Protect the Partrick Wetlands
A Quick Primer
The land is zoned Open Space Residential Development (OSRD) This is a special zone that allows clusters in exchange for preserving the wetlands and open space. This zone, while a wonderful concept, has many flaws which we hope can be fixed. (See Below)
An owner to build on this property, has to first apply to the Westport Conservation Commission (Con Com) whose job is to protect the wetland, aquifer and the animals. A subset of that is the Flood and Erosion Commission (F&E) whose job is to protect problems which would arise from construction and houses ie floods and poor run off design. F&E must sign off first then Con Com does. All hearings are public and open to all. All can speak out, intervene and fight. In this case approval from the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) is needed since a sewer extension from Norwalk to serve the property is proposed. The next step is to go to the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) for approval to actually build the houses. These hearings are also open to the public again people can fight a development here as well. Proposals for this land have never made it this far. This time it will.
In 1991 71, 2200 square foot, houses were proposed and the then Conservation Commission (Con Com) cut it to 25. The Neighbors fought tenaciously to protect the land then as they are now. Law suits were filed by the developer which failed. The developer went belly up and the land was saved, but piled up owed property tax.
In August of 2000 the land was bought by ARS Partners Inc. of Fairfield (Al DeMarco, Ralph Grasso, Steve Folb) for the price of that tax owed, $965,000, plus something to the bank holding the defaulted mortgage. We don't know how much that was, it is a well kept secret. IT WAS A BARGAIN. There is a mortgage on the property in the amount of $1.2 million. Maybe that is the price maybe not. Imagine that, $1.2 million for 55 acres of land these days, 9 acres buildable ($130,000 per). Need I say more, it was a bargain.
In November 2001 ARS Proposed 31, 4000 square foot, houses to the current Con Com and 25 were approved with some conditions in what most everyone attending the meetings says was a sham and a disgrace. They ignored studies and all arguments that the aquifer might be jeopardized. They allowed wetland setbacks to be crossed and even some to be filled. Comments like, "The animals will survive, and "it does not matter, they are close to road" when discussing precious upland, are examples of their disdain for the land and the community that wanted it protected. The commission bent over backwards to approve as many houses as they could. To their credit they did impose a 45' setback (normally 35') from wetlands on some houses, but not all which some more conscientious members of the commission asked for. They were voted down by a controlling force who consistently were pro-development. They could have made the setbacks 85'over an aquifer, which is in their regulations, but they ignored this. Shame on them. The reason for this pro-development bias, in a group who volunteered for this commission, is inexplicable. Neighbors who fought vigorously in the meetings sued the Con Com in state court. ARS also sued in an attempt to make the citizens position moot. The publics suit is still pending.
Neighbors appealed to the Representative Town Meeting members and asked for the Con Com decision to be overturned. They were rebuffed. The RTM regrettably took the Con Com decision on face value.
ARS came back to Con Com and applied for 24 houses, all over 4000 sq feet, this hearing began October 2002 and closed in December. In these sessions the neighbors were ready and launched a massive campaign to show the proposal would harm the wetlands. It worked, the commission was swayed and began to question ARS and their proposal. When asked why are you asking this questions, one member said, "I am smarter now." In the first work session they banned blasting for basements and were working on eliminating all blaster out of fear for the aquifer. ARS seeing the writing on the wall, withdrew this application and decided to stick with the first. They also dropped their law suit over the first decision.
They next went to the Water Pollution Control Authority, which essentially is the Board of Selectmen, in a 2-1 they approved the sewer. This decision was not an endorsement of the project or even the sewer, it was acceptance that the sewer would not harm the Westport sewer facility, which is obvious since the extension goes to Norwalk. This decision in itself is scary, because Westport has given up authority over waste they will not handle. A bad precedent created in an effort to allow this development.
What was troubling about these hearings was their use of the poorly written regulations to dodge having to answer issues about what would happen when blasting is used to install the sewer and the affects on the aquifer and private wells.
Immediately following the WPCA decision ARS submitted a new proposal on March 3, 2003 for development to P&Z. Hearings began in May 2003. There were over 7 sessions which stretched out over 2 months. The PWPF offered a 3.5 hour presentation on why the ARS proposal was harmful and did not meet the regulations. A Professional planner denounced the ARS plan as well as a traffic consultant spoke on the dangers to the small roadss around the project. The PWPF presented a petition with over 2200 names seeking a denial to the proposal. Also submitted were 150 letters from citizens seeking the same.
An environmental consultant hired by Arthur Cohen spoke at length about the inadequate and haphazard studies on the known contaminated property and the need for further testing of the land and adjacent former town dump.
In the next session over 40 residents got up and spoke out against the proposal and the threat of pollution from unknown contaminants. Never before had a Westport Commission seen such a coordinated and precise attack against a development which covered two days and lasted over 7 hours.
