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Thursday, July 31, 2014

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Bronson apartment plan faulted on fire, traffic safety issues; more debate tonight

Published 6:47 am, Wednesday, July 16, 2014

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  • A large audience was on hand for the third Town Plan and Zoning Commission hearing within a week's time Tuesday on plans to build a 95-unit apartment complex on lower Bronson Road. Photo: Andrew Brophy / Fairfield Citizen
    A large audience was on hand for the third Town Plan and Zoning Commission hearing within a week's time Tuesday on plans to build a 95-unit apartment complex on lower Bronson Road. Photo: Andrew Brophy

 

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Debate over the controversial 95-unit apartment building proposed on lower Bronson Road continued Tuesday night, with Fire Chief Richard Felner and former Fire Marshal Harry Ackley saying the 20-foot-wide driveway planned for the complex would be unsafe.

"For the safety and welfare of residents and emergency personnel, yes, I do think it's unsafe," Felner said in response to a question from Matthew Wagner, chairman of the Town Plan and Zoning Commission.

The TPZ ended its third public hearing on the development application from Garden Homes Management of Stamford about 11:15 p.m. Tuesday and is scheduled to continue its review at 7 p.m. today at McKinley School. The commission has to vote on the application by July 24 and expects to end the public hearing tonight.

The application calls for construction of a three-story building on 2.7 acres at 92-140 Bronson Road. Of the 95 apartments, 30 percent would be classified as "affordable housing" under state's 8-30g statute, which enables the developer to build a denser apartment complex than town zoning regulations allow. The property, which Garden Homes Management has a contract to buy, is adjacent to an entrance ramp to Interstate 95 and Metro-North Railroad tracks.

Joel Z. Green, the lawyer for the Lower Bronson Neighborhood Alliance, which opposes the project, subpoenaed Felner to testify at Tuesday night's hearing, attended by about 100 people.

"I see this as a very serious problem," Felner said of the planned 20-foot-wide driveway, which would be the only access into the property. He said a ladder rescue truck with stabilizer jacks opened on either side (so the ladder could be erected) would have a 19-foot width. If an ambulance arrived first, the fire truck would have to back out to let the ambulance leave, Felner said.

Ackley compared the driveway during an emergency to a bottle of Corona beer with a lime stuck in its neck. "This driveway creates a bottleneck. Anything that goes in first isn't going to be able to get out once other vehicles go in behind it," he said.

The driveway's 20-foot width, Felner said, would be more of a problem after a snowstorm or if delivery trucks were in the apartment complex when emergency personnel arrived.

Gerald Alessi, vice chairman of the commission, asked, "Should it be wider than 20 feet?"

Felner replied, "Definitely."

"The width is a concern because we have to get emergency vehicles in there and we have to operate. If you pull an engine [truck] in there and another truck behind it, it would be like a parade," he said.

At an earlier hearing, John Fallon, the lawyer for Garden Homes Management, said the proposed driveway couldn't be wider because of a state Department of Transportation right-of-way.

During Tuesday's hearing, Felner also said firefighters, who respond to 4,800 medical calls a year, wouldn't have enough room to turn a fire truck around in the complex and would have to back out onto Bronson Road to leave. He said the complex should have two entrances and two exits.

But Fallon said the development application had been reviewed by the Fire Department during a code enforcement review last spring and that Fire Marshal William Kessler said in an e-mail to Douglas Heroux, director of construction for Garden Homes Management, that the 20-foot width would be acceptable.

In the e-mail, which appears in Garden Homes Management's application, Kessler wrote, "In regards to the access driveway width of 20 ft. and clear height of 13 ft. -- these are the minimally acceptable parameters."

Regarding the turning radius, Heroux asked Kessler in an e-mail to confirm that a series of statements was accurate, one of which was, "We have provided the proper design turning radius where applicable." According to Garden Homes Management's application, Kessler replied to the statements by writing, "The items as indicated below do accurately reflect our discussions concerning proposed Bronson Road project."

Felner told Fallon that he hadn't seen the e-mail exchange between Kessler and Heroux, and Wagner said Felner was offering a different opinion. "The e-mail from Mr. Heroux is self-serving and speaks for itself," Wagner said.

Green said the code enforcement review, which precedes all development applications, was "an informal discussion" and "not binding" on the Town Plan and Zoning Commission. "I don't believe it creates any precedent or binds this commission in any way," he said.

Wagner agreed. He said the code enforcement review is subject to further analysis and review and that the "notion our hands are now somehow tied" is incorrect.

Wagner asked several times during Tuesday's hearing whether the National Fire Protection Association requires a 20-foot width or 24-foot width for the driveway. He said different sections of the NFPA call for different driveway widths and asked what the minimum acceptable width would be for the 95-unit apartment building.

Ackley said it was 20 feet but said, "I always look at those regulations as minimum requirements."

Ideally, the driveway ought to be 40 feet wide, Ackley said. "In the real world, yes, because your going to have parking along that road and snow along that road," he said.

Fallon said the 20-foot width is "the minimal standard."

"While it may not be the optimal standard, it's the minimal standard," he added.

Ackley agreed with Fallon that other residential developments had similar access issues, but Ackley said, "What you're doing is creating a problem. The existing problems we address and deal with. Now what you're doing is creating a problem."

Felner said it would be difficult to fight a fire in parts of the proposed apartment complex because of its closeness to Metro-North Railroad tracks and catenary wires. "I'm not sending people back there with ladders. We would have to fight it from the front," he said.

Earlier, David Spear, the opponents' traffic consultant, said the speed of motorists entering or leaving the site and those accelerating to the adjacent I-95 entrance ramp would create a "very undesirable traffic pattern."

Spear said he also didn't think Garden Homes Management's plan to provide 113 parking spaces -- or 1.2 spaces per apartment -- was sufficient. He instead recommended 1.5 spaces per unit, or 143 spaces.

"There's no space on the site for overflow parking," Spear said, adding that parking on Bronson Road would not be realistic because of its width. "There's no good alternative to the parking shortage that they have."

Parking is legal on Bronson Road, but Spear said it wouldn't be legal if people actually did it. If motorists parked on Bronson Road near the driveway, Felner said he didn't think a ladder truck would be able to make the turn into the proposed apartment building.

Spear said he didn't think moving vans or large delivery trucks would be able to turn around on the site and would have to back onto Bronson Road. He said they also wouldn't be able to enter the site without first crossing into the opposite travel lane on Bronson Road.

During tonight's hearing, Green is expected to wrap up his presentation and Fallon is expected to give a roughly 90-minute rebuttal.

"We have to finish this at some point," Wagner said. "We have to consider this record -- this is a voluminous record at this point. At some point, we do need to wrap it up."