Zoning board may vote on controversial Bic Drive apartments March 3

Editor's Note: An earlier posting of this article stated the next P&Z meeting is March 2. That was an error. The meeting is scheduled for March 3

Dueling testimony from fire experts was part of the drama as the Planning and Zoning Board (P&Z) on Feb. 17 wrapped up the third and final public hearing regarding a proposed 257-unit apartment building with an affordable component at 460 Bic Drive, at the corner of Naugatuck Avenue.

The board plans to discuss the issue at its March 3 meeting, and may vote on the project. The meeting will take place at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall. Residents may attend the meeting, but since the public hearing has closed, no further comments are permitted.

Joseph Coci, managing director of Mountain Development Corp (MDC), which owns the 625,000 square foot industrial complex on the adjacent property at 500 Bic Drive, brought one fire expert in an attempt to persuade the board that the proposal represents a public safety threat and should therefore be denied.

Meanwhile, Garden Homes Residential of Stamford, which submitted the plan under the state's affordable housing regulations, Connecticut General Statute 8-30g, presented its own fire expert with the goal of proving the building would be safe and should be approved.

In the Land Use Litigation Docket, which is a special state court designed to hear 8-30g appeals, the burden of proof rests strongly on the land use boards to prove that any denied project has a public health or safety issue that outweighs the goal of encouraging affordable housing.

The Feb. 17 hearing attracted about 60 residents, many of whom attended the Feb. 3 public hearing. Some of the same people again voiced their opposition, while there was some additional testimony from other residents, also in opposition.

Fire Concerns Raised

Batting first was Raymond A. Walker, Bolton fire marshal and licensed attorney, who has 35 years of experience as a fire marshal in Windsor, Vernon and Bolton.

In his presentation on behalf of MDC, Walker raised concerns based on a number of factors: a single driveway for entry and exit, limited information on water supply, an underground parking garage, close proximity to the Iroquois gas pipeline, and the wood construction.

“The plans, as provided, raise concerns for fire and life safety that could become serious problems in the event of a fire incident,” Walker told the board, noting that his concerns reflect the design, not the ability of the Milford Fire Department to handle a fire.

Regarding the single access point, Walker said, “Such singular points of access can lead to traffic, including occupants attempting to flee the fire, blocking fire department access and interfering with apparatus turning movements.”

Commenting on the building itself, Walker said the fire department would have no direct access to the units facing the interior courtyard. He said the building heights exceed the reach of a typical fire service ground ladder, of which Milford has four.

On the topic of water supply, Walker said the plans include limited information regarding the water supply. He said during a fire situation, water pressure needs to be at least 20 pounds per square inch (psi) and water flows could be in excess of several thousand gallons per minute.

“Water flow testing is needed in order to ensure that water, under all conditions, including system-wide peak demands, is sufficient,” said Walker.

Discussing the underground parking garage, Walker said the low ceiling heights prevent access by fire vehicles. He also said that the plans do not show a way to vent the smoke, heat and toxic gases that may be produced during a vehicle fire.

Commenting on the pipeline, Walker said plans for blasting and mechanical removal of ledge would need to be fully evaluated to make sure they do not damage the pipeline.

Coci followed this presentation with a slide show of a devastating fire on Jan. 21, at an Avalon apartment complex in Edgewater, N.J., saying the property was similar to the one in Milford in that both are large buildings made of wood where gas lines are present.

Coci said the Avalon property was completely engulfed within three hours. A total of 500 firefighters from 35 towns responded, and needed more than 24 hours to control the fire, which destroyed 240 of the more than 400 units.

“Lightweight wood construction and gas lines were a significant contributor to the rapid expansion of the blaze,” said Coci.

Coci said the building was fully outfitted with sprinklers, which could not stop the fire. He said due to low water pressure and tremendous demands in fighting the fire, water from the Hudson River was used to provide supplemental water. He said the same building burned to the ground while under construction in 2000.

“There is ample and compelling evidence for planning and zoning to turn down this proposed development,” said Coci.

Coci said he attempted to hire a traffic consultant to conduct a second traffic study, but said none of the 12 consultants he approached were willing to do work opposing a developer, who might be a potential client for them.

While not mentioned at the hearing, video footage of the New Jersey fire is readily available on YouTube.

Developer's Expert Replies

Following the public comment period, Joseph Versteeg, an industrial fire safety code consultant, spoke on behalf of Garden Homes. Presenting his credentials, Versteeg said he was a former commanding officer for the Connecticut State Fire Marshal's Office, and is a certified building inspector and fire marshal, and a certified fire protection specialist.

Versteeg said the proposed building “satisfies the current Connecticut state building code and fire prevention code.” He said Connecticut is looking at developing the next generation of codes, and said with this building, Garden Homes “is in compliance with future codes.”

Versteeg said the building is designed to limit the spread of fire with fire rated walls, floors and ceilings, protected corridors, and stairwells.

“This building provides for the protection of residents, the surrounding area, and the fire department,” said Versteeg.

