Town officials say they’ve asked the organizers of a recent gathering in Irwin Park to follow municipal guidelines for such events in the future.
According to Parks & Recreation Chair George Benington, officials were “scrambling” on the night of Friday, March 25 after learning of a potentially large meet-and-greet scheduled to be held on the afternoon of March 27 in the Weed Street park. Located near the barn at Irwin, the gathering was created “to discuss the whole Weed Street project with Karp,” Benington told members of Parks & Rec at their regular meeting, held Wednesday night at Lapham Community Center.
He referred to opposition to developer Arnold Karp’s plan for a 102-unit affordable housing project planned for the northeast corner of Weed and Elm Streets.
“The initial reports that we had were potentially 1,000 attending and we quickly contacted the organizer who assured us that was not the case, and 150 in reality there was only 30 or 40 people there on that Sunday afternoon,” Benington said. “However, we told the organizer that in the future they had to come to us beforehand for approval, that we could not be blindsided, that it’s our responsibility and if we’re finding out at 6:30 on a Friday night there’s not much we can do, because we need to have 24 hours’ notice to have a special meeting.”
He added that the organizer was “enormously cooperative and I’m sure a good citizen.”
The comments came during Benington’s regular update to the Commission.
Under Section 42-9 of the Town Code, “[o]rganizations or organized groups of more than 20 persons desiring to use the parks shall apply for a permit at least seven days prior to the day requested.” The Code also requires that “the proposed activity or use of the park will not unreasonably interfere with or detract from the general public enjoyment of the park” and “the proposed activity or use is not unreasonably anticipated to incite violence, crime or disorderly conduct.” Also under the Town Code, in provisions to be enforced by parks officials and police, people in the public parks cannot “engage in loud, boisterous, threatening, abusive, insulting or indecent language, or engage in any disorderly conduct or behavior tending to a breach of the public peace.”
In one video at the March 27 gathering taken by a daughter of Karp, who audibly identifies herself as such, a man can be heard and seen twice telling her “[expletive] you” and then can be heard saying that he did not give permission to take his photo (in fact it is legal to take a photo or video of someone in a public place).
Benington said he spoke to the organizer of the gathering “and he said if any of the conversations got heated, he was going to disperse the crowd immediately, which he agreed to do, just so that’s not to disrupt people enjoying the park or walking their dogs or anything like that.”
Commissioner Hank Green asked whether the town can require those seeking to assemble to undergo a permitting process.
“Parks are our responsibly so we should approve it, but there is always the Constitutional right of assembly and the right to free speech,” Benington said in response. “So I wasn’t concerned about so much what they were doing, it’s just the numbers. Because let’s face it, Irwin cannot accommodate 1,000 cars. That would have been a problem.”
Commissioner Rona Siegel said that the organizer held multiple short sessions over a longer period of time instead of having everyone inside Irwin Park at once.
“In his attempt to keep it under 1,000—that is how many members are in that group or were at the time when I reached out to George, on Facebook, we were concerned that that’s a pretty large number and you need prior approval—he helped the situation by making the meetings 30 minutes at a time and he did five or six of them,” she said. “So it wasn’t a large gathering of 300 people. It was 30 or 40 five times.”
Commissioner Gene Goodman noted that those seeking to hold events in public spaces also are asked to coordinate with an administrative team from the town that helps ensure there’s no overlap and that there are elements such as police and insurance when needed.
“It’s also part of the special events process, and there are rules, for instance— yes, freedom of speech, we have to respect that—but there’s also process where you have to get your permissions to do that,” Goodman said. “To hold a rally, you can’t just hold a protest any place you want. You have to get permission to do that. There are rules in the town for special events and how many people quantify for a special event.”
Benington at one point during the discussion said, “As everybody knows, that application has been pulled so it was a non event.”
He appeared to refer to a decision made by attorney Tim Hollister, representing the applicant, to re-file the affordable housing application at Weed and Elm Streets due to a technical error with the initial filing.
Under section 8-30g of the state statutes, developers seeking to create affordable developments in towns such as New Canaan that do not meet a standard whereby 10% of all housing stock qualifies as affordable, can appeal a local Planning & Zoning Commission’s denial of such developments to the state, effectively skirting local regulations to win approval.
The town had secured four years of relief from such applications by creating a sufficient number of affordable units with the denser redevelopment of the complex at Mill Pond in 2017, and had hoped to chain a second “moratorium” from the state law by similarly redeveloping the Canaan Parish property at Route 123 and Lakeview Avenue. Yet the Canaan Parish project was delayed in early-2019 by financing problems, and then again by the pandemic, and so the town is just now putting in its application for a Certificate of Affordable Housing. Even so, such applications take at least 90 days for the state to process, and anyone can file a similar 8-30g affordable housing development application until the state grants that approval, even if the application processes with the local Water Pollution Control Authority and P&Z continue past that point.