Two Stoningtons: One rich and protected, the other going to the highest bidder

I am offended, as the debate unfolds over allowing the massive Smiler's Wharf project in Mystic, by people who characterize the growing opposition as the selfish interests of a "vocal minority" of immediate neighbors.

There are lots of people who don't live in that neighborhood who are alarmed at the idea of six- or seven-story buildings looming over and overwhelming a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are people who don't want the town to sell its soul for tourism development. And some, like me, who don't live in that neighborhood, are sympathetic to those who do, many of them working families doing their best to preserve a charming environment that is a principal reason people want to visit Mystic in the first place.

The Groton Planning Commission across the river, for instance, is already on record with opposition, writing to Stonington that the proposed buildings are out of scale for the historic village and much taller than the tallest buildings on the Groton side of the river.

Groton planning officials also complained that the Smiler's Wharf developers have even misrepresented the size of existing buildings in Groton, saying they are much larger than they actually are to justify the tall buildings they are proposing for the Stonington side. Yikes.

Groton is trying to hold developers accountable while official Stonington enables them.

First Selectman Rob Simmons admits to helping the Whaler's Inn tear down three buildings in that historic neighborhood, including one contributing to the national register listing, in part to make way for a parking lot.

Simmons later complained to me that the Whaler's Inn owners, whom he described as rich Norwegians, were bothered by my criticism of their demolishing the buildings. It's so sad that the town has a first selectman more worried about the feelings of rich Norwegian investors than the longtime town residents made heartsick about the ruination of their historic neighborhood.

Smiler's Wharf would continue the degradation of the neighborhood, with more demolition and more traffic to and from big bars and restaurants that don't have enough on-site parking.

What is disturbing is that this is another example, probably the worst yet, of the way Stonington has come to have two standards for the way neighborhoods are treated.

First, there is the finely curated Stonington Borough, which has its own Planning and Zoning Commission, one that carefully guards the historic architecture and ensures that nothing inappropriate, out of scale or out of character may ever be built there.

Then there is everywhere else, which, under the administration of Simmons and his handpicked director of planning, is for sale to the highest bidder. Alas, Mystic is ripe for this kind of strategy for growing the grand list, with the town waving in developers to have their way with it, even tearing down the very buildings that make the place unique.

Very little of what is proposed with Smiler's Wharf, from the supersized drinking joints and office park architecture to the seven-story apartment tower, would get even a sniff of consideration in Stonington Borough.

Would the first selectman, in his ambitions to grow the grand list, consider changing the zoning on North Main Street, for a rowdy bar and massive hotel to be built near his home? Why is that any different than changing the zoning in a part of town that is far more historically and architecturally significant?

Sadly, selling off the town to developers is not even good economic development. The resort communities around New England that preserve their historic character, from Block Island and Martha's Vineyard to Nantucket, benefit from their responsible stewardship with higher property values.

Bar Harbor, Maine, refers to its tended residential historic district as "The Museum in the Streets."

Protecting historic Mystic, preserving its character and taxable property values is better than accepting an intrusive oversized project that even the developers admit will only generate another $120,000 a year in property taxes, after accounting for the cost of services and schools.

Continue to ruin Mystic, and I would suggest property values all over town will be harmed.

The Smiler's Wharf property has been used for shipbuilding and marine business since the 19th century. The current owners bought just that, a shipyard zoned for commercial marine use. We need more marine businesses, not fewer.

Just because the owners have never invested much in that marine-related business and allowed the buildings to slide into blight doesn't mean they should have the right to create their own new zoning district and foist an oversized, traffic-generating, parking-starved project onto a neighborhood that the town should treasure.

Smiler's Wharf is supposed to be named for someone who built boats there during Prohibition. Developers tend to name things after what they've destroyed, in this case a shipyard steeped in the town's history. 

The public hearing will be at 7 p.m. May 28 at the Mystic Middle School. Let them know it's not just a vocal minority in the neighborhood that cares.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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