GROTON — A three-night public Zoning Commission hearing on the proposed “Mystic Woods” active senior housing project on 105 acres atop Fort Hill closed around midnight, Nov. 7, 2007. The final session drew a capacity crowd to Community Room 2 at the Town Hall Annex and held much of its audience until the closing gavel.

Under zoning regulations, the five-member commission had 65 days from the closing to decide whether to grant a special permit to Hawthorne Development Partners LLC of Woburn, MA, to build a 200+ unit complex on the hill between Flanders Road and Fort Hill Road (Route 1). However, the commission’s deliberation and decision could come as early as the next scheduled meeting of the commission Dec. 5, 2007. The two preceding Zoning Commission public sessions on Mystic Woods took place Sept. 19 and Oct. 15.

The main news coming out of the last hearing session was that the developer had increased the proposed distance of the new development from the two closest existing neighborhood houses. The closest existing house now would be 207 feet from any building in the new development, up from about 150 feet under the previous plan, according to Harry Heller, attorney for Hawthorne. The margins would be increased by eliminating one two-unit building, reorienting and moving a second, relocating a third and reducing it by one unit, and splitting a four-unit fourth building into two buildings.

The changes would reduce the number of planned units to 201 from 204 previously and from 211 when Hawthorne applied for Inland Wetlands Agency approval. The IWA approved the development Sept. 12, 2007, but imposed conditions that resulted in loss of 7 units. Mr. Heller said the increased buffers came about because of talks between Hawthorne and the nearest neighbors.

The hearing began at 7:50 p.m. with a 125-minute presentation by Mr. Heller and his team of specialist consultants. It consisted to a large extent of a repeat of material that Mr. Heller and his consultants had aired in an approximately 170-minute presentation Sept. 19, 2007.

The length of Mr. Heller’s presentations had spectators speaking of a “filibuster.” Even members of the commission were smiling in amused exasperation as Mr. Heller repeatedly stepped to the microphone and announced as a preface:

“For the record, my name is Harry Heller.”

However repetitious, Mr. Heller’s presentation had the practical effect, favorable for the applicant, of reducing the amount of time and commission patience that was left for some opponents of the project. As the clock approached midnight, citizens were being asked to severely limit their input. One Fort Hill neighbor was asked not to show a traffic video he had made. Instead it was entered into the record.

But the tactic was not all favorable for the applicant. At one point, Commission Chairman Stephen Hudecek asked Mr. Heller to stop introducing letters of endorsement for the project. Mr. Hudecek said that such material normally is reserved for the citizen input portion of a hearing.

When Commission Member Mariellen French asked Mr. Heller for further information about a letter writer who had been identified only by name and address, Mr. Heller acknowledged that the writer was an employe of Academy Point, a Mystic assisted-care facility developed by Hawthorne Development Partners.

The hearing had been preceded by distribution of a Nov. 2, 2007, memorandum from the town planning staff cautioning the Zoning Commission not to usurp the authority of the Inland Wetlands Agency, the Planning Commission or the Connecticut Department of Transportation. It said that intervention in the case (by the Groton Open Space Association) under state law “does not expand the scope of your authority, nor does it allow the Commission the ability to convert a special permit application into a de facto detailed site plan application… [I]ntervention does not allow the Zoning Commission to take on regulatory authority granted to the inland wetland agency, or to review and ‘approve’ the detailed sedimentation and erosion control plan, which in the town of Groton is under the purview of the Planning Commission.”

It said further that “it is important to keep in mind that the Commission does not have the authority to regulate traffic operations on State Highways [meaning Route 1], nor to act as a surrogate for the State Traffic Commission.”

The town’s zoning regulations stipulate that the Zoning Commission, when hearing requests for special permits, such as would be required for Mystic Woods, should consider three main factors: traffic, the environment, and harmony of the proposed project with the surrounding neighborhood.

GOSA attorney Peter Cooper had replied to the planning staff with a 4 ½ page detailed letter of refutation elaborating on this early paragraph:

“With respect, I conclude that the claims of the planning staff as to the jurisdictional limits on your Commission’s authority and responsibilities are not legally supportable.“

Whether or not as a result of Atty. Cooper’s letter, the staff did not attempt, as feared, to limit discussion of traffic or the environment.

During public input, Flanders Road resident Anna Sullivan said:

“This [planning staff] memo is a blatant directive to approve the application, and the language is highly biased in favor of the applicant. It is obvious that town staff is promoting this project, and this attempt to box the Zoning Commission in and remove their authority is highly disturbing to me. The Zoning Commission should take umbrage at this power grab.”

During GOSA presentation to the Commission, GOSA board member Joan Smith summarized the organization’s supplemental notice of intervention. The intervention notice said, among other things, that the intense proposed development threatened vernal pools, was likely to impact the slope stability of portions of Fort Hill with potential harm to Fort Hill Brook and ultimately the Long Island Sound, and would cause severe loss of wildlife habitat. The intervention notice also noted that Hawthorne has declined to provide the Zoning Commission with results of its archaeological investigations of the site and has failed to give the agency with a full set of plans reflecting the changes that responded to Inland Wetlands Agency conditions.

Commission Member Mariellen French estimated conservatively that at least 1,000 trees, each now absorbing about 10,000 gallons of water a year, would be clear-cut to make way for the development. She asked how this water, amounting to 10,000,000 gallons a year, would now be handled. She was told by an engineer hired by the applicant that storm water management engineering guidelines used by the applicant factored such tree loss into account.

George Logan, a wetlands biologist hired by Hawthorne, said — referring to “Best Management Practices” storm water treatment basins — that he had never seen such a “BMP-rich” storm water treatment program as the one Hawthorne plans for Mystic Woods.

Ms. French also quoted from a state statute that requires Zoning Commissions in coastal municipalities to consider the health of Long Island Sound.

Michael J. Murphy, director of the Office of Planning and Development Services, immediately interjected that the statute that Ms. French quoted applies to the writing of regulations. The Active Senior Housing regulation was adopted by the Zoning Commission in a split vote Feb. 2, 2005, and became effective March 1, 2005.

GOSA Director Marty Young read a letter from Steven Trinkaus, a Southbury engineer hired by GOSA. The letter found fault with the clarity and adequacy of plans submitted by the applicant and said many technical issues remain unaddressed by the applicant.

Mr. Heller acknowledged that under state definition, Mystic Woods would be a “major traffic generator.” He contended, however, that this term applies to any project with 200 parking spaces or 100,000 square feet of floor space.

He said the designation was merely “a term of art.”

In response to a question, a representative of the town-hired independent traffic consultant, Camp Dresser & McKee, said the firm had not collected its own data regarding the potential impact of Mystic Woods on Fort Hill but had done a “peer review” of the data collected by the applicant’s consultant, as requested by the town.

Wendy MacFarland, a Bel-Aire resident, earlier had told the commission, “The misuse of the experts hired to address engineering and environmental problems [involved with Mystic Woods] was shocking.” She said that in one case a wetlands expert was hired as an expert consultant to the Inland Wetlands Agency on hydrology and that town-hired consultants have been absent from hearings on occasion.

Much of the discussion at the hearing centered on whether the proposed development, consisting of more than 70 tightly spaced buildings on 47 acres, would fit into the neighborhood–where, a GOSA study showed, the average lot size is about four fifths of an acre.

James O’Donnell, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point, contended that the development would be “incongruous.” Placing one of Mr. Heller’s display boards on an easel, Mr. O’Donnell pointed to a thick arc of ASH buildings opposite spacious lots on Hemlock Road.

“It’s not in harmony,” he said.