Turtles prompt some changes to Wheelers Farms Road apartment plan

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article stated that the Wheelers Farms Road hearing would be continued July 21. That was not correct. The P&Z hearing is continued to Tuesday, July 7, at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall, and may possibly extend to the July 21 meeting.
Site plan changes to a proposed 180-unit apartment complex on Wheelers Farms Road have been prompted by an attempt to create a better habitat for turtles living on the property.
At a June 16 public hearing, Timothy Hollister, attorney for Milford Developers LLC of Chatham, N.J., presented revised plans to the Planning and Zoning Board for the 26-acre parcel behind the Merritt Crossing office building at 440 Wheelers Farms Road, and south of the Crown Corporate Campus office buildings at 470 Wheelers Farms Road.
About 60 residents attended the hearing, 13 of whom expressed their continued opposition to the proposal, citing concerns of increased traffic and storm water runoff.
The P&Z hearing is continued to Tuesday, July 7, at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall, and may possibly extend to the July 21 meeting. The public hearing before the Inland-Wetlands Agency continues on Wednesday, July 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Site changes
Hollister told the zoning board that the changes were prompted by a review of the proposal by Dr. Michael W. Klemens, a biologist and conservationist, on behalf of the Inland Wetlands Agency.
Hollister said the proposed conservation easement has been updated to clarify what the apartment residents can and cannot do within the proposed conservation area “to preserve it in its natural state.” The city and its Conservation Commission would be granted access to the property to enforce the easement.
The draft regulations for the proposed zone have also been clarified, so they will not apply to any other property in Milford. He said the original language made to the proposed regulations were potentially applicable to flood and coastal zones.
Hollister said a two-phase environmental study detected no hazardous waste on the property.
“There is a fair amount of debris, particularly in the central wetland,” said Hollister. “It will be removed.”
Regarding the question of school-aged children, Hollister said, “Land use decisions are not to be made based on the number of school age children.”
Hollister presented data from a 2006 demographic study published by Rutgers University. Based on a “worst case scenario,” he said there could be 50 school children living in the apartments. He said Milford school population has declined 16% since 2006, leaving a “reasonable esti-mate” of 36 to 40 school-age children living in the apartments.
Hollister said the developer would “put in writing” that the gravel sewer easement connecting the property to East Rutland Road would be blocked at both ends with a locked gate, and would not be intended for pedestrian, vehicular or recreational use.
He only briefly commented on the Police Commission's June 8 unanimous vote to accept the Traffic Commission's recommendation that the project not be given a waiver for the number of parking spaces.
Speaking after the hearing on the topic, Hollister said this plan has 1.96 parking spaces per unit, or a total of 352 parking spaces. The P&Z requires two parking spaces for one-bedroom units, and three parking spaces for two- or three-bedroom units, resulting in a requirement for 478 parking spaces.
Turtles Prompt Plan Changes
John Gilmore, project engineer for Milford Developers, said the original application “had no direct wetlands impacts,” saying the onsite wetlands, including two vernal pools, are of “very low quality.” Gilmore said three turtles have been observed over the past two years in the wetlands.
“Dr. Klemens felt it was important to give them the opportunity to breed and multiply on the site,” said Gilmore. “He asked if we could reconfigure the site.” He planned to meet with Klemens on June 23 to discuss the revisions.
Gilmore said there are three revisions to the plans. 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 near the turtles, providing the vernal pool with a 100-foot wide buffer.
Gilmore said the plan revisions also prompted a change to the conservation easement. He said 10 of the site's 26 acres would be developed with the rest placed in a conservation easement. He said 1.2 acres are the powerline easement, which is not part of the conservation easement, and the front parking lot is also not included. Gilmore said this leaves in excess of 40% of the site as open space.
Traffic matters
David Sullivan, traffic engineer for Milford Developers, presented four items at the meeting. Sullivan gave details regarding the non-functioning traffic light at the site entrance on Wheelers Farms Road.
Sullivan said the wires across the road will be raised higher than the existing utility wires. All signal heads will be replaced with 12-inch high signals, compared to the eight-inch high signals there now. The detection system and signal controller will be replaced. The pedestrian ramp and crosswalk will be brought up to ADA standards, said Sullivan.
Sullivan said the prevailing speed on Wheelers Farms Road, the speed at which 85% of the traffic is traveling or slower, is 41.6 miles per hour. He said the sight lines of 470 feet meet Conn. Department of Transportation (DOT) guidelines.
In response to a question about why he did not further study the intersection with East Rutland Road, Sullivan said DOT regulations require such a study only if a project is adding 100 new vehicles or 50 vehicles making left turns.
“We didn't see that East Rutland Road was a logical alternative for vehicles coming to and from here,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan said when he examined ways people could access the site from I-95, times and distances were longer using East Rutland Road, as compared to High Street and the Daniel S. Wasson Connector.
He said a three-year study of traffic data at the intersection of Wheelers Farms and East Rutland roads showed 10 accidents, of which two involved injuries, and the rest had only vehicle damage.
Board member Thomas Nichol questioned how the fire department's 30-ton tower truck would access the site via the gravel emergency access road, saying fire department officials have indicated they would not use the access road. Nichol also asked if there was any plan to install a traffic light at this intersection.
In response, Gilmore said, “There are many access points to the site from adjacent properties. We proposed it as an emergency access because it is there. I don't think it's necessary.”
He said the sewer easement will be kept clear of vegetation, but will not have any other improvements.
Commenting on the traffic light question, Gilmore said, “There are no plans to signalize that intersection.”
He said the signal at the site driveway would provide breaks in traffic, which would make it easier for motorists turning north on Wheelers Farms Road from East Rutland Road.