MIDDLETOWN – The Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency rejected a plan for a 148-unit apartment complex next to Lawrence School after nearby residents warned it would make already frequent flooding in the area worse.
The agency voted 4-2 against the application from local developer Dominick DeMartino, saying the development would disturb the areas around the wetlands too much, and questioning how thorough the review by the developer’s wetlands scientist was.
Vice Chair Ken McClellan said he was voting against the project because while the building was mostly outside the 100-foot review area around the wetlands, construction activity, the parking lot and retaining wall took up almost the entire review area at a point.
“The thing about land is, once it’s gone, it’s gone. By allowing this development that is going to take up the entirety of that review area, I think it sets a bad precedent,” McClellan said. “It just shouldn’t be done. That review area is for us to look at very carefully, and it’s our responsibility to protect it. And allowing an apartment building to be put on it is not protecting it.”
But the city is also managing the impacts of decades of building neighborhoods in swampy, flood-prone areas – including Mile Lane, where flooding is already a common issue, and where some residents raised concerns about how much worse it will get with climate change, let alone covering more ground with concrete.
Agency Chair Joseph Carta said he would have felt better if the agency had a third-party soil scientist review the project who wasn’t partial to the development or the town. He questioned how thorough the wetlands reviews were, and said he believed some wetlands weren’t flagged. And he said he was frustrated the developer’s soil scientist never attended a meeting to answer questions.
“I just can’t vote in favor of this without knowing that we haven’t missed something,” Carta said. “And I feel like we have.”
The developer changed its initial plans to try to assuage some concerns about the wetlands impact. Carson said DeMartino withdrew his first application after an agency member asked if a row of parking could be removed to move the building further from wetlands. The developer came back in July with 73 fewer parking spaces, bringing the building 13 feet further from nearby wetlands.
But the change did nothing to sway the concerns of Mile Lane residents who described how their neighborhood floods frequently, and worried that another development in the area would only add to the runoff that fills the swamp brooks and floods neighbors yards and homes.
On Wednesday, Carson tried to make his final case to the agency. He said he has no doubt that the issues neighbors are facing are real, but said the development wouldn’t have an impact on the wetlands, and would actually improve the area.
“The area of this site has been farmed for decades, and on our plan the upper reaches of this wetland area will be planted with native wetland vegetation and protected with a six-acre conservation easement,” Carson said. “The lower reaches of the wetland, which have been the site of illegal filling and dumping for decades, will be protected by the transfer of 25 acres of land to the city.”
The meeting became tense at times. After one neighbor questioned the engineering of the stormwater retention system, Carson said he didn’t see a point in addressing “technical questions with non-technical people,” drawing groans from the neighbors in the audience and a quick rebuke from Carta.
“Dave, I think that was very rude,” Carta said. “And we have questions, but they have questions, and they’re the public. They’re the ones that are allowed to ask questions, and it’s your job to answer them. Number one, what are you gonna do with the snow? You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out. You haven’t brought that up once.”
Carson pointed to two areas on the map that would be snow storage areas. Asked if he wanted to answer any more of their questions, he said he can’t answer questions about the design of a stormwater system.
“I would have to hold a seminar course in order to do such a thing,” he said.
Some commissioners said they were concerned about the snow management, especially the impact salt would have on the wetlands, and the runoff from snow melt. Middletown Environmental Planner James Sipperly said they could add conditions for snow removal, like that the apartments pre-treat parking lots with calcium chloride instead of salt, but the agency opted instead to reject the application.