TRUMBULL – Property originally purchased by the town as conservation land in the Pequonnock River watershed is the focus of plans to build a new senior center.
Those plans have drawn strong opposition from neighbors, who have circulated an online petition since August that has been signed by about 300 residents.
Trumbull officials have searched for a location for the new center since 2015. After a two-year Covid hiatus, the Community Facilities Building Committee sought after the recently-purchased Hardy Lane site.
Soon before the Town Council approved the nearly $7 million purchase in Nov. 2020, a naturalist recruited by the Conservation Commission urged protection of the site, given that the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection had found that the health of the nearby Pequonnock River was suffering from stormwater runoff from adjacent impervious surfaces.
According to an article in the Trumbull Times, officials at the 2020 council meeting said the land would serve as a buffer for the river. Then-council chair Mary Beth Thornton also warned that if the town didn’t make the purchase, the land along the river would be developed.
Council members voted to buy five properties totaling 25 acres and at the end of Hardy Lane.
Richard White, vice chair of the Land Acquisition Committee, said he was deeply involved in the purchase of the Hardy Lane properties, which led him to create the petition.
“I started going to all of those meetings because my vote on land acquisition was for there to be no development,” White told CT Examiner. “I don’t make a distinction between high-density development… or municipal structure. Development is development.”
QA+M architects proposed building the center entirely on the previously-developed land at Hardy Lane by demolishing the town-owned buildings. But White said it wasn’t enough.
“I think that’s an interesting way to look at it, but it’s not how the Pequonnock River Initiative would look at it,” he said. “It’s not how the Conservation Commission would look at it.”
White said environmentalists would consider a 30,000 square foot structure a significant increase in impervious surface on developed lands.
In the petition, White also reminded residents that Hardy Lane was down the road from the Trumbull Library – a site previously considered for the center, but rejected as the project was deemed too large for the building. A 2017 traffic impact study of the library concluded that traffic signals and improved pedestrian connections were needed to move forward.
White said that the state Department of Transportation rejected those improvements, and they would say no to Hardy Lane as well. “I don’t see the state now changing their mind,” he said.
Lori Hayes-O’Brien, chair of the Community Facilities Building Committee, told CT Examiner that traffic and environmental studies would be completed at the Hardy Lane site, but nothing was set in stone.
She said they would never find a perfect location as Trumbull was 98 percent developed.
“There’s no perfect scenario for this,” Hayes-O’Brien said. “We would love for that to just drop in our lap.”
The committee had considered repairing the current center, but limited parking and aged facilities led them to look elsewhere.
Michele Jakab, director of Human Services, told CT Examiner that maintenance was called to the center on a daily basis for troubles with broken air conditioners, a failing boiler and flooding.
Jakab referred to the building as a maze and said the dining room serving the center’s most vulnerable members was the furthest from the main office.
“In a modern senior center today, all those things would be accessible to the admin’s office so that we have access to all of our members and see what’s going on in the entire facility,” Jakab explained.
An analysis by the town’s director of public works found that out of all possible sites, Hardy Lane checked off the most boxes – between sufficient acreage, a central location, public utilities, sewer and direct access to hiking trails.
But Hayes-O’Brien said proposed studies at Hardy Lane would also investigate its drawbacks. If the committee needs to, she said, they will continue searching for a new location.
“This testing, at least, is going to give us a little more information and hopefully answer some of the concerns of the public,” she explained. “And then we’ll go from there.”
But no matter where they build, Hayes-O’Brien said, neighbors would be affected. She explained that the committee wanted to be as responsible to and respectful of the neighborhood as they could.
“The trickiest thing will always be the people it impacts,” she explained. “But the driving force is the people that are being impacted the most right now are the seniors.”
Equally as vocal during committee meetings were the seniors in town.
At the latest October committee meeting, 74-year-old senior center volunteer Mike Ganino said he supported the committee’s ongoing efforts to find a new location, and most seniors understood that Hardy Lane was in the testing phase.
But Ganino argued that between electric, plumbing, roofing and flood repair, renovating the current building would take “millions upon millions.” He said the 100 plus year-old building should have been demolished 50 years ago.
“The building not fit for our town’s youngest now holds Trumbull’s elderly,” Ganino said at the meeting. “It’s a sin.”