New development causes concerns in North Stonington

North Stonington - A neighborhood being constructed in a remote area of the town's western border might seem unassuming, but it's a town planner's dream and a first selectman's nightmare.

Outgoing Town Planner Juliet Leeming Hodge has been involved with the Watson Estates subdivision, an 18-lot neighborhood being constructed on Lake of Isles Road, since it was first proposed in 2012. She believes the town should be thankful for the development, which qualifies as affordable housing under the state's 8-30g statute.

Despite containing six affordable housing lots, "it doesn't stand out in North Stonington," said Hodge.

The neighborhood is a single-family subdivision that fits the town's rural character, she said, and that's unusual for affordable housing projects, which tend to be more like the 17-story apartment building proposed in 2007.

"This particular 8-30g is every town's dream come true," said Hodge, referring to the state statute that defines affordable housing and exempts it from most planning and zoning regulations.

But First Selectman Nicholas Mullane, who is distressed by the fact that the affordable housing designation allowed developer Green Falls Associates LLC to ignore zoning regulations, called it "probably the worst subdivision I've ever seen passed in this town."

During a recent drive through Watson Estates, Mullane was quick to point out and explain his reservations about the project, cross referencing them with the planning and zoning maps.

Mullane: Poor drainage

The drainage in the region is terrible, said Mullane, pointing to a ditch along the roadway filled to the brim by recent rainfall. He said paving the driveways and adding roofs would cause more runoff, especially when the ground is frozen.

He said the road that leads to the subdivision is in poor condition, but would be low on the town's list of road repairs because it doesn't get much traffic.

And he dislikes the small lots - if Watson Estates were not an 8-30g project, the subdivision could only have had three lots, he said, not 18.

One of the lots is 44.8 acres and includes all of the wetlands in the neighborhood. The other 17 range in size from 11,250 square feet to 40,709 square feet: small, said Town Attorney Frank Eppinger, but legal and approved.

The state requires towns with less than 10 percent affordable housing to accept viable 8-30g applications, said Hodge, unless they can prove the proposal would have a significant negative impact on health or public safety. Only 0.39 percent of North Stonington's housing is affordable.

"This is not a normal subdivision," said Eppinger, who added that if it did not qualify as affordable housing "it would be an impossible situation, really, in my view."

He described the 8-30g statute as "basically an override" of zoning regulations, including one that normally requires 2-acre lots with full buffers against wetlands.

Peter Gardner, a member of Green Falls Associates who has been a land surveyor in southeastern Connecticut for the past 30 years, said there is a "tremendous benefit" to Watson Estates' small lot sizes.

If the subdivision had to comply to normal zoning regulations, "it wouldn't be affordable," he said. "It wouldn't be priced at this point."

Gardner, who said the neighborhood might appeal to someone working as a teacher or in town hall, calls the less expensive lots "workforce housing." He said the subdivision will have several three-bedroom homes priced at $187,500.

One of the neighborhood's houses - on the 44-acre lot - has been sold, said Gardner. Another is completed and three more are under construction. Two of the houses under construction are affordable, he said.

These facts don't appease Mullane, who testified against the subdivision at a planning and zoning meeting.

He is also concerned that the hard-to-access subdivision - it is 7.3 miles from town center and requires driving through Preston or Ledyard - will cause difficulties for emergency vehicles and school buses.

Hodge said the issues raised by Mullane, like the subdivision's remoteness, are not drastic and should be left up to the market.

Small lot sizes may be appealing to people who can't otherwise afford a house, she said, and plenty of properties in North Stonington can only be accessed by dirt roads. And though Mullane references the dam that broke and flooded Lake of Isles Road in 2010, Hodge said that any dam could break in a storm.

Dispute over easement

There is also an ongoing dispute about conservation easements placed on the property, which would mean a piece of the wetlands could not be built upon or disturbed. Easements were signed by Mullane and Green Falls member Peter Gardner in October 2013 and are on file with the town clerk.

The easements, however, are not official, said Eppinger, until approved at a town meeting.

And the chairman of the Conservation Commission, which is tasked with enforcing the easements by making sure the wetlands are preserved and not built upon or polluted, is opposed to their approval.

There is nothing particularly valuable - like a vernal pool, for example - on the land protected by the conservation easement, which is the size of a "postage stamp," said chairman Bill Ricker.

Approval of the easements would saddle the commission with enforcing them "in perpetuity," even though the land is unlikely to be built upon and the commission has no authority to stop nearby homeowners from using chemicals that could leech into the protected zone.

The easements first became controversial when they were removed from the agenda of an Oct. 20 town meeting so that Eppinger could investigate how they became signed and recorded a year before they showed up on a town meeting agenda for a vote.

Selectman Bob Testa, who was concerned that the easement process had been "unlawful," sent an email to Mullane and Eppinger the next morning expressing concern that information had been withheld from him and Selectman Mark Donahue. He also said that "those involved (in the process) clearly knew or should have known that they were acting inappropriately and proceeded anyway."

"I thought it was slightly unusual," Eppinger said at a Board of Selectmen meeting a few weeks later, "but knew that until it was accepted at a town meeting, it wasn't a fully effective or fully lawful acceptance by the town."

Things got dragged out because the planning attorney and the developer's attorney hashed things out for 9 months, much longer than expected, said Hodge and Eppinger.

By the time the attorneys handed Hodge and Mullane the conservation easements for signatures, they didn't remember the details of the subdivision and assumed the attorneys had done the work to make sure this was the correct next step.

"Who am I, or Planning & Zoning, or Nick (Mullane) for that matter, to render the entire thing null and void?" asked Hodge.

The town meeting, she said, should have been scheduled at the time the easements were signed, but because of a glitch in timing and the unusually long legal negotiations, the subdivision fell off officials' radar.

At the Nov. 18 meeting, Testa questioned how a layman could be expected to know that the easements weren't official when they had been stored in the town vault for a year. Eppinger said laymen should avoid drawing conclusions about complicated land records and insisted an attorney would understand that the easements were not yet in effect.

There was also a "transition issue," said Mullane, when the town's planning and zoning attorney left and the town had to switch to a new lawyer.

At that meeting, Hodge encouraged everyone to forget the history of the easements and move on to the next step - scheduling a town meeting and voting on the issue.

"It's OK. It doesn't have to be this dramatic," Hodge said. The easements, she and Eppinger agreed, can be nullified if they are not passed at the meeting.

And although the Conservation Commission has complained that the flow chart for handling development proposals, which gives the commission a chance to review the plans and advise officials on land conservation issues before they get to this point, was not followed in this case, Hodge said the chart was never triggered because the Conservation Commission has no authority in an 8-30g application.

The original application also did not include conservation easements, said Hodge.

"The Conservation Commission wasn't excluded - there was no initial reason to include them," she added. "Not a single person was acting outside of their authority."

The Board of Selectmen has not yet set a date for a town meeting vote on the easements. Mullane said it is unlikely to be before the New Year because many people will be out of town for the holidays.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

Twitter: @kccatalfamo

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