A visualization of the proposed Smiler's Wharf development

More than 400 Residents Pack Hearing to Debate Mystic Development

in Stonington

STONINGTON — Stonington High School auditorium neared capacity Monday night when at least 400 people attended a Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing for Smiler’s Wharf, a controversial development slated for the Seaport Marine site in Mystic.

The hearing, which focused on a potential zoning change from MC-80, or Marine Commercial, to NDD, Neighborhood Development District as part of a master plan approval, was continued from May 28, when a turnout of more than 300 people exceeded the capacity of the Mystic Middle School cafeteria and required a change of venue.

More than 400 residents attended the rescheduled hearing (Credit: CT Examiner/Hewitt)

When commission chair David Rathbun opened Monday’s meeting, he said it would adjourn at 11 p.m. and would be continued on July 8 to allow time for those who might not have a chance to speak. About 32 people signed up to speak in favor of the project and about 45 signed up to speak against it, but not everyone was able to speak before the meeting’s end.

Presenting the project to the commission was William Sweeney, a land use attorney with Tobin Carberry O’Malley Riley in New London, who represented Noank Shipyard owners John Holstein, his daughter, Abbey Holstein, and her husband, Harry Boardsen. Noank Shipyard owns Seaport Marine, located along Washington and Willow Streets in Mystic, which consists of 67,000 square feet of older warehouses, and Red 36, a popular two-story restaurant.

“Tonight we present to you not just a zoning application but a re-imagined addition to the Seaport Marine site that would develop it from the tired, under-utilized boatyard that it is today to a vibrant, mixed-use waterfront neighborhood that provides a special place for residents and visitors alike to live, work and play at the mouth of the Mystic River.”

Sweeney said it was economically necessary to relocate Seaport Marine’s heavier industrial uses to Noank Shipyard in Groton, opening up space for the project’s new uses, including a three-story combined marine service and community event space. The project will also include a five-story 45-unit hotel, a six-story 25-unit apartment building, a three-story 200-seat restaurant, a three-story 16-unit townhouse complex, several three-story 6-unit multi-family buildings, a kayak rental facility, 120 boat slips, a new boat basin requiring the excavation of 13,000 square feet of land, a 200-foot public boardwalk extension and a crescent-shaped park.

Revised proposal for the June 17 hearing

Sweeney urged residents and the commission to embrace change in order to retain the character of the town. “Communities that want to keep things the same must be willing to change,” he said.

Project architect Meg Lyons explained that the project would redevelop 7.5 acres of the 11.4-acre site and would provide 318 parking spaces on-site and 104 off-site.

“Smiler’s Wharf will not burden existing street parking. I’ll say that again. Smiler’s Wharf will not burden existing street parking,” she said.

Growing the grand list has become an imperative, in addition we hear from residents that infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks are important. To pay for these budget challenges and to fund these improvements, quality development needs to happen,”

Dave Hammond, chair of the Economic Development Commission

Jane Stahl, a former deputy commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) responded to current director of the Land and Water Resources Division of DEEP Brian Thompson’s letter recommending against rezoning the site for residential use. Thompson earlier expressed concern that the proposed development is in the AE-11 flood zone, and urged the commission “to carefully consider the potential adverse impacts to the water-dependent uses of the site.” Stahl testified that the project’s increase in slips, piers and dockside services qualified as water dependent use and deemed any adverse coastal impacts “acceptable because these adverse impacts cannot be avoided.”

Speaking in favor of the project was Dave Hammond, chair of the Economic Development Commission, which he said “advocates for responsible, quality, commercial and residential development that contributes to grand list growth and local economic development.”

Al Valente, chair of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said the new boat basin would have a “multiplier effect” because mega-yachts would bring in “the best kind of tourist dollars,” especially because they’re traveling by water instead on the local roads.

“Comments we keep hearing right now are that town expenses continue to rise and state revenue sharing back to towns in Connecticut continues to shrink. Growing the grand list has become an imperative, in addition we hear from residents that infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks are important. To pay for these budget challenges and to fund these improvements, quality development needs to happen,” he said.

Peggy Roberts, President Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said she represented about 700 members who support the project. “It will stimulate tourism and increase consumer spending in Mystic while providing much-needed green space open to the public.”

Al Valente, chair of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said the new boat basin would have a “multiplier effect” because mega-yachts would bring in “the best kind of tourist dollars,” especially because they’re traveling by water instead on the local roads.

Speaking against the project was resident Bill Lyman, who said proposed buildings, at five or six stories, were out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood. “My bottom line is perhaps smaller would be better,” he said.

Resident Joan Duran said she thought Seaport Marine’s long-term plan was to let the warehouses deteriorate so that tearing them down would become necessary.

“I think that was the plan all along. The marina could have been kept up,” she said. “My friends are in disbelief that this plan being considered.”

“We’ve reached a tipping point,” she said. “Mystic is already overdeveloped. It’s been corporatized and urbanized. This development model is not sustainable.”

Cynthia Warren, Mystic resident

Resident Nancy Evans said that the commission will be putting people in harm’s way if the project moves forward because roads leading to the project, such as Cottrell St., already flood on a regular basis.

Cynthia Warren, who said her family has lived in her house in Mystic for five generations, called for a moratorium on development. “We’ve reached a tipping point,” she said. “Mystic is already overdeveloped. It’s been corporatized and urbanized. This development model is not sustainable.”

The hearing will continue on July 8 at 7 p.m. at Stonington High School.