GROTON — The Inland Wetlands Agency has closed its lengthy hearings on the second, revised proposal to build the large “Mystic Woods” senior housing complex on Fort Hill in Groton.
Following a tense, four-hour special hearing Aug. 15, 2007, the agency is expected to deliberate the application at its next regularly scheduled meeting, Aug. 22. The IWA has 35 days following the close of the hearings Aug. 15 to make a decision. Thus, a ruling is likely either Aug. 22 or at the following scheduled meeting Sept. 12.
How the IWA will vote is uncertain at this point. If the 211-unit project were to receive the go-ahead from the IWA, it still would need approval from the Zoning Commission and the Planning Commission.
The Aug. 15 meeting featured argument by lawyers for the applicant and for GOSA and testimony by paid experts on soil science and engineering, criticism of the project by an independent University of Connecticut professor, and citizen input.
The hearing began with a 140-minute presentation by Harry Heller, attorney for the applicant, Hawthorne Development Partners LLC, of Woburn, MA, and specialists hired by Hawthorne who made multiple trips to the lectern when called by Mr. Heller.
Mr. Heller said, among other things, that the projected development is a good use of the land because of what he said is a need for 55-and-over housing. He said also that the project strikes the balance envisioned by state wetlands legislation between environmental protection and economic growth. He asserted that the Mystic Woods plan conforms to Groton regulations.
By contrast, Mr. Heller had contended at a Planning & Zoning meeting in neighboring Stonington April 3, 2007, that active adult housing would not be a “realistic” use of a Jerry Brown Road tract for which Mr. Heller was seeking a floating zone designation on behalf of a client. He said more than 2,000 units of active adult housing currently had been approved or were before agencies in the area.
Regarding the question of economic/environmental balance, Atty. Frank B. Cochran, representing GOSA, said wetlands laws were enacted in Connecticut to “give voice, and protection, to wetland resources and systems not otherwise able to protect themselves from economic activity.”
He said, “Wetland resource protection is the thrust and purpose of this legislation [Connecticut General Statutes 22a-36].” He said “if proposed economic development carries with it significant risks that the natural resources will not be protected both for the short term (our generation) and for the long term (generations yet unborn), then that proposed economic activity should be denied by your Agency.” Mr. Cochran said the roads, buildings, other infrastructure contemplated represent “too intensive a development for you to be assured that the viability of the site’s wetland resources can be maintained on a long-term basis.”
He added that the scope of the Mystic Woods project was dictated by “bottom line” considerations of the applicant. He noted that GOSA has submitted an alternative plan with less adverse impact. He said that under state law “Where there is a less resource-impacting alternate, the proposal should be denied.” Mr. Cochran was appearing for his partner, Peter B. Cooper, who largely prepared the brief but could not attend the meeting.
A major issue during the hearing was whether the proposed “gravel wetlands” method of dealing with runoff could cope over the long-term with stormwater flowing off impervious surfaces of the 60 developed acres of the 105-acre site. The method has been tested with apparent success at the University of New Hampshire Stormwater Center, which handles water coming off a paved 9-acre parking lot on the UNH campus in Durham.
Mary Ellen Furlong, an alternate member of the IWA, commented that Dr. Robert Roseen, director of the stormwater center, had said twice in testimony to the agency that he would be “interested” in the outcome of using the gravel wetlands method at Mystic Woods. This wording, together with the method’s short, three-year history at UNH, indicates that “gravel wetlands” is a promising but still experimental treatment, she said.
Patricia Olivier, an abutter to the proposed project and an intervener in the application review, questioned whether the highly controlled UNH environment would be replicated on Fort Hill. She said the tract’s wetlands and other areas are “unlikely to be adequately protected both during and after construction. This development is too large for the land…”
Addressing the issue of economics, Ms. Olivier said, “The sum total of land purchased to date is about the price of one lower-end home in Mystic.” She urged that fewer units be built and should be sold for higher prices. “I would implore the applicant to revisit their plan and adapt it into something that they and the community could be proud of.”
George Logan, a soil scientist hired by the applicant, said he initially was a skeptic about predictions of long-term success of gravel wetlands treatment based on only three years of testing but became a believer when he examined the matter more closely. He didn’t elaborate on the point.
James O’Donnell PhD, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point, said that the UNH treatment was an “experiment” and that the development could harm “our common resource”–the Long Island Sound. Referring to necessary financial upkeep of the stormwater treatment process, he said that when “condo owners complain about cost, maintenance goes first.” He said Atty. Heller’s opinions on potential pollution impacts of Mystic Woods ought to be rated “very low.” He added that “an auto accident caused by drunken driving is not an accident. It is a foreseeable consequence of a bad decision.” Mr. O’Donnell said he was speaking for himself and not for the University of Connecticut.
Located at the bottom of the approximately 220-foot-high Fort Hill is Fort Hill Brook, which runs into Mumford Cove, off Fisher’s Island Sound, part of Long Island Sound.
Steven D. Trinkaus, a Southbury engineer consulting for GOSA, presented an alternative plan for development that he said “fits the environment, as opposed to the applicant’s plan, which is a highly engineered stormwater treatment” to fit a design imposed on an unwilling environment. He said it is possible to build in many places using highly engineered methods, but the question is “whether you should.”
The purpose of Mr. Trinkaus’s presentation was to show that a project with less environmental impact would be both prudent and feasible. His conceptual alternative would eliminate an access road off Flanders Road that would come close to a biologically significant vernal pool. Also eliminated would be buildings and stormwater outlet structures near the pool. The amphibian habitat above the pool no longer would be limited to a narrow corridor threatened by adjacent construction. Mr. Trinkaus’s plan also showed sensitive wetlands, steep slopes and other areas unsuitable for building, and it provided for buffer areas to protect neighboring homes. His design is less dense and has fewer impervious surfaces that the one envisioned by the applicant.
Penelope C. Sharp, of Northford, a wetlands scientist commissioned by GOSA, said the wetland near Flanders Road would be hurt badly by the development. She said that direct impacts to water quality would be compounded by habitat loss and by road kills of amphibians. Mr. Logan, who counted 300 egg masses in the pool last spring, said he guaranteed that the project would not cause the egg count to drop below 25–the minimum level for a pool to qualify for Tier 1, or best quality, designation. A drop from 300 egg masses to 25 would amount to more than 90%.
Deb Jones, town environmental planner, said that the hydrology firm hired to provide the IWA with independent advice, Camp, Dresser and McKee, of Cambridge, MA, had concluded that the western slope of the project would be safe from collapse in the event of rainstorms and seismic activity. The conclusion was based on a review of data provided by JGI Eastern Inc., of Manchester, NH, a firm hired by the applicant.
Wendy MacFarland, of Mystic, appearing as an independent citizen, noted with regret that neither Richard Snarski, a town-hired expert on wetlands, nor a representative of Camp, Dresser and McKee, appeared at the meeting in order to take questions. Their absence was not explained during the hearing.
Hearings on the project began May 9, 2007, but the project goes back more than a year. Hawthorne originally presented to the IWA an application May 10, 2006, to build 241 units, but withdrew it in October 2006 after scaling it back to 219 units. The second application comprised a somewhat smaller number of 211 units.