of the problems that are there today."
Alvord said that, in previous eminent domain situations, the state has been sensitive.
"Everybody understands he's lived there most of his life and he's got his gardens," he said. "But they'll actually move that stuff. They'll even move soil to his gardens. They're sensitive to that kind of stuff."
He could not come up with any examples of that behavior, however.
Napoleone is being helped through the process by his son, John. They say a DOT representative recommended that the senior Napoleone stay in Norwalk rather than go to Italy for his annual trip to visit his grandchildren, as he had planned. Nursick denied that.
Napoleone "is being devastated by the stress and fear of losing his home," Cece said.
"I like my house," Napoleone said. "Lots of work. Lots of work."