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Oswegatchie Hills: Two visions, miles apart

East Lyme -- When First Selectman Wayne L. Fraser looks at the woodlands of the Oswegatchie Hills, he thinks of his 2½-year-old granddaughter, Hannah.

“If you want to pass the beauty of nature on to future generations, you have to protect it,” Fraser said, sitting in his office on a Saturday morning. “I want to save this land for her.”

Glenn Russo envisions something different for the hills that comprise 781 pristine acres on the bank of the Niantic River in the northeast section of town. Russo, a principal of Landmark Development Corp. of Middletown, proposes to build River View Estates there, an 894-unit condominium complex that would include 270 units of affordable housing.

Fraser played in the hills when he was a child. Marvin Schutt, co-chairman of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve, has been walking in them for 50 years. Now, some here are beginning to wonder, ''What's to become of the hills?''

The answer may hinge on court decisions and Zoning Commission rulings, on the wherewithal of the state and the town and even on the largesse of private citizens and preservation groups.

Landmark controls development rights to more than 500 acres in Oswegatchie Hills, including 145 acres owned by William and Cynthia Matthews and 87 acres that Landmark owns under a subsidiary called Jarvis of Cheshire, LLC. In 1998, Landmark proposed building a championship golf course and resort on the property, but the Zoning Commission turned down a zone change for the project.

That rejection and other zoning actions that Russo believes were taken to thwart his and other property owners' rights are the subject of Superior Court appeals. With such potentially protracted legal battles still in their early stages, Russo has taken a tack that he believes has little chance of failing.

He has applied for a zone change that would designate the hills as an “Affordable Housing District.” A community is deemed to be in need of such housing if less than 10 percent of its existing housing stock is within the reach of families earning between 60 and 80 percent of the median income for the area. A community may not reject an affordable-housing proposal solely because it fails to conform to zoning requirements.

To reject an application for housing in an Affordable Housing District, the town would have to prove that the application is not appropriate, according to state statutes. Landmark's pursuit of the designation comes before the Zoning Commission on March 1. Two weeks ago, the Board of Selectmen set aside $25,000 to prepare for the legal battle the town anticipates waging against it.

Russo said that his affordable housing proposal is not intended as a threat, or to make his original golf course plan appear more palatable.

“Most of these (affordable-housing) applications are rejected by the towns, and 85 percent of the appeals are approved in court,” he said. “The only option is the current proposal. We are totally focused and committed to the affordable housing. It's good for the town. It will create a diverse inventory of housing.”

Fraser and other opponents of the project contend that the development would cause irreparable harm to the Niantic and its aquaculture as fertilizers and other chemicals eventually found their way into the river. He said the development would destroy the habitat of countless woodland creatures, from burrowing animals to birds and butterflies. Schutt said more than 120 species of birds inhabit Oswegatchie Hills.

Water and sewer questions

Whether the site can support the development might be determined by whether the municipal water and sewer system can accommodate it. Fraser, who as first selectman also serves as chairman of the town's Water and Sewer Commission, considers septic systems an unthinkable alternative.

Landmark's application included a letter from ASW Environmental Consultants LLC of Wallingford, which found that access to water and sewer is in place.

“River View Estates would obtain water and sewer by connecting to the Boston Post Road Extension approved by the East Lyme Water and Sewer Commission and the East Lyme Planning Commission on or about Sept. 14, 1999,” the letter said.

The consultants noted that the lines were approved from the Waterford border to 51 Boston Post Road in East Lyme, passing the Jarvis of Cheshire property, which has a small frontage on Boston Post Road.

Fraser, on the other hand, said Oswegatchie Hills is outside the town's sewer shed, a zone that includes areas designated for commercial, industrial and residential development where the town plans to install sewers. East Lyme owns the right to deliver 1.5 million gallons per day to the New London sewage treatment plant. Fraser said the town uses about 65 percent of that capacity daily. He said the areas already designated for the sewer shed, including Boston Post Road and the Orchards, a 161-lot subdivision on Scott Road, eventually will consume the town's capacity.

“It wouldn't make sense for the town to expand the sewer shed to areas where we had not planned for development,” Fraser said. “Besides, no one has asked us to extend the sewer shed.”

“We are quite confident that water and sewer are available to the site,” Russo said. “This property will be developed. No matter how long it takes.”

Opponents of development in the hills are equally adamant.

“I have faith in people, even when money is involved,” said Schutt, who along with Michael Dunn co-chairs the Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve. “As this situation evolves, it will become clear to all parties that this land should remain as open space in perpetuity.”

Fraser agrees with Schutt. But for that to happen, the state, the town or both would have to reach deep into their pockets. In the past, both have been unable to take advantage of the land's availability. Residents voted against buying it in the late 1980s when another development was proposed there. After that, Fraser said, the Zoning Commission changed the minimum lot size from one acre to three acres and called for cluster construction to maximize open space in developed areas.

Fraser tried to get the state Department of Environmental Protection to buy the land a few years ago. The DEP backed out when the town could not put up $1 million to share the cost. Fraser said the DEP still is interested, but Russo, who has recently negotiated with the state, claimed no “respectable offer” has been forthcoming.

In 1998, Thomas L. Durivan of Lyman Real Estate in Lebanon was marketing the Matthews land and the land that Landmark now owns under the Jarvis of Cheshire name, formerly known as the Schnipp-Mills property. It came to more than 230 acres, including nearly a mile of riverfront, and was valued at $1.9 million.

Durivan said the property had three suitors: the state, East Lyme and Landmark. He said last week that the town was a weak player because it lacked the necessary funds and that the DEP had not yet demonstrated a willingness to pay what he and the landowners believe is the property's fair market value.

He said the Matthewses expressed a desire to have the DEP buy the 145 acres they own. Their preference was to see the land preserved, but they wanted fair market value, he said.

Russo said he was given a list of appraisers by Chuck Reed of the DEP's land acquisition and management division and was told to pick one and get an appraisal. He said Reed rejected the resulting appraisal as unreasonably high. Russo declined to reveal the amount of the appraisal. Subsequently, he said, Reed chose another appraiser from the list and obtained a second appraisal that was substantially lower. Russo and the Matthewses rejected it.

“If you are willing to purchase these properties for the appraised fair market value, please contact us immediately, as this matter has been pending for some time,” Russo wrote in a Jan. 3 letter to Reed.

Ultimately, Landmark purchased the rights to the Matthews property and bought the abutting 87-acre parcel.

Russo's and Fraser's accounts of events from two years ago differ, but Russo said he went to Fraser and showed him what Landmark intended to do with the land. Russo said the plan included an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, about 240 rental suites and a senior community that included assisted- and independent-living communities along with residences for people suffering with dementia. A nine-hole golf course wended through the senior housing.

Landmark's zone-change request for the project was rejected, prompting a Landmark appeal in Superior Court.

Russo said that only after his meeting with Fraser did the Zoning Commission change the minimum lot size requirement from three to five acres. More important, he said, was the commission's move to ban construction within 500 feet of the riverfront and the requirement that 90 percent of any development remain as open space.

“It's uncommon to see a zone change made while an application is pending,” said Russo, whose company also appealed the regulation changes.

East Lyme's town attorney, Ed O'Connell, said the two appeals have been partially argued but could offer no timetable for their resolution.

Russo insists the zoning issues are likely to be moot. The future of Oswegatchie Hills, he said, lies with Landmark's application for an Affordable Housing District designation, which he expects the town to fight vigorously. Ultimately, he said, the courts will decide.
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