Hearings continue on Wheelers Farms Road housing proposal

Hearings on a proposed 180-unit apartment complex on Wheelers Farms Road continue to bounce back and forth between the Inland-Wetlands Agency (IWA) and the Planning and Zoning Board (P&Z) with the next meeting scheduled before the IWA on Wednesday, July 15 at 7:30 p.m. in the City Hall auditorium.
The IWA is expected to close out the hearing at that meeting, allowing the agency to discuss the proposal. If the IWA does not vote on the plan on July 15, it has until Aug. 19 to make a decision.
A vote from the IWA would allow the P&Z to close out its final hearing on the project at its Tuesday, July 21 meeting at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall.
July 21 is the closing date for the P&Z public hearing, although Timothy Hollister, attorney for Milford Developers LLC, told the board, “We will grant a final extension if needed.” The deadline for the P&Z to vote on the project has been extended to Sept. 24.
At the July 7 P&Z meeting, representatives for the applicant, Milford Developers LLC of Chatham, N.J., presented revised plans to the board, which are awaiting final comments from various city agencies, including the IWA.
About 50 residents from the project area attended the P&Z hearing with 10 speaking in opposition, expressing concern about increased traffic, storm water runoff, and possible contaminants on the site. Most of those who spoke have previously shared their views at past P&Z and IWA hearings.
Hollister presented revised plans to the P&Z, including a revision to the proposed Housing Opportunity District (HOD), allowing a bus shelter as an accessory use. Hollister also clarified language regarding the allowable square footage of the entrance sign on Wheelers Farms Road.
Hollister said the revised plans include a bus shelter on the road, connected to the apartments at the back of the property with a sidewalk.
Hollister discussed improvements to the conservation easement, which he also presented to the IWA the previous week. These changes include a “base-line conditions documentation report” that would provide a written record of the condition of the proposed 16-acre conservation easement at the time the project begins.
Milford Developers would also mark the conservation easement with the understanding the applicant would remain responsible for the easement area. The company will also remove debris from within the conservation area, which was formerly used as an automobile salvage and repair facility.
Soil Conditions Reported
Responding to residents' concerns about possible contaminants in the soil from this past use, Hollister said, if earth-moving equipment uncovers hydrocarbons during construction, the company would report this to the IWA.
Hollister said he presented a Phase 1 environmental study from GeoQuest environmental services to the board at its June 16 meeting, a study that was completed by a licensed environmental professional (LEP). He said that an LEP has a state license that obligates the company to “report the facts as they are.” After inspecting the entire site, “there was no evidence of contamination,” said Hollister.
Hollister said the limited soil testing it conducted showed residual pesticides from the land's agricultural past in a few places, but at levels well below state guidelines. He said the engineering firm of Milone and MacBroom also performed soil boring, as part of its design for the stormwater management plan.
“If there was going to be a problem with soil contamination, it would have been 30 years ago,” said Hollister, referring to the time when the nearby Merritt Crossing office building was constructed, using dirt from this site.
Hollister said city staff and its consultant Dr. Michael Klemens have walked the site many times and have not reported any environmental concerns. “There is no need for further soil testing,” said Hollister.
John Gilmore, project engineer for Milford Developers, said the proposed Building 4 is being relocated away from a vernal pool at the center of the site, and is being split into two buildings located near the north of the site.
The proposed clubhouse has been relocated near the entry road. Finally, the entry roadway and dumpsters have been relocated away from the wetlands by the turtles, providing the vernal pool with a 100-foot wide buffer, said Gilmore.
Gilmore said the 117-car ancillary parking lot near Wheelers Farms Road is part of this 26-acre property and therefore is the developers' responsibility. The IWA raised concerns about water flow from the storm drains in parking area. In response, those storm drains will be incorporated into the revised stormwater management plan, said Gilmore.
Commenting on fire department access, Gilmore said the gravel access road from the site to East Rutland Road needs to be maintained as a sanitary sewer easement and “can be accessed by heavy equipment.”
Gilmore said the fire department could also use the Daniel S. Wasson Connector to access the buildings. He said there is also access across a second sewer easement by the Merritt Crossing office building. Another access would be via the existing site driveway that leads to the office building property.
At previous hearings, residents protested the omission of East Rutland Road from the traffic study conducted by the developer's traffic engineer, David Sullivan. In response, Sullivan presented information for Wheelers Farms Road at East Rutland Road. He estimates 28 to 34 trips passing through that intersection at peak hourly times, saying most vehicles would stay on Wheelers Farms Road.
“We expect negligible traffic will go down East Rutland Road,” said Sullivan, further commenting that these roads do not show an unusual pattern or frequency of accidents.
James Riviello, architect for Milford Developers, presented changes to the building design. Riviello said that the buildings that were proposed to have underground parking have been changed to match the designs of the other buildings that do not have such parking.
Instead of using brick for the lower facades, the plans propose using cedar shingles. There will be one fewer two-bedroom unit and one additional one-bedroom unit, said Riviello.
