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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    In one Old Mystic neighborhood, one man’s ‘estate’ is another man’s ‘complete mess’

    The ponding of water behind the construction site at 16 Smith St. in Old Mystic as it appeared April 22, 2024. (David Collins/The Day file photo)
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    Developer Dan O’Brien uses heavy equipment to clear a path across town property to his development site on May 2, 2024. (David Collins/The Day file)
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    Stonington ― An Old Mystic property is on the market for $998,000 and comes replete with a newly renovated guest house and new barn.

    The listing on Zillow offers buyers the opportunity to customize the build of a fully permitted, Frank Lloyd Wright-style 2,783-square-foot home. They can also own a “compound” with two residences on a nearly 1.5-acre flat lot at 16 Smith St. once the developer finishes the “estate.”

    Originally listed at $1.7 million, the price, which does not include construction of the home, was lowered last week by more than 41% to $998,000. Photos in the listing include renderings from multiple perspectives and complete floor plans.

    The idyllic setting described, with “exceptional” natural light and southern exposures, is at odds with photos submitted at a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing last week and the disaster neighbors say the town has allowed developer Dan O’Brien of Coast Development of Newport to create in the village.

    The photos, taken over a period of six months, were part of Smith Street resident Jonathan Fontanella’s appeal of Zoning and Inland Wetland Enforcement Officer Candace Palmer’s April decision to grant the developer a zoning permit to build the home.

    The photos show a more than 20,000-square-foot compensatory storage basin ― approximately the size of a youth soccer field ― intended to contain excess water after heavy rains and prevent flooding. It filled with water the day O’Brien began excavating the flood mitigation pit and never drained.

    “It has flooded, it is flooding, and it will flood,” said Fontanella.

    He pointed to expert testimony given before the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission in early 2023 that said the wetlands in the area are larger than town maps show and that tree removal could damage the wetlands and cause groundwater levels to rise, which could then contaminate the water and increase flooding.

    The northern part of that wetland extends up into properties on the south side of Smith Street, where 16 Smith St. is located.

    A potential ecological disaster

    Fontanella, residents and environmentalists have long opposed the project as a potential ecological disaster for what they say is the largest inland, freshwater marsh in southeastern Connecticut and crucial to preventing widespread flooding in the village. They say the expert predictions have become reality.

    Among other arguments Fontanella raised during his Zoning Board of Appeals hearing last week is that the water storage basin can’t hold excess water if it is already full and if the flood controls were not working the zoning permit should never have been granted.

    He also noted that in an effort to help the basin drain, O’Brien excavated a canal in mid-May, which also filled with water, and then deepened it in late May, but the water remained. On June 10, O’Brien used a pump to manually drain the water.

    Palmer explained that the permit application fulfilled all town requirements. She noted the site was under construction, and the issues will be resolved once landscaping is complete.

    Maggie Favretti, co-founder of the Alliance for the Mystic River Watershed, disagreed, saying that a planned grass lawn was not likely to handle the same capacity of water the now-removed willow trees on the property did.

    Despite some appeals board members acknowledging that the Old Mystic project is a “complete mess,” they expressed little support for Fontanella’s appeal, with member Jim Statton saying he had not seen “the smoking gun.”

    Favretti explained that because the technical aspects of the permitting process are not in town regulations, Fontanella’s appeal of what residents say was a mishandled process is difficult to argue based on regulations alone.

    William McCoy, attorney for the developer, pointed out the board can only decide if Palmer properly applied town regulations when she issued a permit for the home ― not whether the regulations her decision was based on are flawed.

    “You address that through the regulations, and unfortunately, that’s not the Zoning Board of Appeals, that’s the Planning and Zoning Commission,” he said.

    That is precisely what residents express frustration with — that each commission and board makes decisions in isolation, and there is no overarching body that can address the totality of the disaster they say is unfolding or the missteps along the way.

    Fontanella noted that, when preparing to make a decision on the project, the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission was told not to consider flooding as it was an issue for the Planning and Zoning Commission. But Planning and Zoning never weighed in because Palmer’s decisions meant commission approval was not required.

    At the same time, since wetlands are not part of the appeal board’s jurisdiction, it can’t consider that the storage basin is full of water because of wetland-related issues.

    The Zoning Board of Appeals postponed a decision on the matter to July 9, but legally has until mid-August to decide.

    Regardless of the decision, residents say they continue to feel let down by what they perceive as the town’s inadequate handling of many additional issues.

    They point to Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection recommendations for the project they say were not followed, safety and liability issues surrounding the flooded storage basin, trees on neighboring properties that they say O’Brien cut down illegally, unpermitted work in the wetlands, irreparable damage to wetlands and native wildlife, and many violations of wetlands permits.

    "The one thing everyone in Stonington government will tell you is, 'That's not my job,' and I mean that literally. We're still looking for the person whose job it is to enforce the problems at 16 Smith St. With a growing sense of impunity, the developer went and bulldozed 30 feet onto the playground last week, he moved the southern boundary wall of his property this week, and there's no telling what's next," Fontanella said Wednesday.

    Addressing the safety concerns at the Old Mystic Playground on Haley’s Way, First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said on Friday that a town contractor has been on site preparing to plant arborvitaes along the property line.

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