No wetlands agency decision yet on Wheelers Farms housing proposal

At the Inland-Wetlands Agency's (IWA) July 1 public hearing on a proposed 180-unit apartment complex on Wheelers Farms Road, the agency listened to further concerns from the public, asked questions of the applicant, and then continued the hearing to July 15 at 7:30 p.m.
Agency Chair Cathleen Collins said the hearing would be held open for three issues: to clarify the snow removal plan, to review the results of an environmental study, and to recommend restricting future pesticide use on the site.
Collins said the IWA received a review of the plans by city engineer Gary Wassmer who wrote that the plans “met or exceed current hydrology standards” and “met all city guidelines for stormwater management.”
Inland Wetlands Officer MaryRose Palumbo said the erosion controls “comply with state guidelines.” She said the agency holds two bonds to make sure the applicant complies with the plans, one for during construction and another for three years, or longer if there is an issue, following construction.
The Planning and Zoning Board (P&Z) public hearing on the project will continue on Tuesday, July 7 at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall. Without a decision by the IWA, the P&Z would need to keep open the public hearing to its July 21 meeting, and would likely not be voting on the proposal at the July 7 meeting. The P&Z has until Aug. 20 to make a decision.
About 25 residents attended the three-hour long IWA meeting, which is the third IWA public hearing on this proposal for the apartments on a 26-acre parcel behind the Merritt Crossing office building at 440 Wheelers Farms Road.
Twelve people spoke in opposition, expressing concern about the effects of storm water runoff from the property, potential pesticides and chemicals in the soil from past uses, and the loss of habitat for animals.
Revised plans
Timothy Hollister, attorney for Milford Developers LLC of Chatham, N.J., presented revised plans to the IWA, which he had previously presented to the P&Z on June 16. The plan revisions were in response to input from city officials and their consultant, Dr. Michael W. Klemens, a biologist and conservationist.
At the start of the hearing, Hollister proposed five conditions for approval. The first condition would be a “baseline 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. The baseline record would include photographs and maps.
The second would be a plan to control invasive plant species in the development area.
“We don't want to get into invasive plant removal in the conservation area,” Hollister told the IWA, “because it can do more harm than good.
The third condition would be to mark the limits of the conservation easement with the understanding the applicant would remain responsible for the easement area. The fourth condition would be the removal of debris from within the conservation area.
The fifth condition would be to move the buildings to protect vernal pools 3 and 4 on the site, creating a 100-foot buffer from the edge of the mature forest, as recommended by Klemens, said Hollister.
Based on input from agency members, at the end of the meeting, Hollister offered two more conditions of approval: restrict use of fertilizers and pesticides, and restrict car washing.
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 has been relocated away from the wetlands by the turtles, providing the vernal pool with a 100-foot wide buffer, said Gilmore.
Discussing the project's storm water management plans, Gilmore said water will be stored in low-lying areas and will be metered out at a slower rate. He said water will also infiltrate the soil, and be absorbed by plants. There will be a pond that will allow water to evaporate.
William Root, a certified soil scientist hired by the applicant, said surveyed the conservation area with the goal of providing “an area of understory habitat” by vernal pools 3 and 4, which would be used by the Eastern box turtles and other species.
Root also discussed the control plan for the invasive plant species. He said options for these plants include mechanical removal, covering them with a barrier to suffocate them, or using herbicides. The goal is to “prevent them from acting as a seed source and contaminating the wetlands area.”
Residents Voice Concerns
Prior to the public comment period, the agency gave the public a few minutes to review the plans. Representatives from the applicant showed them the changes, and answered a few questions.
The first resident to speak was June O'Connell of 102 East Rutland Road, who said the proposed apartment property was used as a storage yard for a towing company from the 1950s to the 1970s. She said the property inspection also found 50-gallon drums, which she said were not tested. She said there is a rumor that the office building planned for the site was never built due to contaminants.
“I believe much more testing needs to be done,” said O'Connell.
Lori Cleary of 99 East Rutland Road said her back yard floods every time it rains or snows, and if there is more than a little rain, her basement also floods. She expressed concern about the property's prior use as a junkyard.
“The pollutants could leach into our well,” said Cleary. “I will sue the city if our well is contaminated.”
Wally Hauck of 39 Lookout Hill Road said, “There is nothing but risk for the neighbors surrounding this project. Who am I going to call when this goes south?”
Danielle Burns of 29 East Rutland Road said the box turtle habitat is high, dry deciduous forest with access to water. She suggested preserving the property to protect the habitat.
“One reason turtles are endangered is they live where people build,” said Burns, who asked the agency to deny the proposal.
Ruth Telep of 51 East Rutland Road expressed concern about the access road to the sewer easement, asking who would monitor the area and keep the gate locked to keep people out.
Telep said there is a brook on her property that has water in it, “even when we are in below-normal rain.” She said there is a culvert on Wheelers Farms Road that goes under an old barn.
“It will never take the runoff from what we are talking about,” said Telep.
