Plan for Bronson Road apartments sparks opposition at tense meeting
Elected officials and dozens of people turned out for Thursday night's public hearing on a Stamford developer's plan to build a 96-unit apartment building on 2.7 acres off lower Bronson Road by the Mill River.
The town's Inland Wetlands Commission closed the nearly 4½-hour hearing about midnight, but did not make a decision.
Everyone in the audience who spoke on the proposed development at 92 and 140 Bronson Road opposed the project, and the town's Conservation Department issued a report advising the commission to deny the application "without prejudice," meaning Garden Homes Management, the developer, could revise and resubmit it without a mandatory delay.
Opponents contended plans for the apartment building, which would have three stories of apartments above ground-level parking, did not include enough information and kept changing after the initial public hearing Feb. 6.
"This is kind of like a moving target. Every time we talk, there's a new plan," Kathryn Braun, the lawyer for opponents, told the commission. "None of this information was presented to you in a cohesive, timely manner. It's a matter of fundamental fairness, due process and, really, public participation."
Some of the documents related to the proposed development hadn't been seen by commission members before Thursday night's hearing, according to Kevin Gumpper, the commission chairman. Braun questioned how much access the public had to documents since many were transmitted by e-mail.
"There's significant missing information and confusing information and conflicting information and I don't believe the commission is in a position to render a responsible decision," Braun said.
Mark Branse, Garden Homes Management's lawyer, said plans were revised in response to concerns raised by the town's Conservation Department. He added that he and Braun had agreed on a schedule to provide additional information to each other after the Feb. 6 hearing and that Braun and her consultants breached the agreement. "It's a moving target because they were late," he said.
Braun disagreed. "They breached the agreement," she said.
Annette Jacobson, the Conservation Department's administrator, identified four reports or plans that Garden Homes Management submitted after the Feb. 6 hearing, the most significant of which appeared to be a more extensive investigation into whether environmental contaminants remain on the property, which was a farm before pesticides and herbicides were regulated. Jacobson also identified three documents that Braun's consultants filed after the Feb. 6 hearing.
"It has been the Inland Wetlands Agency's policy to allow four weeks of time between submittal of a revised plan, or submittal of significant data, in order to provide staff and the public time/opportunity to consider and evaluate a proposal and such revisions," Jacobson said in her report that recommended the commission deny the application without prejudice. "Clearly such time has not been provided."
"All of the submittals received well after Feb. 6, 2014 have left Conservation staff and the public very little time to prepare" for the Thursday public hearing, Jacobson said in her report.
The Inland Wetlands Commission had to end the public hearing Thursday night because Garden Homes Management refused to allow an extension of the date by which the hearing had to end, under town policy.
Branse said the basis for an environmental intervention filed by Braun at the Feb. 6 hearing was that a "Phase 2" environmental investigation hadn't been done on the property. Garden Homes Management submitted that report to the Conservation Department about two weeks later, on Feb. 19. "And that should dispose of the intervention," he said.
But Jacobson said additional soil testing in the Phase 2 environmental investigation wasn't done in areas she had recommended last January and where pesticides for the farm most likely had been stored, spilled or used.
Jay Soltis, a consultant speaking on behalf of the developer, however, said the property had been a "personal use farm, not a commercial operation" and that "sampling was sufficient to demonstrate widespread use of pesticides did not take place on this property."
Branse said 12 test pits had been dug to look for environmental contaminants. "If you want more than 12 test pits per disturbed one and-a-half acres, I guess you could do that," he told the commission. "I don't want us singled out. If you're going to set the bar that high, set it for everyone in this room."
However, Steven Danzer, a soil scientist and wetlands scientist retained by opponents, said information on potential contamination on the site is "still lacking."
"I still believe there is a reasonable likelihood of contamination on the site," Danzer said, adding that contaminants could be "mobilized" during construction.
Jacobson said Garden Homes Management also should have proposed alternatives to its development, but Branse said that would only be necessary if his client intended to disturb wetlands. "We have no disturbance to the wetlands. We have no feasible and prudent alternative because no adverse impact is identified," he said. "We're not making any change to the wetlands or watercourses."
Jacobson also said the soil erosion and sediment control plan is inadequate; the town's Engineering and Plan and Zoning departments want a wider driveway that would increase hard surfaces on the site and affect drainage; and the developer hadn't identified how debris embedded in the river's banks would be removed.
Branse said Garden Homes Management was willing to come back to the Inland Wetlands Commission if a wider driveway was needed. He said the method of removing the debris pile couldn't be proposed without knowing what's in it. Michael Klein, a soil scientist retained by the developer, said the area to be developed would be "quite small," and the soil erosion and sediment control plan is "absolutely appropriate."
Jacobson also said Garden Homes Management hadn't provided a long-term maintenance plan for its planned stormwater management system.
"They did come up with it," Gumpper said.
Jacobson said, "I haven't had a chance to read it. It was just handed out tonight."
Linda Snelham-Moore, a former member of the Representative Town Meeting who lives on Bronson Road, said, "I've never seen such a disorganized presentation in my life ... I just think it should start from scratch."
George Russell, president of the Sasquanaug Association, a neighborhood group in Fairfield's Southport neighborhood, said the Bronson Road property is "a poor choice of a place for such an intense development." He called plans for the apartment building incomplete, and said "a lot of new information was going back and forth" that still needs to be reviewed.
August Sarno of Mill Hill Road said the Inland Wetlands Commission didn't have enough information on the project's impact on wetlands and the Mill River. "I don't think we have enough information to decide what that impact is," he said. "My recommendation would be to deny this application because you don't have enough information to make a decision."
Earlier, Branse claimed opponents in the audience were "sudden environmental advocates," which prompted people in the audience to call out, "That's insulting!" and "Go home!"
Gumpper banged his gavel to end the outburst.