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Madison Multifamily Housing Raises Concerns at Inland Wetland Hearing

MADISON –  An environmental scientist hired by a neighboring condo association warned that a proposed 18-unit apartment building near Hammonasset State Park would likely pollute a pond on the property without enough trees to filter out nitrogen from septic tanks.

The proposal for Cottage and Mill Apartments at 35 Cottage Rd. has drawn opposition from neighboring residents, who say the 7,800 square foot, 18-unit building would harm the wildlife in a pond on the site – which is home to frogs, salamanders, and neighbors say hosts migratory birds.

The developers behind the proposal – 35 Cottage LLC, registered to Michael Picard, Diane DuPont and Richard Gentile at the address of Atlas Residential and Commercial Services in Branford – applied under the state’s 8-30g affordable housing statute, which allows multifamily housing projects with at least 30 percent set aside for people with lower incomes to bypass some local regulations. 

Because the building is proposed to be within 100 feet of the pond on the property, the plan still needs approval from the Madison Inland Wetland Agency, which determines whether projects would have significant detrimental impacts on wetlands and bodies of water.

The developers had tried in 2020 to have the property rezoned from residential to “transition” district that they said would allow a shorter setback from the road to keep development farther from the pond. The Planning and Zoning Commission rejected that proposal in November 2020.

George Logan, a soil and wetland scientist hired by the neighboring Seabreeze Condominium Association, told the Inland Wetland Agency on Monday that he believes the proposal doesn’t include enough measures to prevent stormwater runoff and discharge from nearby septic systems from polluting the pond and disrupting the habitats within it.

Logan said his main concern is that “nutrients” like nitrogen from the septic system proposed for the Cottage and Mill development, and from the septic system of the Hammonasset Apartments complex next door, will flow into the pond when there are back-to-back rainstorms within a few days of each other.

Plants use up nitrogen as food, and when it gets in bodies of water in a high concentration, it can lead to widespread growth of algae on the surface. Algae covering a pond can cut off oxygen in the water below, essentially smothering the habitats the pond supports, he said.

The developers are proposing one septic system for the project, which would be designed to handle 2,700 gallons a day – large enough to require approval from the state Department of Public Health.

Logan said that, in most cases, he doesn’t think septic systems have much effect on water quality of wetlands because those wetlands have a lot of plants that filter the nitrogen out before it can get to the water – especially trees with deep roots. 

This pond is different because it doesn’t have much flow in or out, and it doesn’t have those deep-rooted plants around it to consume whatever nitrogen isn’t filtered out by the leaching field – which generally filters only 40-45 percent of nitrogen in the wastewater, Logan said.

The developers have proposed building a wetland to control and treat stormwater runoff, but even that won’t be enough to prevent nitrogen polluting the pond, accordin to Logan. That could lead to a damaged habitat in the pond, which appears to be a significant breeding ground for salamanders despite also hosting bullfrogs and green frogs that can prey on them, he said.

“Based on what I know with regard to septic systems we have, with this particular condition of this pond – which is basically a closed system with limited dilution already – there is going to be a water quality impact that is a physical impact on the pond itself, leading to all kinds of degradation and algal blooms,” Logan said. “And that will have a cascade effect on the aquatic ecosystem.”

Marjorie Shansky, the attorney representing the developers, said on Monday that her clients would respond to Logan’s comments and questions from agency members at its next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 7. 

In December, during the first meeting the public hearing was open, she warned the commission that its charge was to evaluate whether the proposed activities have an adverse impact on the wetlands, and that it must have substantial evidence of an adverse impact to reject an application. Shansky said numerous written comments from the public opposing the project “express generalized environmental concerns” that aren’t relevant to the agency.

“They express concerns about wildlife, they express concerns about things which people have concerns about – I’m not delegitimizing that – but concerns that are not within your jurisdiction,” Shansky said. “You are not an environmental protection agency, you are not a wildlife protection agency. You regulate inland wetlands and watercourses.”

Tom Sullivan, a resident at Sea Breeze Cottages, the condominiums on the other side of the Hammonasset Apartments from the proposed development, told the agency that his reading of the agency’s regulations shows they “have all the authority in the world” to reject the application for the reasons outlined by Logan. 

Sullivan questioned how many multifamily housing developments that corner of Cottage Road can support, noting there are two others already within a few hundred yards of the proposed site.

“If you don’t protect the ecology, the environment in our neighborhood, then who will?” Sullivan questioned.

Joe Budrow, a member of the agency, said he was looking at the Hammonasset Apartments development next door, which looks like it has even more of an impact on the same pond. Budrow questioned where the public outcry was when the agency approved that development.

Barbara More, a neighbor “a stone’s throw” from the proposed development, said that the pond has become a habitat for wildlife and is a fragile resource that needs defending. Allowing more new buildings on top of the wetland, meaning heavy equipment and disturbance, would harm the pond, she said.

“Imagine you leave a clean glass of water outside our house. The glass of water is self-contained. However, if you were to check that glass of clean water one year later, it’d be teeming with both vegatative and animal life,” More said. “To assume that, after 30 plus years, no wildlife exists in or around, or uses the wetland, shows a gross misunderstanding of what a wetland is, and the benefits it provides.”

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