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Preston should say no to Pequots' plan for RV park on Avery Pond

I was coaxed out to Preston recently by the state's poet laureate, Margaret Gibson, who was hoping I'd help tell the story of how a proposed RV park not too far from her home is a colossal mistake in the making.

I have to report it didn't take the instincts, observations and language of a fine poet to explain why the plan by the Mashantucket Pequots for the RV park down Route 2 from their Foxwoods Resort Casino is a bad idea for Preston.

Indeed, the file on the project at Town Hall is chock full of letters from residents, the town school superintendent as well as the office of Resident State Trooper, raising objections or just questions about traffic, noise, lighting and a substantial environmental impact on a site surrounded by fragile wetlands.

It turns out Gibson's is a small voice in a chorus in town rising in opposition, including many residents of a neighborhood immediately adjacent to the project, who see their beloved Avery Pond, with its robust cast of wildlife that includes ducks, blue herons, osprey, even eagles, at risk of gross commercialization, a parking lot with 304 spaces for RVs.

Town officials were planning for a robust turnout by the public for a continued hearing Tuesday night by the Inland Wetlands Commission. The Planning and Zoning Commission plans a hearing for Jan. 25.

My first impression, when I heard about the project, is that it would be, finally, some taxable commercial development related to the casino, which could benefit the town. In fact, it is located in part in a commercial resort development zone crafted especially for that purpose.

But the RV park, which the tribe is planning with a national partner, Blue Water Development, which has a number of hotels, resorts and campgrounds in its portfolio, is not the kind of spinoff development the town deserves, after all the years it accommodated the impact of the massive casino development on the tribal reservation, just over the town line.

The proposed development, which includes some "glamping" tent sites and some recreational facilities, like a pool, volleyball and tennis courts, is essentially an enormous parking lot for hundreds of RVs.

The ancillary buildings, a welcome center and some bath houses, are simple and architecturally undistinguished. The developer will pay relatively little tax on a project that includes modest building construction and a lot of parking.

It's not that the tribe is offering to build a much-taxable, high-end Four Seasons hotel resort there.

It is the most basic form of lodging and, because a lot of it is outdoor sprawl, its impact on the surrounding neighborhood — noise and light and music — will be outsized.

And yet the size of it, with estimated daily use by as many as 1,000 visitors, will have an enormous impact on town services, especially traffic and police calls.

In all the material submitted by the developer, I haven't seen any breakdown of costs, comparing what the town will pay for services for the development versus what it will be able to collect in increased taxes.

The inequity of the tribe pawning off a budget lodging project on the town, unlike the luxury hotels it builds on its tax-free reservation, may not be good legal reason for the town boards to reject it.

But there are plenty of other reasons why the wetlands and Planning and Zoning commissions should say no, starting with the significant negative impacts on the fragile wetlands ecosystem around the pond.

Neighbors in the adjacent neighborhood, which would be in the klieg lights of an oversized development being squeezed onto the small pond site, have laid out the environmental objections well.

The best argument for the Planning and Zoning Commission to reject a special exception to zoning for the RV park is the requirement that the aesthetic character of the development be in harmony with the surrounding areas and that it not degrade or decrease the value of the surrounding neighborhoods.

This overwrought, sprawling proposed parking lot with big transient RVs and hundreds of visitors coming and going every day would unquestionably ruin the character of the surrounding modest residential neighborhood and its property values.

The project is so large and impactful that it already has taxed the planning department of the small town. But Preston seems to have risen to the challenge and is giving the applicant and townspeople a fair and respectful hearing, despite the challenging timing of the application, right before the holidays and a COVID-19 surge.

There seems to one obvious conclusion to reach when that hearing process is over.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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