DEEP gives Smiler's Wharf a big thumbs-down

One official voice not heard at the abruptly rescheduled Smiler's Wharf public hearing this week was that of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which had written a devastating criticism of the project, in a letter dated the same day as the hearing, with a request that it be read aloud into the record.

It would have made me want to cancel the hearing, if I had anything official to do with this debacle, whether there were too many people for the capacity of the hearing room or not.

Brian Thompson, a director in DEEP's Bureau of Water Protection and Land Reuse, in a five-page letter addressed to the Stonington Planning and Zoning Commission, wrote that the town should not rezone the property for residential use for many reasons, citing flood risk and violations of both state law and six different elements of the town's own plan of conservation and development, what he called a "master plan for the community."

Not only did Thompson strongly advocate for not changing the zoning, but he suggested that, if the application is approved and housing is allowed on the site, DEEP would be unlikely to approve any new "flood and erosion control structures," such as bulkheads on the river, which are only allowed for protection of inhabited pre-1995 structures or water-dependent uses such as marinas.

That's a game changer. It's hard to imagine developing that site with six- or seven-story buildings without installing more bulkheads.

DEEP policy on flood and erosion control structures, such as jetties and bulkheads, says that they often have unintended consequences, raising risks, for instance, for adjacent properties, and do little to protect against flooding, which usually causes damage from wetlands and streams behind the shorefront.

Of course this supposed "hardening" of the shoreline with new Smiler's Wharf bulkheads was supposed to help protect the adjacent historic neighborhood from flooding, according to Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons, and state Sen. Heather Somers, who has a $10 million request pending before the state Bond Commission to help pay for, among other things, the Smiler's Wharf bulkhead infrastructure.

It's unlikely that Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, on his debt diet, would ever approve $10 million in bonding for this project. But Sen. Somers should withdraw the request immediately and apologize to constituents for proposing the state spend money on something more likely to hurt than help them.

The most straightforward and not unexpected complaint from DEEP about the Smiler's Wharf zone change request is that it replaces a water-dependent use, the support and boat storage facilities of a marina, with non-water-dependent uses, a restaurant, hotel and residences — an adverse impact, as defined by Connecticut law.

"Waterfront sites are scarce and very little waterfront land in Stonington is zoned ... for water-dependent uses," the letter said.

The letter also said DEEP is "particularly concerned with siting residential units in flood prone areas," making it difficult to exit the property during a storm, since the access road is 7 feet below base flood elevation.

The proposed development also is too close to tidal wetlands, which help provide storage for floodwaters, the letter said.

Some of the most damning criticism by DEEP was in the observations about the many ways in which the requested zone change would violate provisions of the town's own Plan of Conservation and Development, which says the town "will promote water dependent uses in coastal areas," "will discourage new public infrastructure or development in flood prone areas," "restrict assisted living facilities, hotels, elderly housing and schools which have the potential to increase exposure of vulnerable populations in coastal flood hazard areas," "plan to adapt to the projected rise in sea levels," "include planning for retention of existing businesses for economic development" and "develop a comprehensive economic development plan that focuses on economic drivers ... including marine services."

The DEEP letter also noted that Google aerial photography shows a substantial number of boats being stored on parts of the site being proposed for housing. Indeed, the town's description of the floating neighborhood zone being requested here suggests it is to be used for "underutilized commercial parcels," which Seaport Marine certainly is not, despite the lack of maintenance or investment in the buildings.

The developers are not necessarily entitled to change the zoning from what it was when they bought it, just because they think they could make more money using it a different way. I shouldn't be allowed to change the zoning on my half-acre residential lot for a hotel, imposing traffic and parking headaches on my neighbors, just because I would make a lot of money at it.

It's sad that it takes, in this developer-enabling town where the first selectman helped expedite a developer's demolition of three buildings in the historic neighborhood next to Seaport Marine, state environmental officials to point out the many ways this proposed development is inconsistent with the town's master plan.

It was planning officials in the town of Groton, not Stonington's own planning staff, who reported the developer was misrepresenting the size of buildings on the Groton side of Mystic, to make their own project seem less out of scale in the village.

Let's hope the good volunteer citizens on the town's Planning and Zoning Commission nip this in the bud and make sure this property, which has been used to build ships since the 19th century, remains as it has been since zoning was created, reserved as a site for commercial marine use, a rare commodity in our coastal community.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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