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East Lyme to oppose housing proposal

East Lyme –– The Board of Selectmen made it clear Wednesday night that it intends to fight to limit development in Oswegatchie Hills.

The board approved First Selectman Wayne L. Fraser's request to set aside $25,000 to hire a lawyer to manage the legal fight against Landmark Realty, which proposes to develop River View Estates, a community of 894 housing units in the hills that rise from the Niantic River.

Landmark's lawyers informed the town last month that 270 of the units would be affordable housing reserved for owners earning as little as 60 percent of the average household income for the area. Landmark said it had learned that there was a need for affordable housing in the state, and especially in East Lyme. They said the town is not exempt from laws that compel municipalities to accept applications for affordable housing developments.

“Your town must approve such applications, unless the town proves that my client's application is not appropriate,” Landmark's lawyer, Michael F. Dowley of Middletown, wrote to Zoning Official Michael Mulholland.

Fraser said that since the burden of proof had shifted to the town, it was imperative to prepare a defense against Landmark. He said Landmark's tactic was shrewd but that he believes the town can prevail because the proposed development site has a lot of ledge, making it unsuitable. He said the removal of too many trees would lead to contamination of the Niantic River and its aquaculture.

“We are not against development. But we will oppose the destruction of sensitive land,” Fraser said before Wednesday night's selectmen's meeting. “Especially land that we have been trying to secure as open space. We are very close to doing that. I want to prevent the rug from being pulled out from under us. ”

The state Department of Environmental Protection is interested in purchasing the property to preserve it. Fraser said he had heard from several “prominent people in the state” who support East Lyme's opposition to the proposed development.

Selectman F. Kent Sistare Jr. said Fraser's move was a smart one. He said the town must be represented by a strong lawyer well versed in zoning laws and other land-use issues. He said that while volunteers are good, the town would want to have a qualified paid professional leading the effort.

“We have to find someone who knows how to deal with this and has knowledge of how to prepare a defense,” Sistare said. “And it's important to show our support by making this appropriation.”

Town Attorney Edward B. O'Connell is representing the Zoning Commission, which must act on Landmark's request for a zone change to accommodate the proposed development. He said that because he was representing the Zoning Commission, which has an unbiased opinion in the issue, he could not logically or fairly defend the town, which has a defined interest.

In a related matter, the board approved minor amendments to an ordinance that allows for the establishment of the two-town Niantic River Gateway Commission. The commission can go into effect after Waterford approves a similar ordinance. Fraser said Waterford First Selectman Paul Eccard plans to introduce the measure soon.
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