Ruth Krasenics of 86 East Rutland Road asked if anyone had requested an archeological survey of the property. She said that Mark Filanowski and Lori Cleary both said that a University of Connecticut professor would bring his students on an archeological field trip on the property. She said when Lexington Green was purchased, the developer had to do a study.
Rocco Frank of 44 Lexington Way said he has a sinkhole problem in front of his house, which has twice been repaired. Frank said the only source of water is the wetland above the street,
“We really need to determine if blasting is going to make it worse,” said Frank. “We really need to determine where that water is coming from.”
The Applicant Responds
Hollister said the plan changes were presented to the IWA on June 3 and to the P&Z on June 16. He said if there were any issues with chemicals from motor vehicles those issues would have arisen in the 1980s and 1990s when the property was highly disturbed for the office building construction.
“The applicant is proposing to clean up the debris field and make it better,” said Hollister, saying there will be an 11-acre conservation area between the development and the homes on East Rutland Road.
“This property is not a wildlife sanctuary. It is a highly disturbed commercial zone,” said Hollister, commenting that the property is bordered by the parkway and an office building.
Hollister said he looked at the sinkhole discussed by Frank and said there are any possible number of causes, including how the road was constructed, water main or sewer pipe leaks, or trees in the area.
“This site is 1,200 feet from our site and hydraulically unconnected,” said Hollister. “We shed toward the Wepawaug River and that site sheds toward the Housatonic River.”
In response, Frank said, “He's not a wetlands expert. He's an attorney.” Frank said that blasting could fracture rock and cause water to travel underground.
“They should be forced to do a study on water runoff for Lexington Green,” said Frank.
Addressing the public, IWA Chair Cathleen Collins said the agency has been working on this application since January. “It is not taken lightly. We worked on this on our own free time,” said Collins.
In response, State Sen. Gayle Slossberg (D-Milford) said a third set of documents were filed with the IWA on the previous Friday, and she said the public did not have an adequate time to review them, even if they were discussed at the June 3 meeting. Slossberg had raised similar concerns earlier during the hearing.
“These people are entitled to have the time to see it and review it,” said Slossberg, saying the agency should require the applicant to test the soil to make sure there are no contaminants.
Slossberg said the property has regenerated itself in the past 20 to 30 years, and said the box turtles and wood frogs would not be living there if it was a highly disturbed commercial property.
Palumbo read the review written by Klemens into the record, who wrote, “The plans have addressed in substance all of my concerns.”
In the letter, Klemens indicated the revised plans protect vernal pool 3, which is the best quality vernal pool on the property. Runoff from the roads will not flow directly into the wetlands as they do now. Klemens also noted the redesign protects the habitat of the box turtle and fox. He said other woods species are able to flourish in conjunction with development.
With much prior destruction on the site, “It is a suitable location for the type of intensity proposed,” Klemens wrote.
Speaking directly to the board and the public, Klemens said moving the buildings places them near a wetland that was created by the earth moving 15 to 20 years ago, which he had recommended filling.
Klemens called it a decoy pool because wood frogs go there to breed and rarely survive. By putting buildings in the area, the wood frogs will no longer go there to breed, “which is better than my recommendation to fill it,” said Klemens.
Klemens said there are two older box turtles on the property, which he estimates are 50 to 60 years old, and can live to 100 years old. The youngest is about 15 years old.
“I think this particular development, the way it is designed, is protecting the major ecological values of the conservation easement,” said Klemens.
Klemens did express concern about a proposal to stockpile snow near the conservation easement. He said this stockpiling should be prohibited as a condition of approval.
Agency member Kenneth Crowden expressed concern about the two snow shelves near detention pond 1 and salt and chemicals that would be in the snow.
In response, Gilmore said he identified 10 other locations for snow storage.
Crowden also expressed concern about granular pesticides that he said end up in the parking lot and then get washed into storm drains and then into the wetlands. He said he wanted a ban on pesticides on lawn areas and shrubs as a condition of approval.
Commenting on the concerns about contaminants, Gilmore said thousands of yards of material were removed from the site when the front office building was constructed.
Gimore said if there were any contaminants, they have been detected at that time, and if they were not, they would be by the front office building. He said test bores were drilled into the ground and nothing was found. He said if there were petroleum-based products, they could be detected by an oily smell or a sheen on the water. He said there is no evidence there are PCBs on the site.
Palumbo said she started working around the time the first office building was constructed. She said the front office building sat empty for some time and the other building was not built due to a crash in the market.
Board member James Connors said, “That building sat empty for a number of years.” Commenting on the reasons the second building was never constructed, he said, “I don't think it was because of contamination.” He said the soil that was moved to the front building would not have been moved if it was contaminated.
Board member Brendan Magnan said the environmental survey recommended subsurface soil tests, saying the property was used for agriculture from the 1930s to the 1970s.
In response, Hollister said the top 24 inches of soil was checked for concentrations of pesticides and they were nowhere near the level required for testing.
Cowden asked for restrictions to prevent car washing in the parking lot, and that if the dumpsters are washed out that environmentally safe chemicals are used.