A potential development plan for the P.J.’s Garden Exchange property on Madison Avenue is at the center of the latest political spat between Democratic Town Committee Chair Nancy DiNardo and First Selectman Timothy Herbst.

Trumbull Democrats released a statement Saturday in response to Former Bridgeport Mayor John Fabrizi, a Democrat, endorsing Herbst, a Republican, for reelection. Fabrizi announced his support of Herbst at a recent fundraiser. DiNardo, in a press release, claimed the endorsement was based on an ulterior motive.

“Tim Herbst loves to trash Bridgeport, and especially Democratic Bridgeport politicians,” DiNardo’s release said. “So when the Republican Herbst gets an endorsement from a Bridgeport Democrat, you'd be right to wonder if something's afoot that won't work out well for Trumbull.”

The Democratic chairwoman claimed it’s an attempt to get Herbst’s support for a development plan for P.J.’s Garden Exchange, which is owned by Pablo Jimenez, Fabrizi’s brother-in-law.

“In politics everything is done for a reason, and Fabrizi has a good reason to express his gratitude toward Herbst,” the release said.

DiNardo references a preliminary plan to convert the former garden center into a “strip mall with more than a dozen apartments on the upper levels.”

“I'm surprised that by accepting this endorsement from John Fabrizi, Tim Herbst is opening a can of worms before the election regarding this planned development,” DiNardo said. “John Fabrizi's endorsement means nothing to the residents of Trumbull, and if anything, will sway people away from Herbst. But the neighborhood around P.J.’s won't be happy with this development."

Herbst called DiNardo’s claim of an ulterior motive “shameful.”

“The fact that Nancy DiNardo would throw a longtime friend and colleague like John Fabrizi under the bus and accuse John of having an ulterior motive in endorsing me is shameful,"  Herbst said. “I understand why Nancy is resorting to these tactics.  She is angry that so many Democrats are supporting my campaign.”

“This latest press release also shows a reoccurring pattern — Trumbull Democrats do not check their facts before making outlandish assertions,” Herbst said in a statement.

He noted that a Democrat's campaign lawn sign is currently on the garden center property.

“It is pretty disingenuous on the part of Trumbull Democrats to attack the owner of the property at the same time they use his property to host their campaign signs,” he said.

Potential development

According to Planning and Zoning Commission minutes from June 19, a “pre-application presentation” on the property was presented to the commission, on behalf of applicant M.F. DiScala and Company, Inc. The presentation included plans to use the garden exchange property, 4244 Madison Ave., as a “village shopping complex” of small retail tenants and 16 “upscale” one-bedroom apartments on the second floor. The applicant said that the 1,600 square feet of first-floor retail would be similar to the Garden Exchange’s footprint and they would like to see locally-owned businesses like a small restaurant, clothing boutiques or a coffee shop there.

The submitted plan included a 34-foot high two-story structure , with a combined floor area of about 32,000 square feet.

Several commissioners had expressed concerns with the plan not fitting in with the character of the area and noted parking and traffic concerns. Commissioners suggested that a future application include extensive buffering to protect surrounding residential areas. No formal application has come before the commission since the presentation.

DiNardo said Fabrizi’s endorsement was based solely on getting support for the potential project.

“Jimenez wants Herbst’s support to convert P.J.’s Garden Exchange into a strip mall with 16 apartments,” DiNardo’s press release said. “No wonder Fabrizi and Herbst are new best friends.”

Herbst countered that Fabrizi’s endorsement came as a complete surprise, though he has known Fabrizi for 20 years.

“Nancy, John and my mother were employees together in the Bridgeport Public School System for many years,” Herbst said. “His endorsement was not sought. In fact, John and I did not even have a conversation about his endorsement.”

As far as his opinion on the potential Madison Avenue development, Herbst said he thinks town officials, neighbors and property owners should work together on any potential plan for the property.

“As I said in my October 11, 2013 debate, I believe that the owner of the property, the developer, the neighbors and Town officials can work together to develop a reuse of the property that provides our residents with the type of commerce they desire without compromising property values,” Herbst said. “Ms. DiNardo seems to forget that I live in this neighborhood and have as much of a vested interest as every other property owner to ensure that what is done on the PJ Garden Exchange property is sensible and in keeping with the Town’s overall land use plan.”

DiNardo called the plan for the garden exchange “questionable” and said the area’s proximity to Sacred Heart University could make it likely that students will be living there, potentially disrupting the neighborhood.

“The Republicans probably did not want this project to be made public before the election,” DiNardo said. “Tim Herbst should say today whether he supports the Jimenez/Fabrizi project on Madison Avenue.”

Herbst said land-use decisions shouldn’t be political.

“Notwithstanding the fact that Ms. DiNardo has a financial interest in the largest commercial development in the Town of Trumbull, Trumbull Center, and appears to not want any form of competition against her financial interests, she should not be politicizing land use decisions or matters that might come before the commission for political gain,” Herbst said.

Herbst criticized DiNardo for what he called the “most disorganized and dysfunctional campaign ever waged by Trumbull Democrats.”

“One only needs to look at our campaign finance reports to see that there are many Democrats crossing party lines to support our campaign, including former Democrats on the Police Commission, Parks Commission and many Democrats from the City of Bridgeport,” Herbst said. “They are supporting our campaign because I firmly believe that they recognize that this campaign is about putting Trumbull first and moving Trumbull forward.”