Commission delays vote on headstones in Trumbull cemetery

TRUMBULL — A Planning and Zoning Commission hearing on headstones in Gate of Heaven cemetery was continued into a third session Wednesday after attorney Joel Green presented a series of last minute objections at the commission’s Feb. 17 meeting.

Green, representing a group of neighbors called the Upper Daniels Farm Road Neighborhood Association, notified the commission of his participation in the proceedings on Tuesday.

The neighbors are opposing a request from the Diocese of Bridgeport that the commission remove the prohibition on upright headstones at Gate of Heaven. The cemetery has only allowed flat grave markers as a condition of its approval in 1959.

“We received the response from the attorney of record at the 12th hour, yesterday at 5 p.m.,” said Town Planner Rob Librandi.

Attorney Ray Rizio, representing the Diocese, protested Green’s late entry into the hearing, saying the commission had strayed from its own procedure.

“After we’ve already been through a presentation, public comment and rebuttal, it seems like we’re going to start from Square 1 again tonight,” he said. “We’ve presented nothing new...and now we’re just going to start all over again because an attorney comes in at the 12th hour.”

Commission Chairman Fred Garrity pointed out that the commission had technically left the hearing open at its January meeting to allow commissioners to assess the visual impact of upright headstones on the area.

“So you are correct in your synopsis of, ‘We’re going to have to feel the pain’ if someone wants to start over again on some specific topic,” Garrity said.

Green argued that the Diocese had not submitted a site plan and therefore had presented an incomplete application for a special permit. A change to a special permit condition — for instance, no upright headstones — is treated the same way as a special permit application, he said.

“It seems that in submitting its application, the applicant should have provided you with a complete site plan,” he said.

Green also listed various potential problems with zoning rules and wetlands regulations, prompting Garrity to request that he limit his comments to the matter at hand.

“I don’t want to hear a ‘throw everything against the wall and let’s see what sticks’ presentation,” he said. “If you could, just focus on what we need to deal with.”

Green’s argument boiled down to the potential impact on the neighbors.

“This cemetery has been an established use, and certainly my clients understood when they moved in that this cemetery existed and they would be experiencing funeral processions and sometimes on Saturdays you hear bagpipes or speakers or music, and everyone accepts that as the status quo,” he said. “The point is, the applicant has not created any basis to justify increasing what has been the status quo and increasing the burden on these homeowners.”

Allowing headstones would fundamentally alter the character of the cemetery, he concluded.

“Residents who bought homes in the area should be able to rely on the conditions of the special permit,” he said.

Green also raised the issue of the potential effect on property values in the neighborhood, presenting statements from two real estate professionals that a cemetery with headstones would adversely affect property values of nearby homes.

“The applicants didn’t offer any evidence in terms of property values,” Green said. “That is not to say the applicant can now run out and get the opinions necessary.”

The seeming desire to get the last word in the proceedings drew Garrity’s ire.

“Sure they can, absolutely they can,” Garrity said. “You can come in at the 12th hour, and you found someone to write an opinion that supports your opinion. They absolutely have that right.”

Green disagreed, saying that the Diocese had concluded its presentation.

“In fairness, at some point where do the pieces stop moving?” he asked.

But Garrity argued that the commission could not “in good conscience” allow Green to enter the proceedings after Rizio’s presentation and raise questions without giving Rizio a chance to respond.

“Because we have allowed you to be here ... you’ve brought up some questions that relate to this application as it stands,” Garrity said. “Because you have asked and presented some need for data, the applicant is going to have at least one more chance at that.”