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Committee begins moving to preserve Niantic River

East Lyme — The Niantic River Gateway Commission, a joint Waterford-East Lyme body charged with preserving open space in the hills along the river, held its first meeting Dec. 17. Former state Rep. Mark Powers is the temporary chairman.

The two towns, neighbors across the Niantic River, agreed to form the group nearly a year ago to help preserve the Oswegatchie Hills on the East Lyme side. The commission became official when Waterford appointed three members Dec. 3.

Paul Whitehouse and Edward Morris, from East Lyme, and Peter Scillieri, Fred Grimsey and Peter Storms, of Waterford, join Powers, an East Lyme resident, on the six-member committee.

The Oswegatchie Hills rise up from the shore of the Niantic River as a majestic view for residents of Waterford's Oswegatchie Road, Park Avenue and Riverside Drive, giving the town a vested interest in their preservation. More important than aesthetic tranquility, to some residents on both sides of the river, is the belief that development would further deteriorate the river with runoff of petroleum, pesticides and fertilizers.

For a year, the state Department of Environmental Protection has been attempting to purchase key parcels, including more than 200 acres controlled by Landmark Development Corp. of Middletown. Landmark has an application before the East Lyme Zoning Commission to build an affordable housing development in the hills.

Glenn Russo, of Landmark, has presented preliminary plans for 894 units of housing under Connecticut's Affordable Housing Act. If the zoning commission rejects the proposal, and if Landmark appeals that decision, then under the terms of the law the commission would have to prove that developing the land would be more harmful than the current shortage of affordable housing.

The town is subject to the provisions of the statute because less than 10 percent of its housing stock is deemed affordable to a household with an income that is 60 to 80 percent of the average annual income for the area.

The state legislature established the Gateway Commission to devise regulations for the conservation zone that comprises about 600 of the 780 acres in the Oswegatchie Hills. Current zoning regulations for conservation zones call for up to 90 percent open space. Oswegatchie Hills is the first area in East Lyme to earn designation as a conservation zone.

The commission has until March 3 to hold public hearings and develop minimum standards to preserve the zone and regulate the use of property within it. It is as yet unclear how the commission's actions might affect Russo's ability to develop his property.

The Gateway Commission must present its proposed standards to land use commissions in both towns. Those commissions, which include planning, zoning and conservation, will have 90 days from that point to recommend to their respective boards of selectmen whether their town should be governed by those standards.

The Gateway Commission will meet next at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 7 at Waterford Town Hall.
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