EAST HADDAM — A large number of vocal town residents attended the Planning and Zoning Commission’s public hearing Tuesday on a proposed special exception to change the town’s density rules and allow a developer to convert an empty 28,000-square-foot banquet hall into an estimated 20 or 22 residential spaces.
The banquet hall, which was built in the 1930s, is part of Banner Country Club Estates on Banner Road, and would qualify as adaptive reuse under the proposed amendment, according to Gary Hendren, an architect from Boston who represented the applicants, property owners Anthony and Frank Longhitano, of New Rochelle, New York. The Longhitanos, who own Banner Resort Development LLC, purchased what was known as Banner Lodge in 2004 for $6.15 million.
The amendment change would allow buildings exceeding 6,000 square feet that were built prior 1973, when a floating zone was established for the Planned Recreational Development/Resort Zones in East Haddam, to include more than four units.
Hendren told the commission and the audience that the amendment would allow the developers the opportunity to apply for a project that would preserve the banquet hall.
“These are buildings that have been sitting there for 40 years without use and I’m sure a lot of you live there and you know what it looks like on the inside, it’s not a good asset for the property,” he said. “It might bring some value back to the property versus having it sit there and deteriorate, which certainly doesn’t add value.”
As Hendren spoke, several residents interrupted and spoke out against the project, prompting Commission Chair Crary Brownell to remind the audience that the focus of the hearing was the amendment and not issues Banner residents had with the developer.
Earlier in the meeting, the audience applauded a letter from residents Lance and Lenore Mclean that detailed areas where they say Banner has fallen short of its contractual obligations to investors and resident owners, including an unheated, poorly-maintained outdoor pool, a closed community center and gym, cracked tennis courts and unfinished roads, the sum of which, they claim, has contributed to falling real estate values. In the letter, the Mcleans asked the town to hold the company responsible for its actions, writing that residents had applied for, and received, reduced tax assessments due to the poor condition of the property and the lack of maintenance.
“Why should a town’s governing body allow a company that has not fulfilled past promises to their property to continue to expand on the failure of the promises to both our town and current occupants of the houses and condos?” the letter stated. “We feel there is some burden on a company to make good on bad contracts before new provisions should be extended to them.”
In the 1980s, then-owner William Associates IV received approval to build 86 units on the 400-acre site, but the development was never completed, according to James Ventres, the town’s land use administrator and zoning enforcement officer, by phone on January 29. According to Ventres, 70 to 80 units were built in phases, but today only 48 are habitable and occupied, and the remaining 20 to 30 units, are “empty shells, rotted and need to be taken down.”
After the Longhitanos purchased the property, they applied and received re-approval of 33 units in 2005 and 53 units in 2006. With Hendren’s help, they rehabbed and renovated 48 units.
Ventres said that the resort’s road, which was paved with a base course in 2005 and never received the final course, remained a problem.
“The roadway was never finished, so catch basins are sticking up out of the ground, that is the major thing,” he said. “The Planning and Zoning Commission is not happy that road is not finished.”
Until three months ago, the Longhitanos had majority and financial control of the Homeowners Association, said Michael Callahan, president of the HOA, by phone on January 29, but that has shifted to residents. Once the books were opened, Callahan said that it was a “big surprise” to see how far in arrears the association was paying vendors because the developer was not paying HOA fees on the units they owned.
The association spends about $18,000 each month on operating expenses, including street lights, water irrigation and septic costs.
“We’ve instituted a collection policy that has now encouraged them to pay our fees,” he said. “Now we’ve been able to catch up and things are pretty current.”
Despite issues with the developer, Callahan said the complex was a “peaceful and tranquil” place to live.
“The residents really like it here. It’s an enjoyable place to live. We just want accountability for what was expected, which is to have the roads and the walks completed and safe.”
Callahan said he was skeptical of the developers’ intentions to follow through on developing the banquet hall into residential spaces.
“His past track record doesn’t indicate his willingness to move forward,” said Callahan. “I want it done right and I want people to be held accountable for what they said. To me it’s all about accountability.”
Other residents’ comments at the meeting echoed Callahan’s distrust of the Longhitanos’ plans as well as concerns about the town’s intentions to change density requirements.
“I don’t see how a bunch of apartments will protect property values,” said Bob Wheeler.
“When I bought my condo, I bought into an upscale community, specifically,” said Brendan McConnell. “I have not yet been able to enjoy that upscale community and now the town is thinking about changing that. It’s very disconcerting.”
“Do we want to be Mystic, Essex, East Hampton? We have historic homes. We can fill condos but you can’t go backwards,” said Kelly James.
The commission closed the public hearing after about 90 minutes.
East Haddam was once part of the “Connecticut Catskills,” where New Yorkers would summer and performers from New York City would appear, said Ventres. In the 1920s and 1930s, Moodus had 49 resorts ranging in size from small ones with about six buildings to large complexes that could accommodate 400 to 700 people. Their popularity waned beginning in 1956 with the construction of the Interstate Highway System.
If the commission approves the amendment, four buildings in total in the resort district would be eligible for adaptive reuse. In addition to the banquet building, Banner owns a 6,144-square-foot maintenance building that would qualify. At My Father’s House, the main building is 9,000 square feet and Klar Crest Realty’s main building is 10,434 square feet.
Brownell said if the commission was to approve the amendment, and the developers wanted to proceed with the banquet hall project, stipulations would include finishing the road.
Anthony Longhitano did not respond to a message left on January 29.
The commission’s next meeting is on February 11.