The seven myths of Smiler's Wharf
As the public hearing before the Stonington Planning & Zoning Commission on Smiler's Wharf continues Monday, it would be worthwhile for residents to ponder some of the myths that have been created around the massive proposal by its supporters and some of Stonington officialdom.
Myth One: This is an underused property in disrepair and the new development proposed would finally remove the eyesore that the old shipyard has become.
Let's remember that marine businesses in southeastern Connecticut are booming, and if this one is not, it can only be by design. The owners clearly have set their long-term sights on intensely developing the property to capitalize on Mystic tourism, not to develop the marine business that the property is zoned for.
To suggest that owners should be able to rezone their property just because they have been bad neighbors and allowed their buildings to slide into disrepair would seem to reward bad community behavior. If I let my house in a single-family neighborhood become an unsightly mess, does that mean the town should let me change the zoning and replace it with a money-making restaurant?
And why aren't the people complaining about the condition of the existing Seaport Marine buildings asking the town to enforce its blight regulations and make the owners clean up the property?
Myth Number Two: The owners are entitled to a zone change because it would make the property more valuable.
This is absurd. They bought a property that was clearly zoned for marine commercial business. They got what they paid for.
The town should not feel any obligation to make their investment worth more money.
Myth Number Three: Opposition to Smiler's Wharf will scare off other developers who want to invest in town.
This, incredibly, was even floated publicly by town Director of Planning Jason Vincent.
First of all, it's not at all true that residents block all development in town. Lots of big projects have cleared regulatory hurdles without the kind of opposition Smiler's has engendered.
The alarming suggestion here is that developers should be able to do whatever they want and the public should just roll over and be quiet.
It is shameful that a planning official suggested this. The Stonington planning department, in its disrespect of the public, is hopelessly broken.
Myth Number Four: Smiler's Wharf won't create more parking and traffic problems in a neighborhood already overwhelmed by them.
My favorite ridiculous assertion of this one came from someone who stands to personally profit from the development.
"Smiler's Wharf will not burden existing street parking. I'll say that again. Smiler's Wharf will not burden existing street parking," project architect Meg Lyons of Stonington arrogantly proclaimed from the microphone in the first phase of the public hearing, lecturing to a roomful of people waiting patiently to testify about the existing parking crisis in their neighborhood.
Sorry, it's still a lie, no matter how many times you repeat it.
Even a Stonington first-grader can tell you that a massive project without anywhere near the onsite parking required by town regulations for such uses will create parking problems in the surrounding neighborhood.
Myth Number Five: Many false things about the project have been said on social media and in the newspaper. This one also is repeated by the town planning director.
I don't believe this newspaper has had to correct one single fact in any of its reporting on Smiler's Wharf, and a correction would always be made if an error is shown, this column included.
Myth Number Six: The opposition is all about selfish NIMBY neighbors.
It's true that there is overwhelming opposition in the charming historic neighborhood that would be crushed by this development. And the town's zoning regulations that would allow for this new zone very specifically say it should be allowed only if it enhances, not disrupts, the surrounding neighborhood. That same Stonington first-grader would tell you, like all the neighbors, that it is going to disrupt not enhance.
However, the opposition to this project is broad and comes not just from surrounding neighbors.
I believe many in town already see that Stonington has missed a critical juncture in coping with and planning for the unbridled growth of tourism in town. That's where the planning horsepower should be focused, not on massaging developer egos.
It also may be that people understand that allowing this new zone would open a Pandora's Box in Stonington, with seven-story hotels and condominium towers being proposed for other marinas and boatyards in town.
Maybe someone would even propose one for the boatyard near the first selectman's gracious estate. I suspect he would not be supportive of a Smiler's Wharf at the edge of his own genteel neighborhood.
Myth Number Seven: State Sen. Heather Somers of Groton and Rep. Kate Rotella of Stonington haven't taken a stand on the Smiler's proposal.
Both lawmakers used their influence and positions to try to secure up to $10 million in funding for Smiler's. I'm sorry, but the suggestion that you just automatically and blindly sponsor any request from anyone in your towns for millions in state assistance, no matter what the project, even one that the state itself objects to, is ridiculous. If that's the level of scrutiny you bring to the job, then stay home.
Lawmakers are supposed to assess projects they ask the state to pay for. It's the job.
Sen. Somers agreed to a demand by a Smiler's lobbyist to pitch a request for millions for the project to Republican leadership, and she told him in an email she did. The state is flat broke. Trying to secure millions for a developer who bundled money for your campaign is full-on advocacy.
I now count Rotella and Somers as enthusiastic backers of Smiler's Wharf, even if the planning and zoning commissioners have the good sense to nip this disaster in the bud and spare the town a long and expensive lawsuit in which neighbors will be able to press their case on the many ways this project not only violates the town's own planning rules and regulations but state law.
Sen. Somers and Rep. Rotella should show up at the public hearing when it resumes at 7 p.m. Monday at Stonington High School and speak out against the project or forever be labeled as enablers who tried to secure millions of state dollars to make it happen.
This is one of the most important development questions to come along in a generation in the town they represent. They should show up.
Saying they blindly push all funding requests made of them, whether they support them or not, should frankly disqualify them for office.
This is the opinion of David Collins.
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