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Riverfront acres back on development block

East Lyme — Landmark Development has resubmitted an application to build 900 homes on 220 riverfront acres in Oswegatchie Hills after the state, town and other groups have been unable to reach an agreement to buy the land and save it from development.

Glenn Russo of Landmark Development in Middletown said the state Department of Environmental Protection's offer for the land would only cover three-quarters of the pricetag.

“If the people of East Lyme don't want the property developed, they should come up with the other quarter. Have a referendum. If the people vote it down, then let us develop our property,” he said.

First Selectman Wayne L. Fraser said that the town is not in a position to help pay for the land. He said that the DEP purchasing it would be the best option.

“I don't know how that would sit right now. We're building a new ($36.5million) middle school,” Fraser said. “I feel confident that the DEP will negotiate a good deal and become the sole source and the sole owner of the property.”

The land is part of a 780-acre wooded area between Route 161 and the Niantic River, from Boston Post Road to Veterans Memorial Park. The land, which is owned by three companies, has been the topic of several land-use commission decisions and court cases in the past two years.

The zoning commission first turned down a zone change proposal that would have allowed Landmark to develop two golf courses and senior citizen residences. The commission has changed the minimum lot size from one acre to two acres, and then from two acres to five acres.

Landmark unsuccessfully challenged the changes in court. Ultimately, the zoning commission created a preservation district in Oswegatchie Hills, which allows only 10 percent of a given parcel to be developed.

Last year Russo applied to the Zoning Commission to establish an affordable-housing district, which would not be subject to many of the zoning regulations. State laws say that in towns where less than 10 percent of the housing is affordable to people who earn between 60 and 80 percent of the regional median salary, the burden is on the commission to show why a given parcel should not be developed. Zoning regulations are not part of the consideration.

“The town asked us to withdraw the application for 30 days and we withdrew. Then they asked us to hold off for 45 days and we voluntarily complied,” Russo said. “We continued to keep it off the market and off of the development path for almost a year. We have given them every opportunity to purchase and preserve this area. Unfortunately, the offers we received were not, in our opinion, the fair market value.”

Fraser said that there are still opportunities for all parties to get what they want. Fraser said that he is looking for private environmental groups that might be interested in contributing to the cost of buying the property, provided the funding doesn't have imposing conditions.

“I'll look into other sources of private funding,” he said. “This is such a clear-cut advantage for the river and the environment, that I think we could find strong support if we look on a nationwide basis.”

Time, though, may not be on the preservationists' side. Russo said he would move forward as quickly as the process allows. The Zoning Commission will officially receive the application at its Jan. 3 meeting. It will have 30 days from that point to schedule a hearing on the application. Russo said he expects the application for the affordable housing district to get turned down. He said Landmark would appeal, and force the commission to show why the application should be denied, a difficult proposition under the affordable housing laws. If he is successful at that stage, he said there could be no turning back.

“We plan to move aggressively on development path and will not agree to any future delays for negotiating,” Russo said. “For 10 years they have been trying to buy that property, but they could never come to terms with the individual property owners. Ten years later and it's the exact same situation. The difference is, we're a development company. We don't purchase property to see it sit idle. Either buy it or let us develop it.”
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