Versteeg said the fire marshal has to conduct yearly inspections on such a building. He said the sprinkler system, stand-pipes, and fire alarms require regular inspections. There will be a stand-pipe in each of the four stairwells and in the garage to provide direct water access for firefighters. If there is a problem with the sprinkler or alarm systems, a monitoring agency is notified and the building has to be evacuated.

Discussing water pressure, Versteeg said the street has a 16-inch water main with 22 psi. He said a fire pump is very common to boost pressure in emergency situations. In addition, he said fire codes only require one source of water for sprinklers and stand-pipes for residential properties. For industrial properties, he said an insurance company may require a second water source, such as the water tank at the Bic property.

“The fact that the adjacent area has a 250,000 gallon tank is no reflection on this property,” said Versteeg.

Versteeg said only one sprinkler operates in 70% of fires and that one sprinkler is enough to control 93% of fires.

Commenting on the New Jersey fire, Versteeg said no final investigative report has been issued, but the fire was believed to have started on the first floor from workers using blowtorches.

Regarding the single access driveway, Versteeg said that is all the building code requires, adding that the Connecticut Fire Safety Code permits a single site access driveway. He said Milford Fire Marshal Robert Healey has approved the plan.

Commenting on the parking garage, Versteeg said no fire truck access is required due to the standpipes. Discussing the pipeline, he said the state fire marshal regulates blasting and the permit requires a pre-blast meeting with neighbors.

“The Iroquois pipeline people will have a lot to say about blasting,” said Versteeg.

Discussing wood construction, Versteeg said there are no proposals to change the building and fire code for such buildings.

Further commenting on the construction, Architect Andrew Hennessey said, “We don't use open trusses.” He said 85% of the roof would be flat with enclosed gables in some roof areas as an architectural feature.

Closing out the discussion, Garden Homes attorney Thomas Lynch said, “These plans meet the building code and the fire code. Each city department has reviewed these plans and signed off with approvals.”

Residents Share Concerns

A total of 16 residents raised concerns about traffic and water pressure as they urged the commission to deny the project. No residents spoke in favor of the project.

James Burdo of Ruth Ann Terrace expressed concern about the traffic flow at Bic Drive and Naugatuck Avenue, saying people are driving across Naugatuck Avenue after the light has changed. Burdo also said he thinks 1.3 parking spaces per unit is not sufficient.

Cheryl Dato of Wiley Avenue said she talked to a representative of the Regional Water Authority (RWA) who told her the water pressure is 28 psi at that property on a range of 25 to 125 psi.

“They probably would not be allowed to have water tanks on their roofs,” said Dato.

Robert Healey of Terrell Drive said he was concerned about sight pollution caused by having a four-story building on top of a hill.

“You would be able to see that building from the four corners of the city,” said Healey.

Patrick Stirk of Naugatuck Avenue said he lives at the corner of Wiley Avenue with his wife and three children. Stirk said cars have twice hit his mailbox and people regularly drive through the stop sign on Naugatuck Avenue without stopping.

“Increasing the amount of traffic in that area will endanger families, including mine,” said Stirk.

Michael Lutian of West Rutland Road said, “There is a lot of traffic coming down West Rutland Road to the transfer station. Putting a high density apartment building there isn't going to help.”

Lee Williams of Ruth Ann Terrace said he and his wife are both opposed to the project and presented a petition with 14 signatures asking the board to deny the project. Williams said a smaller project is a more acceptable use and said they should be owner occupied because owners are more involved than renters.

“My property has an 80-foot buffer to the pipeline. Why doesn't this apply to this project?” asked Williams.

Emilie Mones of Popes Island Road questioned if there was a fire, would there be a problem with the butane tanks used by Bic. While not discussed at the meeting, the Bic facility is actually at 565 Bic Drive, on the opposite side of the street at the far corner with Shelland Street.

State Rep. Kim Rose (D-118), a former member of the P&Z board, commented on the state statute by saying the law was well intentioned with a goal of providing safe and affordable housing, but she said developers are “taking advantage of the people living there.”

Project Details

According to the plans submitted by Garden Homes, the access road to the complex would be placed directly over the Iroquois Pipeline, which is a 24-inch diameter pipe buried three feet un-der the ground. Iroquois permits paved areas over the pipeline.

The pipeline then runs along the west side of the property, adjoining the Bic facility, passing under 36 parking spaces and a trash/recycling area. The pipeline curves south at the edge of the parking lot, and passes along the parking lot border.

The plans call for a basketball court and 100-foot by 22-foot fenced dog walk area near the homes on the southwest property border with a concrete walkway passing over the pipeline to that area.

According to the plans, the elevation of Naugatuck Avenue adjoining the property is 86 feet above sea level. The building will be located at elevations ranging from 105 to 113 feet, indicating the base will be 19 to 27 feet above the street level. Across the street on the south side of Naugatuck Avenue is vacant land that is predominantly wetlands.

The H-shaped four-story building will have 194 one-bedroom apartments, and 63 studio apartments. The building would have 322 parking spaces, averaging 1.25 spaces per unit, and Garden Homes could add 42 more parking spaces, if needed.