In the final session, First Selectman Diane Farrell submitted a letter urging the commission to "deny without prejudice" the application to allow for better testing of the known contaminated land.
ARS screamed foul, calling the Farrell letter political. If listening to her constituency and their concerns and protecting their health is politics, then they are right. It was the right thing to protect the town.
The commission voted 7-0 to deny without prejudice and seek an independent third party to test the land. NO OTHER items were decided upon. Though ARS has floated a balloon saying they had.
All parties filed appeals. ARS saying the denial was unjust. Arthur Cohen saying the denial should have been with prejudice for environmental reasons and the PWPF covering all the regulatory issues which were not decided upon which clearly were not met by ARS.
The P&Z went to the Board of Finance to pay for the testing of the land. The BoF said the developer should bear this burdon and also said the test laid out by the P&Z was not comprehensive enough either.
In November 2003, the town RTM voted a new regulation that the P&Z could require an applicant, in this case ARS, to pay for a town hired independent consultant to test land for contamination. This new rule will apply to ARS when and if they return with an application.
In the mean time the Norwalk Mayor, Alex Knopp, has formed a Task Force looking into the need for the sewer extension to be paid by ARS to serve their over-development of the Partrick Wetlands. These hearings have begun.
The ARS proposal is not in good shape. Testing of the entire land and the adjacent town dump must be done. Norwalk must decide they indeed want to allow this sewer to be constructed, even though Norwalk residents are now against it. And most of all ARS has to come back and go through the entire P&Z approval process which will again have a stern opposition.
ARS, on July 30th 2004, submitted a new application to Planning and Zoning. They ignored the Commission and tested the land themselves. The proposal is almost identical to the prior one. The sewer issue is still pending. Whether they have a complete application to go to hearings will be the big question.
The Westport Conservation Commission in July increased the wetland setbacks for all new development. Specific to the Partrick Wetlands setbacks increased from 35 to 75 feet. ARS had 14 days to submit a new plan to develop under the old rules. They did not do this. The new setback regulations severely curtails development on this property.
On August 13th, the CT Department of Environmental Protection sent a letter to Westport saying the sewer extension does not conform to the Town's plans.
On September 14, the Architectural Review Board in an advisory capacity said of the ARS plan: “The ARB suggests that the applicant (ARS) return with revised plans, designs of units, density and siting of the units based on the board’s comments and those of the neighbors.” It is becoming obvious this plan is not standing up to scrutiny.
On September 30, the Westport Board of Selectmen working as the Water Pollution Control Authority, voted to hold a joint meeting of Westport and Norwalk with an eye to rescind the sewer extension.
In late October, Mayor Alex Knopp of Norwalk in a letter to his WPCA and copied to Westport officials declared Norwalk's approval of the sewer extension no longer valid. Without a sewer for their 22 house project, ARS withdrew their proposal from Westport Planning & Zoning.
The next step is up to ARS. They will need to now use a community on-site septic system instead of a sewer. Couple that with the increased wetland setbacks and the number of houses the land can bear has been decreased.
In December of 2004 the courts requested that the parties go into mediation. A mediator was hired and a non disclosure agreement was placed on all parites. The PWPF was invited to participate. We formed a team from across the neigborhood so all parties and interests would be involved. The mediation was long and quite difficult.
In May of 2005 First Selectman Diane Farrell joined the mediation process and things began to take form. By June the outline of a deal had been created, but it was not until September that a firm concept was taken to the PWPF membership. The membership agreed we should proceed.
By October it was clear an agreement was at hand and the Town began to schedule public hearings. The negotiations continued until 7:45pm for the 7:30pm start of the P&Z hearing on November 10th. The P&Z voted 5-0 to accept this agreement.
The Partrick Wetlands have been saved and will now be open space in perpetuity.
Prior background information:
In an attempt to cut back some houses and protect abutting neighbors, we proposed a text change to the OSRD zoning code to create a "NO CLUSTER" buffer around the perimeter of the property. This would prevent clustered houses from being built right up on the road or next to any neighbors. That text amendment was heard by P&Z and backed by 40 neighbors who wrote letters, attended and spoke at the hearing. The proposed legislation was endorsed by both regional planning agencies that the P&Z turns to for opinion.
Even with all this support by outside agencies, the public and the evidence showing harm, the P&Z Commission denied the "No Cluster Buffer" in early November 2002.
Aber Backyard Currently Before Clusters
Where will this end, will all of Westport become clustered and overdeveloped? The next neighborhood might be yours. The time is now to put your foot down and say enough.
We need our neighbors to fight this on all fronts. We need you to join us and fight a development that will only fill the pockets of developers and destroy a wonderful piece of open land and change the character of a neighborhood forever.