Letter: RTP Estuary Center Takes Open Space for Own Use in Residential Neighborhood

in Letters

To the Editor:
Re “Architect Chosen, CT Audubon Plans Center in Old Lyme” (News, July 8)

My wife and I recently built a house on Sandpiper Point Road, two lots over from RTP Estuary Center’s proposed new headquarters on Ferry Road, and also bordering on open space property and Shippee Pond.

We first became aware of Connecticut Audubon’s acquisition of the property by a form letter sent to the residents of the neighborhood, and we were all subsequently invited to an informational meeting at the center’s current offices on Hall’s Road, which was well-attended.

The meeting started with an overview of the 100-year history of the Audubon Society, Roger Tory Peterson’s legacy, the various programs being offered, etc., etc. We had to interrupt the lecture — and while acknowledging our appreciation of their fine work and good intentions — respectfully asked them to address the questions at hand. Why Ferry Road, and what is the intended use of their new offices?

We were shown an area map of our neighborhood, which abuts open space public land, two ponds, and beyond that, DEEP, Ferry Landing State Park, and the Connecticut River. All of the public land was highlighted in yellow. That is when we were told that we really don’t live in a residential area.

That was a real surprise to us all. We certainly feel that our neighborhood is residential. Anyone coming here would see it as residential. The zoning is residential. In fact, the RTP Estuary Center intends to use an exemption in zoning allowing commercial buildings of not-for-profits in residential areas, but subject to a zoning board special permit.

I’d say this was the turning point in the meeting. The organization that states it wants to be a good neighbor managed to insult its future neighbors. Its representatives were both condescending and disingenuous.

So, why locate their new headquarters on a barely-buildable one acre lot on a narrow residential street already burdened with traffic to and from the waterfront? 

We were told that the center will have a full-time staff of two, and some part-timers including scientists. We were told that, in order to save the schools the cost of bringing busloads of children to the center, their programs will continue to be brought to the schools. We were told that they do not intend to have many activities in the evening.

So we had to ask, why then a 3000-4000 square foot commercial building with 6-10 (including handicap) parking spaces?

That’s when the inconsistencies really became apparent: They said they want to be able to store kayaks.

Our reply: Seems an expensive storage facility.

They then admitted that they could have up to 40 people at a time for programs, rarely in the evening.

Our reply: With 6-10 parking spaces? Even a brief glance at their current programming at Hall’s Road shows up to several evening programs a week.

They intend for the overflow to park at the DEEP, and that a lighted walkway will be built through the open space by the pond.

In short, the Roger-Tory-Peterson-CT-Aububon-naturalists want to build a lighted walkway through a nature reserve, take parking from DEEP (a 10-minute walk), and basically parlay their one-acre lot to get the open space for their own use — all in a quiet residential neighborhood.

There is no way they can run even their current programming schedule on a Ferry Road lot with 6-10 parking spaces without using existing parking at DEEP or by parking on narrow residential streets. That sort of pedestrian traffic along Ferry Road, particularly at night, would be unacceptably hazardous.

They have failed twice in other nearby residential areas before they were able to purchase the properties. This time, the property was acquired prior to contacting the neighbors. But suspicious sort that I am, it’s hard to believe that the RTP Estuary Center or the deed holder, CT Audubon, would risk a $199,000 investment without a high degree of certainty that the project would be approved by Old Lyme.

As actual taxpayers, it would be nice to know if any town official or agency has given the green-light to this project prior to the public hearings that are legally required. The zoning regulations that allow a commercial intrusion by a not-for-profit on a residentially-zoned neighborhood is subject to Zoning Board approval and must not adversely affect the character of the area or decrease property values.

We believe it would most certainly do both. I’d hate to think that a decision has already been made and the property bought with prior assurances, a nod and a wink.

Gary Novick
Old Lyme, CT

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