STONINGTON — Several hundred people showed up Monday evening at Stonington High School for a special Planning and Zoning Commission meeting to address a proposed zoning change for the Smiler’s Wharf project on the downtown Mystic waterfront, and their sentiment was nearly unanimous: no.
The hearing was continued from June 17 because of the number of residents who were not able to speak due to the packed auditorium.
Harry Boardsen and Abbey Holstein, a married couple that manages Noank Shipyard and Seaport Marine, are applicants for the project, which was started about seven years ago and completed its first phase with construction of the Red36 restaurant. If approved, the hotel, restaurant, residences and new boat basin would be phased in over the next five years.
Resident Eugene Pfeiffer was in front of the school prior to the meeting with a petition that had been put together by resident Paul Sartor that opposed the zoning change for the 11.5-acre parcel from MC-80, or Marine Commercial, to NDD, or Neighborhood Development District. Pfeiffer estimated there were over 200 signatures.
Sartor later told PZC commissioners at the meeting that he had collected signatures from 40 percent of landowners within 500 feet of the proposed zone change.
About 200 residents showed up at this round, most of them appearing to be adamantly against construction of the complex.
Resident David Snediker said the plan was “unbelievably out of scale” with the town, and that the present marina zoning was “at the core and heart of this village” and helps keep the area connected to the maritime industry. Calling the proposal “absolutely irresponsible,” Snediker said the height, mass and scale of the project were “totally inappropriate.”
Resident Laura Graham called the project an “800-pound gorilla.”
“Many people in this town think our property taxes are too high,” she said. “But building Smiler’s Wharf is not going to lower our taxes.” She noted that the project would intensify the parking problem in town, and put undue strain on the sewer system, as well as changing the scale of Mystic in a way “more fitting New London.”
“We’re not against all development,” Graham said. “Zoning is a promise. When families invest their life savings into a home, they count on town officials to protect them.”
Resident Karen Oakley said she was most concerned about the surrounding waters and loss of habitat and tidal wetlands that help purify the water.
“This cove is essentially a grocery store for shellfish and shorebirds,” she said. “Whatever happens on this site, water is vital to our quality of life.”
Resident Kathy Weinberger said she moved to the area from California because she liked the small-town feel.
“I didn’t choose to move to Newport or any of those fancy places because I like the informal feeling,” she said, “and I think it’s a shame to see this development go in.”
Resident Richard Dixon told the commission that it was very important for them to follow procedure and “get it right this time.”
“You don’t have to rely on experts,” he said. “You have the right to make the decision … so don’t squander it.”
“This (project) is nothing like the neighborhood of two-story homes on narrow streets,” resident Daniel Sims said. He also noted downtown Mystic has “too many cars and no place to put them.”
Fred Allard told commissioners he was concerned about a super storm event isolating the proposed residential area from the rest of the town, and also noted that the boat storage area on the parcel should be saved because there is still a great need for boat storage in town.
Resident Matt Ferrier said he was not opposed to development, but that he was opposed to the scope and scale of the Smiler’s Wharf project.
“The density of people in that area … can cause a multitude of issues,” he said.
Clare Sartor said she had grown up in the house she lives in on Jackson Avenue.
“I always loved living in Mystic, and I’m grateful to the people all over town opposing this monstrosity,” she said. “I welcome and embrace change … but I’m here because this is so incredibly important to my quality of life.”
“What are (the applicants) smoking?” Sartor said. “If this proposal wasn’t so arrogant, it would be laughable.”
“The question begs, why and how have we gotten this far?” Sartor asked.
According to PZC chair David Rathbun, over 40 residents signed up to speak.
The parcel and businesses are owned by the Holstein family, of Stonington. The proposed buildings would cover 55,000 square feet, or 1.26 acres. The 11.5-acre site contains 7.5 buildable acres and 4 acres of wetlands.
The complex would be required to supply 375 parking spaces and will have 316 spaces on-site and 106 at an off-site commercial property, as yet unspecified, totaling 422 parking spaces. Many of the parking spaces will be located out of sight, on the ground floor of the buildings, according to the plan.
A five-story boutique hotel at a height of 63 feet is planned at the base of Cottrell Street. By comparison, the Whaler’s Inn is 40 feet high and the Central Block building on the Groton side is 62 feet high. The planned apartment building at 74 feet would be the highest structure. The project does not include affordable housing.
The project also includes an 875-foot public boardwalk that would connect with the boardwalk of Mystic River Park, which is 460 feet long. A public plaza and park would be located in the center of the complex. A new boat basin is also planned and marine support services located in the warehouses will be moved to Noank Shipyard.
Plans for the complex do not include retail businesses.
Planning & Zoning commissioners made no decisions on the proposed zoning change during the hearing.