OLD SAYBROOK — Marking the resolution of a two-year legal battle, the Zoning Commission approved a zone change on Monday that will allow a developer to build five houses at 91 Sheffield St., alongside North Cove on the Connecticut River.
The settlement must still be approved by the courts and would only apply to the planned development district by 91 Sheffield LLC, registered to Branford builder Mike Picard. Picard will need to apply again and have the housing plans approved by the town.
The vote needed a 4-1 supermajority to pass because the Harbor Management Commission in 2021 voted against recommending the project to the Zoning Commission. Geraldine Lewis was the only commissioner on Monday to vote against the measure.
The Harbor Management Commission originally rejected 91 Sheffield’s proposal to build four homes as part of a planned development district on the Marine Industrial-zoned property. The developer appealed, and the judge instructed them to resolve the issue with the Zoning Commission.
After two years, 91 Sheffield dropped the lawsuit and instead proposed building five single-family homes, with one designated “affordable” with income restrictions set by state law.
Zoning commissioner Marc Delmonico said the property hasn’t been of use for years and that he said he doesn’t think the location lends itself to a marine business use. But the town wants to make sure public access is protected, making it a difficult decision, he added.
“It’s been sitting there, it’s almost blighted from that standpoint,” he said. “To not use it is kind of a sin.”
Harbor Management Commission member Paul Connolly told zoning commissioners on Monday that the town’s coastal properties are a key part of supporting Old Saybrook’s shoreline lifestyle, including boating and fishing. He said the 9.9 acres at the site account for 18 percent of the remaining Marine Industrial-zoned land, which is intended for marine businesses.
“It’s unlikely that the Zoning Commission in 1970 looked at Main Street and anticipated there would be two investment advisory firms, a sneaker store, a psychic and a shop that successfully sells $8 cups of coffee,” Connolly said. “The point is, I think it’s being short-sighted because we don’t know what the future marine businesses could be.”
The property might not look like a “treasured piece” of Old Saybrook’s marine properties, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be, he said, and building houses there takes away that possibility.
The developer’s attorney, Marjorie Shansky, countered that half of the property is “consumed” by tidal wetlands and wouldn’t support a “robust” marine operation without expensive dredging.
“The site just doesn’t support it,” Shansky said. “Even the prior use that’s fallen fallow on the site was not water dependent. I don’t even know when the last time there may have been water-dependent use at that site.”
Connolly said if homes are built on the land, the proposed public boat access area should be moved, as its current planned location becomes muddy at low tide. The public launch should instead be where the developer is proposing homeowner docks, he said.
“That’s the place for public access because there you can put a canoe or kayak and come back at low tide and not have to get a rescue team to pull you in,” Connolly said.