Wetlands spark debate about parking lot at West Shore Middle School

The Inland-Wetlands Agency (IWA) will continue on July 20 the public hearing regarding a proposed parking lot expansion at West Shore Middle School, 70 Kay Avenue.

The Permanent School Facilities Building Committee has presented several options to the IWA to add up to 41 parking spaces to the school parking lot, which will be needed to replace spaces displaced by an upcoming renovation and expansion project.

Some of those options require IWA approval because they involve crossing, construction, and grading within 100 feet of wetlands in the Housatonic River watershed.

The agency held open the public hearing to give the building committee time to gather additional information for the “Preferred Alternative,” which would have 41 spaces, and is the one that would most affect the wetlands.

The hearing will continue July 20 at 7:30 p.m. in Conference Room A of the Parsons Government Center. The agency has until Aug. 10 to make a decision.

Project engineer Donald Smith reviewed four options with the agency. Alternative A would create a 25-space parking lot behind homes on Nells Road in an area that is mostly lawn. He said this project “has zero direct wetlands impact.” However, this area is located within a coastal flood zone.

In the face of neighborhood opposition, Smith said the building committee chairman, who is Matthew B. Woods, directed him to find another option, which he said is the preferred alternative.

Smith told the IWA that the “Preferred Alternative” would be located at the rear of the school, adjacent to the parking lot for the Jehovah’s Witness building on Milford Point Road, and would cost $12,000 more than Alternative A.

Construction of that parking lot would involve crossing a wetlands area and disturbing 2,150 square feet of wetlands. Removing a culvert at the rear of the property would regain 266 square feet of wetlands. The proposed parking lot area is currently wooded.

The land where Alternative A would be located has been maintained as a yard by Bridget and Karl Krauss of 42 Nells Road, even though it is city-owned land. The Krauss family has a small section of an above-ground pool, a children’s playset, and wooden posts on city property. This use was discovered when the parking lot plan was prepared.

Alternative B would create nine parking spaces along Kay Avenue, and would not affect the wetlands and is located outside the flood zone, but would reduce the size of the school’s field.

Alternative C would create nine parking spaces in an area south of the cafeteria, but would impact 650 square feet of wetlands. Smith said this project would involve construction of a retaining wall, costing an additional $10,000, as compared to Alternative A.

Alternative D would create 22 parking spaces, and would not affect the wetlands, and is located outside the flood zone, but would also involve reducing the field size, and installing a new driveway onto Milford Point Road, which Smith said would be a concern. This plan would cost the same as Alternative A.

Smith said that adding plants to the courtyard areas at the school and removing asphalt would reduce impervious areas on the school property by 2,000 square feet, but the proposed parking lot would increase the impervious area by 10,000 square feet.

Landscape architect Stephen Wing said the landscaping plan would include planting shade trees around and adjacent to the school, particularly on the west side of the building. Wing said shrubs and small flowering trees would be planted in the courtyard areas, which are now just asphalt.

Wing said most of the vegetation adjacent to the wetland area is comprised of invasive plant species, including Japanese knotweed, multi-flora rose, and bittersweet vines. He said these would be removed and replaced with native shrubs and trees, including sweet pepperbush, red dogwoods, and red maples.
Neighbors Back New Plan
Four neighbors spoke in favor of the preferred alternative.

Karl Krauss said he is against Alternative A because it would place a parking lot right behind his house.

“It would result in the loss of a meadow where my kids play,” said Krauss. “We are not against the alternative because we had things on city property,” saying his pool was on city property, but has been moved back.

Laurie Hennessey of 34 Nells Road, who lives behind the current school parking lot and said she works at the school, said she favors the preferred alternative.

Joseph Coretti of 46 Nells Road, who lives next to the Krauss family and would be behind the Alternative A parking lot, said he is in favor of the preferred alternative.

Peter Carlson of 11 Nells Road, who lives on the opposite site of the street, said he favors the preferred alternative. Carlson said he would love to see the wetlands used as a nature’s classroom.

School Supt. Dr. Elizabeth Feser submitted a letter to the agency in support of the preferred alternative. Feser wrote that one option is almost entirely in the flood zone, and another has impacts on neighbors and would result in loss of grassland by the school.

“The Building Committee explored several options and ultimately concluded that the one before you makes the most sense for the school and for the surrounding community for the following reasons,” wrote Feser.

These reasons include maintaining a sufficient buffer with the property lines of adjoining neighbors, placing the parking lot outside the flood zone, and maintaining access to the upland area for future school, neighborhood, or community uses, wrote Feser.

Agency chairwoman Cathleen A. Collins stated that the agency’s job “is to protect the wetlands,” and has to balance the needs of the community and the wetlands. Collins said the preferred alternative has 2,150 square feet of wetlands impact.

Quoting from the wetlands regulations, Collins said the agency is bound by these regulations, which in Section 10.3 reads, “…a permit shall not be issued unless the Agency finds on the basis of the record that a feasible and prudent alternative does not exist.”

Collins said, “There is a feasible and prudent alternative that preserves the wetlands. Even if we feel it [the preferred alternative] is better, we cannot approve it if a feasible and prudent alternative exists.”

In response, Smith said, “My first proposal was ‘Don’t touch the wetlands,’” but said that the building committee chairman responded to the neighbors’ concerns and asked for alternatives.

Agency member Lily Flannigan commented on an algae problem in Florida waters, saying, “We are trying to save the wetlands to preserve the habitat for the future. Florida didn’t do that.”

The board reviewed comments from Wing with regard to which area is more affected by invasive plants, and whether invasive plant removal could be considered a “mitigating factor” that could offset wetlands impacts.

MaryRose Palumbo, Inland-Wetland Officer, said, “I don’t know if you can make 2,100 square feet of impact less than 600 square feet of impact.”

Smith said he would need to review the plans to determine if more mitigating factors could be found to offset the wetlands impacts of the plans.

Project architect William Silver said the building committee has a July 13 meeting, and he would bring the agency’s input to the committee. He said the project has time constraints, saying the project has an upcoming plan review date with state officials.

James Richetelli, Jr., chief operations officer for Milford Public Schools, read Feser’s letter into the record. Following the public hearing, Richetelli explained that the $16.5 million school expansion includes a dedicated art and music wing, an expanded gymnasium, a dedicated stage, new windows and roof, asbestos removal, and security upgrades. He said the plans are in the design phase and he expects they will go out to bid on October.

Richetelli said construction is planned to start in 2017 and would last about 18 months. He said the state reimbursement rate for this cost is expected to rise from the current 37.14% to 50%.