GROTON–At a contentious hearing, the Town of Groton Planning Commission gave unanimous approval Sept. 28, 2004, to a site plan for a 147-unit “residential life care community” proposed for the Watrous property on Noank-Ledyard Road by Massachusetts developer Ron Bonvie.

The vote was 5-0, with no abstentions. The Planning endorsement followed approvals by the Zoning Commission in a split 3-2 decision and the Inland Wetlands Agency (IWA) in a 4-1 vote.

Work on the project by Mystic Active Adult LLC cannot begin, however, because GOSA has lodged appeals with the Superior Court of both the IWA and Zoning Commission approvals. Mr. Bonvie, who heads Mystic Active Adult, is developer of the Southport adult community in Mashpee, MA.

At the Sept. 28 hearing, GOSA pointed out that, among other things:

–The Watrous property was recommended more than two years ago by the Town of Groton Conservation Commission for preservation as open space, and the state Department of Environmental Protection earlier this month listed the site as a candidate for acquisition under its Natural Heritage Trust Program.

–The proposed development on 105 acres of the 160-acre Watrous tract threatens the property’s several documented historic sites and rich biological resources, including one of the most productive vernal pools in New England, a White Cedar swamp, and threatened animal species. GOSA recommended as alternatives either acquisition or a less intensive development that would eliminate the large “Wetlands Crossing A.”

–The planned gated project is out of character with the community, and the backers’ claim to offer “residential life care” is empty.

–Despite appearances, Groton’s supply of fully protected open space is very small, and public support for open space is growing rapidly as new housing claims more and more acreage.

Groton’s director of planning and development, Michael Murphy, strongly recommended approval of the site plan. He dismissed the state’s written notice of its interest in saving the site as a “form letter” that was given “much too much” weight. He contended that the plan for construction of the “residential life care community” is a good way to protect the property, which he acknowledged is “significant.” The Office of Planning and Development Services (OPDS)said the safest way to save the site’s historic resources is to dig them up and transport them to a museum, rather than preserve them in place.

GOSA asked Mr. Murphy whether his Office of Planning and Development Services had informed Mystic Active Adult LLC of the Conservation Commission’s recommendation in December, 2001, that the town apply for state funds to acquire the Watrous property. Mystic Active Adult LLC took an option to buy the property March 15, 2002, three months after the recommendations. Mr. Murphy responded with a lengthy history of open space proposals for various properties but did not say whether Mystic Active Adult was told of the recommendation.

Attorney Thomas Londregan for Mystic Active Adult LLC disputed the sequence of the recommendation and option as presented by GOSA, but GOSA submitted land records to the commission documenting its assertions.

Vigorously defending the applicant’s plan against GOSA’s objections, Mr. Murphy advised the commission not to overstep its authority, saying, “We have to stay within our jurisdictions to protect our positions.”

Commission member Peter Roper proposed that approval of the site plan might include provision for access by biologists so they could study the site’s astonishingly productive vernal pool. However, Mr. Murphy said:

“It’s not the public’s vernal pool. It’s the applicant’s.”

The plan approved by the Commission creates a provisional conservation easement along the northern border of the property, but the easement can be extinguished. The easement would be voided if Mystic Active Adult were to win its Superior Court appeal of an IWA decision to block a proposed wetlands crossing (“Crossing C”) in that area. Representatives of Mystic Active Adult have said the group may want to extend the development north of the existing property line at some time in the future.