Stonington PZC restricts Coogan Farm special events

Mystic — The Stonington Planning and Zoning Commission approved a plan Tuesday night that will allow the Coogan Farm Nature and Heritage Center to stage a limited number of special events on the Route 27 property each year.

The commission’s 3-2 approval came after several members harshly criticized several aspects of the plan and the center’s desire to host events, and then eliminated a provision that would have allowed two events a year with up to 250 people each.

The nonprofit center, which was created with private funding to preserve a historic farm and open it to the public, was hoping to use revenues from events to help fund its educational mission.

“This feels a little like an assault on a carefully crafted plan to do a limited amount of special events that may or may not come to fruition,” said Maggie Jones, the executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, which owns and operates Coogan Farm.

Among the harshest critics of the plan was commission member Shaun Mastroianni, who pointed out that, when the commission approved the original plan for the center, Jones said it was to preserve open space for the public.

“What is your mission now? To be a wedding hall?” he asked her.

Commission Chairman David Rathbun said the nonprofit nature center, which would be able to hold six events a year with up to 140 people, would be competing with local for-profit businesses. He added the center is near a residential neighborhood and music could bother residents there. Music is limited to the hours of 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Landscape architect Chad Frost explained that music would be contained within three eight-foot-tall granite walls at the lowest portion of the site and project away from the homes. But Mastroianni said there was nothing in the center’s plan that said the music could not be located elsewhere.

Some members wanted to limit the six allowed events to one per month, but that stipulation was not approved.

Commission member Gardner Young supported the center’s original plan, along with Ben Philbrick, urging commission members to allow one event a year with 250 people and then revisit it to see how it went.

“Let’s not put the hammer down. Let’s give them a chance,” Young said.

When the commission originally approved plans for the creation of Coogan Farm in March 2015, it did so without approving a special event plan after commission members expressed concern about the size and number of special events and their potential impact on traffic and safety along Route 27. At the time the commission barred Coogan Farm from hosting any “third party, private, for-profit events” until it returned with clarification of those plans.

Since then, center officials have revised the special event plan and in December secured the support of the Board of Police Commissioners, which regulates traffic issues in town.

The center’s plan before the commission Tuesday called for allowing an unlimited number of daily events of up to 50 people, events of up to 100 people 15 times a year, weddings, receptions and reunions of up to 140 people six times per year and events up to 250 people twice a year. The events with 250 people were removed by the commission.

There is parking for 56 vehicles, accommodating an estimated 140 people, on the Coogan Farm site. For larger events there would have been overflow parking for 672 vehicles on the grass lot next to the Denison Homestead, with shuttle bus service to the farm as well as at sites such as Mystic Seaport and the adjacent Precious Memories preschool.

Commission member Lynn Conway said she wanted permanent parking on site and no temporary parking arrangements.

Parking and drop-off is prohibited along Route 27 as well as the adjacent streets and businesses. There are requirements for parking attendants and police.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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