Stonington officials seem in the tank for Smiler's Wharf developers
You couldn't find more opposite assessments of the proposed Smiler's Wharf in downtown Mystic than those prepared by the town's own planners and by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which flatly declares the development out of conformity with the state's coastal management law.
Some of DEEP's sharp criticism of the project is what you might expect from environmental watchdogs, complaints that it replaces a longtime marine use of the property, part of the alarmingly small amount of commercially zoned waterfront land left in town, with non-water-dependent uses.
DEEP also darkly warns of the extreme danger of building so much residential housing in a flood zone, some of it near tidal wetlands, and flatly declares that, no matter what the town eventually allows, the state will not approve new bulkheads or flood control structures for the site if a hotel or residential development is built there. By law, bulkheads can only be built to protect residential structures that already exist.
State law prohibits new flood control structures — including bulkheads, which can put adjacent neighborhoods at greater flood risk — for new residential buildings.
What was more surprising was DEEP's extensive comments about how the project does not even conform with the town's own Plan of Conservation and Development, citing "a number of provisions" that Smiler's Wharf would conflict with.
These are the kind of observations and critical analysis you would hope to hear from the town's own paid planning experts. Instead, town officials, who are supposed to be neutral arbiters, seem only able to wave pompoms.
Instead of citing all the conflicts Smiler's poses with the town's own planning guidelines, Town Planner Keith Brynes, in his report on the project, cites mostly obvious resolvable issues, like the need for the town to increase Mystic sewer capacity. Even the town's own plan says the town should adapt to rising sea levels and not build new infrastructure or developments like hotels in a flood plain.
The developer blew some kisses back at the planner for his generally positive report.
"This is a really well done and comprehensive report to the commission," William Sweeney, attorney for the project, wrote in a May 24 email to Brynes, as public outrage about the project began to build. "With all the false information about the project on social media and in the newspaper, we really appreciate your putting time into this ... Thank you for sharing it with us. Enjoy your weekend."
The following week, when DEEP dropped its bombshell critical assessment of Smiler's, it took Brynes only seven minutes from the time the DEEP report landed in his town email inbox to send it on to the developer.
The love in Stonington officialdom for Smiler's seems to start at the top.
First Selectman Rob Simmons personally introduced the developers to the town's Architectural Design Review Board, as if putting them up for club membership. Simmons, who has endorsed the project, also wrote to state Rep. Kate Rotella, days before the DEEP bombshell dropped, to anxiously ask about the state review.
Simmons, after being elected first selectman, handpicked Jason Vincent as town director of planning. Vincent oversaw an overhaul of town zoning that allowed the Simmons family to turn a farm into a new commercial business, and the Smiler's Wharf project Vincent now seems to be shepherding through approval would appear to benefit tourism-oriented Mystic businesses run by members of the Simmons family.
Vincent first broached the idea of making Mystic's Cottrell Street one-way in a public workshop, saying the idea had come from residents in the neighborhood. It turns out the Cottrell traffic change is crucial to the Smiler's Wharf development, a detail left out of the workshop announcement.
The workshop was held about the same time that state Rep. Heather Somers was communicating privately with a lobbyist for the Smiler's developers, bundling contributors to her campaign, about seeking millions in state bond money for a project DEEP says would violate the state's coastal management law.
Vincent's most offensive advocacy for the Smiler's project came by way of admonishment of public criticism of it, suggesting during a recent program on redevelopment in Norwich that the public opposition to Smiler's has been cited by three developers who have called off projects in town. He pointedly did not name them.
Vincent should be encouraging and celebrating public participation in the planning process, not bemoaning it. That's his job, both to encourage the public to participate in the process and to inform developers that their projects will be better for the scrutiny. If they can't abide by it, someone else will.
As a resident of the town, I am appalled that the planning staff is aligning with developers and eschewing public input, as the future of the town teeters in the balance. Every fine resort community in the country, from Marin County in California to Nantucket and the Hamptons here, have aggressive planning departments that developers fear, and it makes for good development and higher property values.
The residents in the charming and historic Mystic neighborhood that would be crushed by Smiler's, with its new traffic and lack of onsite parking, are sure to challenge any approvals granted by this Planning and Zoning Commission, and opposition lawyers will have much grist for their appeals.
The developer's answer to the deal-killing DEEP assessment came from a hired consultant, Jane Stahl, a former deputy Department of Environmental Protection commissioner in the administration of disgraced former Gov. John Rowland. Stahl, who last month urged Stonington zoning commissioners to ignore the current opinion of DEEP, actually was sued while deputy commissioner by the longtime DEP legal counsel who accused her and other Rowland DEP officials of a "business-friendly" approach to enforcing environmental laws.
The lawsuit and complaint against Stahl accused her and other DEP officials of harassing, discriminating and retaliating against the longtime DEP legal counsel for speaking up for laws meant to protect public health and hold polluters accountable.
If I were a Stonington zoning commissioner, I would ignore her advice and try to keep the town out of a long, expensive and inevitable lawsuit over approvals for this project.
Given the extensive violations of coastal management law and the town's own plan of development, it's not likely the town or the developer could win anyway.
The public hearing resumes at 7 p.m. Monday at Stonington High School. Help those commissioners do the right thing.
This is the opinion of David Collins.