Snowy winter postponed city site walks on proposed housing sites

Talks focus on North Street and Wheelers Farms Road housing proposals

Snowy conditions this past winter affected the timing of two applications for affordable housing complexes before the Inland-Wetlands Agency (IWA).

An IWA application for a proposed 63-house community at 701 North Street has been temporarily withdrawn, and will be resubmitted, possibly for a June public hearing. By state law, the agency has to make a decision within 65 days or, if the applicant grants an extension, within 130 days.

The North Street application was filed on January 7, giving the IWA until May 17 to make a decision. The application went to a public hearing on May 6 with a second public hearing planned for May 13. However, the applicant, Stone Preserve LLC, withdrew the application in advance of that meeting.

Due to snow cover, site walks for both Feb. 2 and March 24 were canceled. The site walk finally took place on April 9, allowing the agency to schedule a much-delayed public hearing. There are no wetlands on the site, but there are wetlands on the adjacent Orchards Golf Course owned by the city, and on a privately owned lot to the southwest.

At the May 6 public hearing, about 40 residents attended, 20 of whom spoke in opposition to the project, expressing concern about pesticide residues in the soil from the former orchard, and the potential effect of water runoff from the dense development.

According to Thomas Lynch, attorney for Stone Preserve, the applicant’s decision to withdraw was affected by the fact that the agency wanted an independent review of the Phase 1 environmental report and soil analysis conducted by Go Environmental. Lynch submitted that report at the May 6 public hearing.

Lynch indicated that MaryRose Palumbo, the city’s inland-wetlands compliance officer, has asked an engineering firm to review the reports, which would have pushed the agency beyond the May 17 date.

“Due to this, we withdrew and will immediately re-apply,” wrote Lynch in an email on May 14.

Wheelers Woods Hearing

Meanwhile, a proposal for a 180-unit apartment complex on the west side of Wheelers Farms Road was received on Feb. 4 from Milford Developers LLC of Chatham, N.J. The initial 65-day review period expired on April 10, and the developer granted an extension, giving the IWA until June 14 to make a decision. The agency’s April 1 site visit was canceled due to snow cover and safety concerns. The site walk took place on April 28.

The public hearing for the apartment complex has been continued to June 3 at 7:30 p.m. in a room to be announced in the Parsons Government Center.

The May 13 public hearing was attended by more representatives from the applicant than members of the public due to a last-minute change in the location from the Parsons building to City Hall in anticipation of a crowd too big for Conference Room C in that building.

However, Palumbo did not post a change in venue for the hearing, as she did when the North Street hearing was similarly moved.

“The notice was not properly put on the Conference Room C Door,” said Palumbo, speaking by phone on May 14. “We will hear it again on June 3. The public will have a chance to hear the presentation and speak about their concerns on the application. We have to decide on this by June 14. If we can’t make a decision that night, we may have to have another meeting.”

One resident waiting in the Parsons conference room came to the City Hall auditorium at 9 p.m. and whispered that there were residents in the conference room who wanted to comment on the plans and were upset they did not know about the room change.

Palumbo said the agency has hired Dr. Michael W. Klemens, a biologist and conservationist, to review the project for the IWA, focusing on the box turtles and wood frogs found on the site.

The delay in the IWA hearing puts in doubt a proposed May 19 public hearing before the Planning and Zoning Board (P&Z). The P&Z had continued the hearing from May 5, while it awaited information from other city agencies, including the IWA.

The IWA hearing is necessary because the apartment complex is within 100 feet of wetlands in the Housatonic River watershed and within 150 feet of wetlands in the Wepawaug River watershed.

In his May 13 presentation, Project Engineer John Gilmore said the property has two separate frontages on Wheelers Farms Road totaling 260 feet, plus 30 feet of frontage on East Rutland Road where a sewer line connects two nearby office buildings to the street. The sewer easement will be used for emergency site access.

