Smiler's opens political fault lines in Stonington

Of all the umbrage expressed at Monday's continued public hearing on the proposed Smiler's Wharf project, I was most moved by remarks from Clare Sartor, who was raised and has raised her own children in the historic downtown Mystic neighborhood that would be inundated, certainly with more tourists and likely with more dangerous flood waters, if the enormous development is allowed.

Sartor, like so many of her neighbors, described a neighborhood already under siege by tourists, with little street parking left for residents, even on weekdays. The streets, in a flood plain, are even now under water during heavy rains, never mind serious storms.

"I am humbled and appreciative of the opposition townwide," said the woman who has called Jackson Avenue home for more than 50 years. "People all over town oppose this."

Indeed, there were lines leading to the microphones in the crowded Stonington High School auditorium, and the crowd erupted in frequent enthusiastic applause, despite attempts by the Planning and Zoning Commission chairman to stop it, as resident after resident from across town, not just the neighborhood, weighed in with outrage about the proposal, giving up yet another summer night to turn out and have their voices heard.

Many remarked that Mystic had just finished a grueling long Fourth of July weekend marked by days of traffic gridlock downtown. Tourism fatigue, traffic congestion and parking headaches already are a growing problem, without a new oversized development wedged in beyond narrow village streets, they said.

How has the ungainly Smiler's Wharf project, with its tall buildings — taller than anything in Mystic — its hotel with rooftop cocktail lounge, apartment tower, giant restaurant and townhouses, made it this far, asked Sartor, who admitted to many sleepless nights as this neighborhood spoiler has inched through the planning process.

Indeed, it's hard to imagine how this project, which violates so many provisions of the town's own Plan of Conservation and Development and the state Coastal Management Act, got this far. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection was withering in its comments about the folly of considering new residences and a hotel in a flood zone, a crazy concept in this time of global warming and rising sea levels.

There has been testimony, too, that the new development, built on fill and protected by its own bulkhead, could worsen flooding conditions in the adjacent neighborhood, the historic village that makes Mystic a tourist destination in the first place.

Of course, the administration of First Selectman Rob Simmons and his hand-picked Director of Planning Jason Vincent have been waving this big bird in toward the runway, even as residents gather there to wave it off.

When a resident asked the commission to ask Vincent to recuse himself because of his recent comments complaining that public opposition to Smiler's was scaring developers away from town, it was the Smiler's attorney, William Sweeney, who stood to defend the planning director.

The project has now created some camps in political leadership.

Simmons already has attacked the same historic neighborhood to help a developer there, intervening to eliminate a town policy for delaying building demolitions so that three in that district could be quickly torn down against the protests of neighbors, including one 19th century building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Simmons is a big Smiler's cheerleader.

Stonington Selectman John Prue told me Monday night he is "80 percent in favor" of Smiler's Wharf. He added he didn't want me to put that in the newspaper, because the hearing process is continuing. I explained that, as a public official, you should know you can't take things off the record after you have already said them on the record.

Besides, I added, a selectman should take a stand on one of the biggest development questions to face the town in a generation. He's not on the commission and there is no conflict.

State Sen. Heather Somers of Groton has been an early supporter of Smiler's, which is being proposed by her political contributors. Some emails I obtained through a Freedom of Information request show she was more forthcoming with the developers than with the public as the project planning evolved.

"Harry," Somers wrote in a Feb. 20 email to Harry Boardsen, the Smiler's developer, one of a series of emails with the developer and his lobbyist that ended with a $10 million state bonding request for the project. "I'll ring you on this project as I think we may need to shuffle a few things to make more like(ly) to be received."

And yet when questioned by a constituent, after news reports surfaced about the Smiler's bond request in May, Somers said the bond money she was seeking was for the town.

"Say it isn't so," the constituent wrote, worried that Somers was supporting state assistance for a project that would "facilitate the further trashing of the village of Mystic."

The senator answered: "Both myself and Rep. Rotella put in bond requests for the town of Stonington for infrastructure upgrades, drainage, to combat climate change due to rising tides," Somers wrote back in May, still not acknowledging her extensive communication months earlier with the Smiler's developer and lobbyist to secure specific bonding money for their project.

Kate Rotella told me Monday she has withdrawn support for bond assistance for Smiler's and said she is sympathetic with neighbors who oppose it. She said the developers lied to her when they first briefed her on the project and said, when she asked, that neighbors were in favor.

Somers was at the hearing Monday but didn't speak. I told Rotella I couldn't ask Somers whether her support of the project has wavered, given the significant opposition, because the senator doesn't talk to me. Rotella said Somers doesn't talk to her, either. Yikes.

I hope Stonington voters are paying attention to this dysfunction, as traffic and parking problems worsen, with no planning solutions in sight.

I would once again cite Clare Sartor for the wisest comment of the Monday hearing.

"If it wasn't so arrogant and offensive," she said about the overwrought project being foisted on the town despite obvious conflicts with town regulations and state law, "it would be laughable."

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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