Neighbors oppose Mystic marina redevelopment project
In New London or Norwich, residents and city officials would likely roll out the red carpet for a local developer who wants to spend upwards of $50 million or more to convert an old marina into a development with a hotel, residential units, a restaurant, public access boardwalk, event shed and boat basin.
But this is Mystic, where residents are fiercely protective of the historic maritime character of their village, already busy with tourists on most weekends.
That's why on May 28 at 7 p.m. at Mystic Middle School, a large group of neighbors are expected to attend a Stonington Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing on a master plan application by owners of Seaport Marine to redevelop the 11.5-acre site on the Mystic River into a proposal called Smiler's Wharf.
These opponents, many of whom lived in the Washington Street area, maintain the project does not conform to the town's Plan of Conservation, damages the character of the village, would increase traffic and does not have enough parking, which means cars would end up in front of their homes.
"There's not one single item, not one feature in the application that enhances or does not detract from this neighborhood," said Washington Street resident Paul Sartor.
He added this is an important point as the regulations governing the Neighborhood Development District, the floating zone designation the developers are seeking, is clear that, to be approved, proposed projects must enhance, not detract from the neighborhood they are in.
"This is as easy for the PZC to reject as if someone is planning to build a 50-foot-high house in a 35-foot zone," he said.
But Harry Boardsen, who co-manages Noank Shipyard, which owns Seaport Marine, said the plan goes to great lengths to blend in with and not hurt the character of the neighborhood.
"I'm local. I live in Stonington. I shop in the same stores as our neighbors. I don't want something inappropriate either. Our family name is on this," he said.
Last week, the Stonington Economic Development Commission voted unanimously to endorse the project after Boardsen and his team again outlined plans to demolish much of the 11.5-acre site and redevelop it with a second restaurant, a marine services building, a 50-room boutique hotel and a mix of 47 apartments, townhouses and single-family homes.
Plans for the project off Washington Street also call for a large boat basin and bulkhead to accommodate additional docking space and an 800-foot-long public-access boardwalk, event building, plaza and kayak pavilion. The plan has no retail space.
Opponents charge that many of the residential units will be placed for rent on sites such as Airbnb and VRBO. Although such short-term rentals are not allowed under Stonington zoning regulations, the town decided a few years ago to not enforce any violations.
Opponents charge the project will essentially create a 90- to 100-unit hotel complex, resulting in a constant flow of transients but not new residents.
“While local restaurants may like this prospect, this is exactly what will destroy the character of downtown Mystic, the character that has attracted many of us here and keeps us here," the neighbors stated in a letter to the EDC.
“This proposal does not address in any way 'everyday village needs.' There are no services being added to benefit village residents. We already have hotels. We have boardwalks. Adding four dozen rental units, 45 hotel rooms and another 200-seat restaurant provide no enhancement to the neighborhood,” it added.
The popular Red 36 restaurant already on the property is slated to remain in operation.
As for parking, Sartor said the project should have 120 percent of its required parking on site, something he said would be beneficial to the neighborhood. Boardsen said he has two offsite locations lined up for parking on Willow Street and Jackson Avenue.
They opponents also point out that the traffic study, which shows no negative impact on roads in the neighborhood, assumes that Cottrell Street leading to the site will be made one-way heading south, a change Stonington officials have not yet approved.
Opponents have also criticized proposed net annual tax revenue increase to the town of $120,000 after town and school expenses. The consultant who did the economic impact study has said the benefit could be more, as fewer school-aged children are expected to live in the project than projected.
“This is not a significant townwide economic benefit for such a massive development that so negatively impacts the current quality of life and character of our village of Mystic," states their letter.
Sartor said it is also irresponsible for the PZC to approve the plan without first completing a $1.7 million project to send sewage from the near-capacity Mystic treatment plant to the Stonington Borough plant. Money is in the town's 2019-20 and 2020-21 budgets to do the work, which will accommodate new projects such as Smiler’s Wharf and two new hotels planned for Coogan Boulevard.
Opponents are also criticizing a bill before the legislature that would have the state bond $10 million that could assist with infrastructure improvements on the site.
Boardsen said he was not surprised there was opposition to the project. He said, though, that he has reached out to individual neighbors over the past year and asked them to meet to discuss the project, but just one accepted.
He said the feelings of the neighbors are why the project is less densely developed than it could have been and views have been opened up. Plans call for 55,000 square feet of building coverage on the site, 12,000 square feet less than what exists now. Neighbors criticize the fact that two buildings would be 63 and 72 feet high.
"We've incorporated what we believe their concerns are," Boardsen said. "We've designed this project to fit in with the neighborhood. We're trying to do the right thing."
Boardsen added the plan will accommodate all the needed parking because parking problems do not benefit either those using his site or the neighbors.
Sartor said Boardsen has never asked the neighbors for a meeting and questioned why he could not have asked Town Director of Planning Jason Vincent to set one up
Sartor also referenced those communities that might welcome such a project with open arms.
"We don't need this. We are not a decrepit community. This is not Taftville," he said.
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