STONINGTON —Developers of the proposed Smiler’s Wharf project at the downtown Mystic waterfront withdrew their application Tuesday morning, and a hearing scheduled for the evening before the Stonington Planning & Zoning Commission was canceled.
In a letter to commission chairman David Rathbun, applicant John Holstein wrote that his company was “caught off guard” by the “vehemence” of public opposition to the project.
“We especially feel that the comments of some select opponents, which have been fundamentally unfair and directed personally, are divisive and damaging to the reputation of our close-knit community,” Holstein wrote.
“It is both disappointing and frustrating to be publicly attacked for wanting to reinvest in and make our village of Mystic a better place,” Holstein wrote.
Harry Boardsen and Abbey Holstein, a married couple who manage Noank Shipyard and Seaport Marine, first proposed the project south of Cottrell Street on the Mystic waterfront in May 2018. The businesses are owned by the Holstein family of Stonington.
The couple started the project about seven years ago and completed its first phase with construction of the Red36 restaurant, at 2 Washington St., about five years ago. If approved, the project would have been phased in over the next five years.
The complex, called Smiler’s Wharf, comprised 7.5 buildable acres on an 11.5 acre parcel, and would have included a restaurant, boutique hotel, boat basin, townhouses, apartments, multifamily units, public plaza, park and a boardwalk. The applicants were seeking a zoning change from MC-80, marine commercial, to NDD or neighborhood development district, which allows a variety of uses.
Holstein wrote in his letter that it was not true that, as developers, his company did not reach out to residents in the first stages of the proposal. He noted that his company had invited neighbors to review the plans in May 2018, and had also sent emails, letters, and mass mailings to try and engage the neighborhood. His company also held a public workshop, he wrote, in May 2018 and scaled down the project based on input from the few neighbors who did attend.
“The select group of neighbors who have continued to put forward this false narrative regarding our lack of public outreach are the same neighbors who opposed our marina improvements … our development of the Red36 project and often oppose other new development in the village of Mystic,” Holstein wrote.
Having invested about $15 million in Seaport Marine, Holstein wrote, “the accusation that our company intentionally sabotaged our boat repair and storage business over the last 15 years so that we would be well positioned to propose the Smiler’s Wharf project is similarly false and, quite frankly, ludicrous.”
Holstein also said that a letter from a state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection official recommending that the PZC not approve the application “has been mischaracterized repeatedly by both neighbors and local commentators.”
“While we respect the CTDEEP and its opinions … we believe that the letter is simply wrong and ignores critical facts of the development,” Holstein wrote. He added that greater coastal resiliency should be encouraged “through a variety of means, including the construction of new buildings and retrofitting the older ones, and not simply abandoning our waterfront towns and villages to the sea.”
Opponent Paul Sartor, who lives near the proposed project, he was “honestly not surprised” by the withdrawal of application. “It’s harder to imagine it being approved than rejected,” Sartor said. “There was no real basis to be approved except they just wanted it.”
“It’s not about no development or not in my backyard,” Sartor asserted. “It’s about living in society and following regulations we agreed to follow. You should follow the permitted uses in your zone. There’s things they can do in MC-80, they just chose not to.”
A petition circulated by opponents of the project was found by the town Planning Department to have exceeded a 20 percent signature threshold of property owners within a 500-foot buffer area, thus requiring a two-thirds vote if the commission were to have approved it.
First Selectman Rob Simmons, who was in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, said he believed withdrawing the application was “the right thing to do.”
“The Planning & Zoning Commission gave the public a chance to speak, and they made legitimate comments,” Simmons said. “The Board of Selectmen does not play a role, so our job is to make sure the process is working openly and fairly. Our job is to give Planning & Zoning maximum opportunity to exercise their judgment.”
“I think that the planning staff took a lot of criticism, and I think that was unfair,” Simmons said. “I think our staff is one of the best in Connecticut … they took a lot of nasty comments they didn’t deserve.”