Residents pack Smiler's Wharf hearing (Credit: CT Mirror/Hewitt)

Residents Pack Mystic Hearing Forcing Reschedule

in Stonington

STONINGTON — On Tuesday night, a long line of residents and property owners waited to sign up to speak before a hearing of the Planning and Zoning Commission concerning the proposed Smiler’s Wharf development in Mystic.

Public interest was so great, that about 300 people overfilled the Mystic Middle School cafeteria, exceeding the capacity of the room and forcing the commission to reschedule the hearing for June 17 at 7 p.m. at Stonington High School, a significantly larger venue.

As proposed, the project would redevelop 7.5 acres of an 11-acre site on Washington and Willow Streets in Mystic, and include:

  • a 5-story, 45-unit hotel with ground-floor parking
  • a 3-story combined marine service and community event space
  • a 3-story, 200-seat restaurant
  • a 6-story, 25-unit apartment building with ground-floor parking
  • a 3.5-story, 16-unit townhouse complex
  • a 3.5-story, 6-unit multi-family residential building with ground-floor parking
  • a kayak rental facility
  • an open-air plaza to serve as a public gathering space
  • a crescent-shaped park with low sitting walls
  • 120 boat slips
  • a 200-foot extension of the public boardwalk
  • 130 feet of coastal access
  • a new boat basin requiring excavation of 13,000 square feet of land
  • a new bulkhead for protection against erosion and storm surge
  • surface parking and under-building parking

The project would also include demolition of the buildings at the site with the exception of the Allen Spool Mill at 60 Willow Street, the medical office building at 55 Willow Street and Red 36 Restaurant at 2 Washington Street.

The project applicants, Harry Boardsen and Abbey Holstein, own Red 36. They also manage Noank Shipyard and Seaport Marine, both owned by the Holstein family of Stonington.

The Smiler’s Wharf plan requires a zone change from MC80, Marine Commercial, to NDD, Neighborhood Development District, a “floating zone” that was developed by the town in 2005 to “encourage redevelopment of underutilized properties,” according to the Department of Planning evaluation of the Smiler’s Wharf master plan / zone change application report, dated May 23.

According to the report, the project depends partially on making Cottrell Street one-way, a traffic management strategy intended to cope with additional congestion, especially during the summer tourist season. Meetings to gauge public support for the proposed change to Cottrell Street have been favorable, but the town has not yet made plans to implement the change.

Other issues include parking capacity, for which the NDD zone provides some flexibility. The project includes 318 on-site parking spaces, 54 additional off-site spaces within 500 feet during peak hours, and 56 off-site requiring a shuttle service — a total of 428 parking spaces.Without the NDD designation, the site would require 387 spaces.

Floodplain regulations also require the first floor of the buildings to be raised to 13 feet, one foot above storm surge level, providing space for ground-floor parking.

Under the MC80 code, building heights are limited to 20 feet. A NDD zone would allow significantly more flexibility. The proposed apartment building, at 72 feet including mechanicals (67 feet to the roof), would be the tallest in Mystic.

According to the planning report, the Groton Planning Commission has expressed concern about the impacts of building height on the view from across the Mystic River. The current and proposed zoning regulations in Groton limit new development height to 40 feet in the Downtown Mystic area, according to comments made on May 6 by the Town of Groton Planning Commission, and included in the project report.

The project would also require the town to pipe some of Mystic’s effluent to the Stonington Borough sewage plant. Currently, the Mystic plant is operating at capacity, while the Stonington Borough plant is below capacity. This year the Board of Finance approved a Water Pollution Control Authority request for $1.7 million to reactivate transmission pipes from the Mystic plant to the Borough plant.

Public reaction

When it was announced the public hearing would have to be continued at a larger venue, disappointment rippled through the packed room.

Standing in the back of the cafeteria when the crowd began to disperse was Karly Mareka, a resident of Jackson Ave. in Mystic, not far from the proposed development, who said she had two reasons she was against the project “at least at its current scale.”

“First of all, the increased traffic, I don’t think the current infrastructure can handle all these extra condos and houses and restaurants,” she said. “I’ve noticed that since Red 36 went in, there’s been much worse traffic going down Washington Street and there are no sidewalks or speed bumps and people just fly down there, sometimes they’re going 70 miles per hour. I have little kids and a stroller and we have dogs that we’re walking and unless they put in speed bumps and sidewalks, it’s not going to be good.”

Mareka said she was also worried about the environmental impact of the development on the 3.5 acres of marshland that will remain undeveloped on the site and found it unfair that the town would consider such a large development after she had been previously turned down for a small zoning variance.

“Marshes are very sensitive ecosystems and really Stonington is supposed to be protecting the marshes,” she said. “We tried to expand our deck by two feet five years ago and the town disapproved it because they said it would have a negative impact on the marsh and our house is actually further from the marshlands than some of this development. So, we couldn’t expand our deck by two feet but somehow they’re able to build a hotel and a second restaurant and all these condos, single homes and townhouses and a 200-car parking lot — to me that doesn’t really make sense.”

Adam Strelczuk, who has lived on Holmes Street for 12 years, said he was concerned about the project’s demands on the sewer system and the design’s departure from the historic significance and village scale of Mystic.

If they wanted to build three more streets there with a bunch of small homes, that would be much easier to swallow but not a 70-foot hotel-type structure,” he said.

In support of the project was Dave Hammond, chair of the Economic Development Commission, who said the commission’s nine members and three alternates voted unanimously in favor of the plan, using the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development as a guide

“We’re an advocate for business and development in Stonington, that’s our role. We evaluated the project on the economic merits,” he said.

Since the town’s expenses continue to increase while the state revenue-sharing with the towns continues to decrease, the EDC’s strategy for providing tax relief to residents was to grow the commercial grand list, Hammond said.

“Right now over 80 percent of revenue is from residents, only 20 percent is from commercial and industrial, so that’s kind of out of balance, so we’d like to see the balance shift to have more commercial entities support the town’s budget,” he said.

Also in favor of the project was Linda Camelio, of Pawcatuck, who is the town’s tax collector. She said the project would open up housing for the coming wave Electric Boat hires, who will have income to spend in Mystic.

“I’m totally in favor because General Dynamics is hiring thousands of young engineers who all have disposable income and who would like to have a high end apartment with amenities such as a pool and an outdoor grilling area,” she said. “Right now there is no place for young professionals