Gilmore said this property was once part of a larger 40-acre site, which received P&Z approval on Sept. 11, 1987 for the construction of two office buildings. An office building at 440 Wheelers Farms Road was built, but the second one was not. He said the access driveway and parking lot from the office building would have “encroached substantially closer” to the wetlands than the apartment proposal.

During the construction of the office building, he said the proposed apartment site was excavated and vegetation was removed, “almost to bedrock” to be used as fill at 440 Wheelers Farms Road.

Gilmore said the majority of the site falls within the Wepawaug River watershed area with water flowing first into the wetlands areas on the property, then into Baldwin Swamp, and finally into the river itself. He said the property represents only two-tenths of a percent of the total watershed land that drains to the swamp.

The apartments would be built in nine buildings totaling 180 units in the rear 10 acres of the site. There would be some smaller buildings for detached garages, plus a clubhouse with related inground pool and patio.

Gilmore said the plans call for a conservation easement on 11.5 of the parcel’s 26 acres, which includes a 1.5-acre existing easement for high-tension powerlines that cross the property.

Gilmore said the storm water management system consists of two separate basins that will collect and detain water before slowly discharging the water into the wetlands. He said there would be no filling of wetlands or other direct impacts to the wetlands. He said no buildings would be constructed past the sewer easement.

Gilmore said some excavation would take place with 17,000 cubic yards of rocks and dirt to be cut and moved within the site to achieve the desired grading. He said an additional 8,300 cubic yards of fill would be brought to the site for the same purpose.

William Root, a certified soil scientist hired by the applicant, said at the public hearing that there are 6.5 acres of wetlands in different places on the site, most of which is in the central corridor on the site. He said this central area was created in 1990 by excavation for the adjacent office building. There is also a man-made farm pond, and two small wetlands with vernal pools. He said there are two box culverts under the existing access driveway which pipe two small water-courses.

“I have a fairly low opinion of the ecological value of the central wetland,” said Root, which he said has debris in it, including concrete and buried chairs. He said there are low numbers of frog larvae in the area. He did observe frogs in two other small wetland areas, but said there were low numbers of egg masses. The survey did find a male and female box turtle on the site.

Root said the buildings would be located 50 to 100 feet away from the wetlands areas. He said extensive site work is needed to remove non-native, invasive plant species and replant the areas with native plants.

“There are no overall changes to the general hydrology of the site, and no additional run off, except what goes through the storm sewer processing,” said Root.

Eric Davison, a wildlife biologist, said the vernal pools have been studied since spring 2013. He said since 2013, there has been a decline in both the numbers and diversity of species living in the vernal pools, including a decline in the number of wood frogs and their egg masses.

“Their numbers may be decreased over time, even with no construction,” said Davison.

He said the box turtles live between two of the vernal pools. He made recommendations for protecting the box turtles during construction. He also made suggestions to minimize the effect of lighting affecting the wetland species.

Commenting on the application, Timothy Hollister, attorney for Milford Developers, said, “This is one of the most thoroughly studied sites in my 32 years of doing this. A three-year study is almost unheard of. I hope you appreciate the efforts.”

Residents’ Concerns

Three residents attended the public hearing with two expressing concerns about the project. Carrie Akin of 579 Orange Avenue voiced concerns about how the project would affect animals when the natural areas are replaced with development.

Stephen Povroznik of 312 Wheelers Farms Road expressed concern about the potential contents of buried drums on the site. Povroznik also asked about the potential negative effects downstream from the site.

Speaking about the wildlife, Povroznik said, “This commission has a set a precedent for protection of the eastern box turtle by including a bridge” in a project.

Hollister responded by saying, “We do have protection of the box turtle in the plan.”

Gilmore commented on Povroznik’s remarks when he said, “There are no negative wetlands impacts on our property or down-stream.” Gilmore said the drums that he observed “were crushed almost beyond examination” leading him to believe they have no contents.

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