P&Z Members Question
Board member Jim Quish said he was concerned about potential subsurface contamination. “I think it's appropriate to do an entire Phase 2 plan,” said Quish.
In response, Hollister said the Phase 1 study was a complete site reconnaissance that found no evidence of contamination by hydrocarbons or pesticides, other than the low levels of pesticides detected in follow-up testing.
“This is one of the most studied sites I have ever been involved with,” said Hollister.
Quish said the lack of documentation about what is under the soil “is not really providing a comfortable feeling” for him or the residents.
Hollister responded by saying that the aerial photos show the topsoil in the development area was almost completely scraped off. In the conservation area, no signs for subsoil contamination were found, he said, and repeated the idea to report any problems that might be discovered during construction to the city.
“We are not leaving this to chance,” said Hollister. “There is no basis for taking soil samples every few feet across 26 acres.”
Rebutting Holister's remarks, Quish said, “Aerial photographs of the whole excavation does not tell the whole story. He said he believed the past use as an auto salvage yard warrants further investigation.
Board vice chair Jeanne Cervin said she was concerned that the report showed the soil was only dug with hand tools to the depth of six inches for the pesticide testing.
In response, Hollister said pesticide residues bind to the soil and if there was a concentration that exceeded state guidelines, the developer would need to remediate the problem. He said nothing was found in the historical record to indicate a need for further testing.
Board member Thomas Nichol had a back-and-forth discussion with Gilmore regarding emergency site access. Nichol said fire trucks will not use the gravel sewer easement, and wanted documentation from the fire department regarding emergency access. After several comments and exchanges between the two, Gilmore said the fire department supported the plan.
Residents Continue to Oppose
Residents' concerns were amplified by comments from State Sen. Gayle Slossberg (D-14) and State Rep. Pamela Staneski (R-119) both of whom called on the P&Z to deny the project.
At the start of the public comment period, Slossberg called out from the audience, asking P&Z Chairman Benjamin Gettinger to call a recess to allow residents time to review the revised plans. Gettinger granted that break, during which residents clustered around the map boards where Milford Developers' representatives explained the changes.
The first resident to speak was June O'Connell of 102 East Rutland Road, who said she wanted the Fire Commission to review the revised plans.
O'Connell said Fire Marshal Robert Healey had said he would not bring a vehicle down the sewer easement, and had not seen the revised plans. O'Connell said she spoke to the “assistant fire marshal” because Healey was on vacation, and she said the assistant fire marshal said he was not familiar with the plans and did not have time to review them.
In response, City Planner David B. Sulkis said the revised plans were received in his office on Friday, July 3 and had been sent out to other departments by Monday, July 6
“There is always someone on staff to do plan reviews,” said Sulkis.
Commenting on the Phase 1 study, O'Connell said, “I noticed how carefully their words were chosen.” She said the report discussed findings from an April 7 site walk, which was the same time the IWA canceled its site walk due to snow on the site.
Commenting on the records review, O'Connell said the report did not find any files to review because none were associated with the 0 Wheelers Farms Road address created when the proposed apartment site was subdivided from the Merritt Crossing office building site on the Sept. 17, 2004 subdivision.
“Our wells and septic systems could be contaminated,” said O'Connell.
In addition to commenting on the environmental report, Michael O'Connell of 102 East Rutland Road said the project should be denied due to a lack of a second means of emergency access. He said the fire department's ladder truck does not have enough room in the parking lot to operate. He said the traffic study understated the traffic volume and impact on East Rutland Road.
Ruth Krasenics of 86 East Rutland Road requested an archeological survey of the property, saying a former University of Connecticut professor brought students there and found pottery. Krasenics also said that pollutants from overflowing storm drains and illegal dumping of oil and antifreeze would contaminate the wetlands and watercourses, negatively affecting residents' wells and city roads.
Slossberg said that six inches of digging was not enough and “there was more than enough evidence” at the IWA for Klemens to recommend additional deep soil testing as a condition of approval. She said she was not comfortable with the idea that the developer would report a problem to the IWA if one was discovered.
“I think it's a very worthwhile investment for the safety of these residents and residents around them,” said Slossberg, who asked the board to deny the project.
Slossberg also expressed concern that the fire department would not be able to access parts of the buildings with their ladder trucks to rescue children in case of a fire. She said there will also be significant traffic impact from the apartments.
More protests
Pat Kelly of 329 Wheelers Farms Road said snow piles limit visibility at the corner of Wheelers Farms and East Rutland roads. Kelly said storm drains on Wheelers Farms Road can become overwhelmed in a heavy rain storm, causing flooding.
“There is nowhere for the water to go when we get this kind of rain,” said Kelly, who also said that wildlife is in decline, including bees, bats, turtles and salamanders.
Staneski submitted a letter to the board, saying she tried to fix the 8-30g affordable housing law under which this application was filed.
“With all the public safety concerns, you need to deny this project,” Staneski said.