If you want to pack a commission meeting in East Lyme, just say the words "Landmark Development" and "Oswegatchie Hills."
The Zoning Commission was as surprised as the to see every seat taken at last night's meeting, but a proposal to construct 840 housing units in Oswegatchie Hills is the sort of agenda item that brings people out in droves.
Landmark Development has been trying for 12 years to gain approval for a housing development on the 236 acres it owns in the hills along the Niantic River. The developer has taken the town to court three times to appeal denials of its applications, typically without much success.
In October 2011, however, Superior Court Judge Stephen Frazzini remanded Landmark's "Application 3," a 2005 request to build 840 units of affordable housing along Caulkins Road in East Lyme, back to the town's Zoning Commission with instructions that the commission change its regulations regarding applications for affordable housing and incorporate a number of amendments proposed by Landmark.
Changing the Rules
At last night's meeting, the Zoning Commission heard for the first time what those changes entail. The draft regulations are still a work in progress but when they are completed, the town will be bound by court order to implement them.
"We can't not pay attention to it," said East Lyme Town Attorney Edward O'Connell. "The Commission was instructed by the court to adopt the regulations Landmark submitted with its 2005 application in amendments."
As Zoning Commission Chairman Marc Salerno pointed out, the proposed changes don't just affect Landmark's proposal. They would apply to all applications involving affordable housing. And there are more of those coming down the pike.
JAG Capital Drive, LLC is also seeking approval for 69 residential affordable housing units on Route 156 and Capital Drive (off Colton Road), which will also require a zoning change from its current designation as a light industrial zone.
The town has no objection to seeing more affordable housing created in East Lyme but the location and size of Landmark Development's housing has a lot of people concerned.
Friends of Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve and are two nonprofits dedicated to the conservation and preservation of Oswegatchie and the Niantic River and both vehemently oppose the housing development Landmark has in mind.
Opponents say the initial proposal for 840 housing units is just the first phase of a development that may ultimately include anywhere from 1518 to 1720 housing units. Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve say even the lower number would increase the town's population by about 20 percent.
"Landmark's appetite for incredibly high density development is a recipe for environmental disaster," wrote Michael Dunn, Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills director for land acquisitions and legal issues, in a statement handed out at last night's meeting.
"Much of the property would be clear cut, blasted and covered with impervious surfaces," he wrote. "The resulting impact could push the Niantic River beyond the tipping point of even being marginally safe for recreational water sports."
A Time To Talk
There was no opportunity for public comment at last night's meeting, but the zoning regulation changes will be presented at a public hearing at the Zoning Commission's next meeting in two weeks. That's when people are planning to sound off about it.
The zoning regulation changes by no means assure final approval of the project, even though Landmark will have had a hand in writing the new rules governing the application process. The judge leaves the final decision to the discretion of the Zoning Commission, which will take into account environmental impact of the development.
Judge Fazzini's ruling also has no impact on other agencies that are involved in approving proposals for any new housing development. Those include Inland Wetlands, Coastal Area Management, Water and Sewer, and may include the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the State Traffic Commission, and the Gateway Commission.
Those opposed to Landmark's proposed housing development plan to fight it every step of the way.
"We have learned through this legal process that the only thing a judge can weigh during an anticipated future appeal is the testimony that was put in the record during the original application process," wrote Dunn.
"The developer is attempting to use the affordable housing statute as a blunt instrument to beat the town into submitting to a development of inappropriately high density with complete disregard for the environment," Dunn wrote. "But this battle for preservation is far from over and we believe we will prevail."