Lawyer hired to stop Danbury councilman’s allegation of illegal dumping

DANBURY — Outside legal counsel and city officials are preparing to send a second enforcement letter to a City Council member accused of illegally dumping on city property adjacent to his farm.

In October, members of the Environmental Impact Commission sent a letter to Michael Halas, owner of Halas Farm on Pembroke Road, directing him to cease dumping materials on the city property, located on Barnum Road, and ordering him to appear at the commission’s next meeting to submit a restoration plan as required under city regulations.

Halas, who did not return calls and an email requesting comment, did not attend the Environmental Impact Commission meeting in November and has not submitted any restoration plan as of Dec. 27. City officials said that a Dec. 21 site visits showed the apparent violation had not been corrected.

According to Laszlo Pinter, the city’s managing attorney and deputy corporation counsel, the matter is now being handled by outside counsel, Sharon Dornfeld — a local attorney and adjunct law professor at Quinnipiac University who previously worked as assistant corporation counsel for the City of Danbury, according to the Connecticut Bar Foundation.

Pinter wrote in an email before the Christmas holiday that Dornfeld “is preparing and will submit enforcement paperwork to pursue all available remedies for the issues surrounding these apparent violations.”

“Combined with the (Environmental Impact Commission’s) own review and action, it should be potent,” he wrote.

Kara Prunty, the city’s public health director, said local officials, including members of the health department, conducted site visits to Halas Farms on Barnum Road on Sept. 29 and again on Dec. 12.

“The findings confirmed there was dumping in wetlands and city property,” Prunty wrote in an email, adding, “the December site visit showed that it had not yet been corrected.”

According to Pinter, the city’s corporation counsel is not handling the matter because of conflict-of-interest concerns stemming from Halas’s position as a city council member.

“If a person commits some personal offense or possibly a personal offense, we can’t both represent them in their official capacity and sue them in their personal capacity — that creates a conflict of interest,” the city’s attorney explained, adding the decision to hire Dornfeld came in early December and estimated costs for the attorney as of Dec. 21 to be roughly $2,500.

“Sharon Dornfeld has been our long-standing conflict counsel, so that is one of the reasons why she is handling that matter here,” Pinter added.

Halas is a Republican who was appointed to City Council in 2009 and later left the council being re-elected to the body in 2021.

Republican Mayor Dean Esposito said it is “common practice” for the city to use outside counsel and noted the Environmental Impact Commission would continue to “evaluate what’s going on at the Barnum Road location and all normal procedures will be followed.”

“All residents will be held to the standards of city guidelines through the independent work of the EIC,” the mayor wrote in an email.

A member of the Environmental Impact Commission confirmed any additional enforcement action would be taken by the city’s hired counsel.

Regular complaints

Along with Dornfeld, state Rep. Ken Gucker, D-Danbury, joined the city’s site visit earlier this month and said his office receives regular complaints related to Halas Farms and the allegations of illegal dumping.

“It really ramped up almost a year ago, because in the late winter, early spring, he demolished the building on his property on the other side of the road and all of the debris he couldn’t put in the dumpster…showed up across the street on the city property,” Gucker said.

“I started getting the calls because these neighbors wanted me to skip over the city of Danbury and go right to the state…The activity was a daily activity, that was when the neighbors finally said they had enough and you have to deal with this,” he added.

Earlier this month, he shared pictures from Dec. 6 showing a bulldozer working near the city’s property where a large mass of tree trimmings and other farm refuse could be seen less than a week later during the city’s site visit.

“This is going on every single day, and I will tell you since the (October) cease-and-desist, that pile has grown by at least 10 to 15 percent, sideways now,” Gucker said.

Gucker, a Democrat, has served as state representative for the 138th state House District since 2018, will turn over his seat to Republican Rachel Chaleski who successfully defeated the incumbent last month by a margin of 26 votes and will be sworn in Jan. 4.

“When you are getting inundated with calls to your office and emails from neighbors who you represent, and granted I only have this job until Jan. 4 around noon, my job is still to address and deal with the concerns and issues of the community and that is my district,” Gucker said, adding that he had reported the matter to the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

‘Beautify’ the property

More than 15 years ago, Halas submitted a proposal to the then-Common Council to “beautify” the nearly 2 acres of city-owned land near his farm where he’s now accused of illegal dumping, according to City Council meeting minutes.

In June 2007, members of a special ad-hoc committee discussed the proposal. The report, dated June 19, 2007, described the land in question, including its active streams and wetlands, as being sold to the city around 1968 in order to “maintain and protect a 24-inch waterline on the property.”

Discussions on the proposal centered on whether or not the city should enter into a lease or licensing agreement with Halas, who the report stated, “rely” desired “to offer his services and materials to beautify an area of ​​the City for the City.”

“Mr. Halas desired to rejuvenate the area around the streams as the vegetation has become overgrown due to lack of maintenance,” according to the ad-hoc committee’s report. “He would like to make the area a ‘showpiece’ for the city.”

“He did not wish to engage in the lengthy process or the cost a lease agreement entails,” the report adds. “However, he did express flexibility and willingness to discuss the matter before the Common Council for their consideration.”

A month after the ad-hoc report, council members unanimously approved the committee’s recommended motion to license the land to Halas, “subject to preparation of all necessary documentation by Corporation Counsel, said documentation is to include clauses discussed by the committee.”

But the transaction never came to fruition and the city continued to own the land.

“The record seems to indicate his general preference for a simpler method to get what he was seeking, so maybe due to the complexity of the deal, he may have been reluctant to proceed,” surmised Pinter, who advised the 2007 ad-hoc report as corporation counsel at the time.

Related Posts

Previous post 16 Simple Ways to Cut the Cost of Your Homeowners Insurance
Next post Maryland legal aid employees at the forefront, after recent bargain agreement