STONINGTON — In a strongly worded letter to the Stonington Planning & Zoning Commission, a top state regulator said that the Smiler's Wharf project as proposed for the Mystic waterfront does not comply with coastal management law or the town's development plan, and would pose a potential threat to life and property in the event of storms or rising sea levels.
“We respectfully urge that the commission not rezone this waterfront MC-80-zoned parcel for residential use and carefully consider the potential adverse impacts to the water-dependent use of the site,” the official, Brian Thompson, of the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, said in his May 28 letter.
The owners of Seaport Marine, a full service boatyard and marina with about 120 boat slips, are seeking a zoning change from marine commercial to Neighborhood Development District for the 11-acre site to allow for construction of a hotel, townhouses, a restaurant, apartments and marine services.
Thompson is director of the Land & Water Resources Division of DEEP's Bureau of Water Protection and Land Reuse. The division has broad authority over Connecticut's wetlands, waterways, and floodplains, and works with municipalities on flood hazard planning and coastal management.
According to Thompson, the project does not comply with sections of the Connecticut Coastal Management Act, which states that water-dependent uses such as marinas should be given highest priority and preference on waterfront sites.
“We believe the subject waterfront site is appropriately zoned MC-80 since water-dependent uses can only be located on waterfront sites,” Thompson wrote. “Hotels, restaurants and residences … can be located on upland sites elsewhere in town and do not require access to the water.”
“Given the long history of the site as an active boatyard, the site is physically suited for a water-dependent use,” Thompson said. “The applicant should demonstrate to the commission that the site cannot be sold to another marina operator or used for another water-dependent use.”
As for the flood zone, Thompson wrote that the project could “place more people at risk by siting residences in flood-prone areas.”
“The current structures on site are industrial and warehouse type structures as well as a restaurant which do not house people,” he wrote. “In the event of a storm, employees typically vacate the workplace and commercial areas.”
“This zoning map amendment potentially increases hazards to both life and property and is inconsistent with the CCMA,” he wrote.
Tidal wetlands, which are within a few feet of a proposed townhouse site, are also an important factor to be considered because they tend to “migrate over time and are therefore not fixed in place,” Thompson wrote.
“Siting townhouses so close to tidal wetlands may potentially create a situation in the future where the property owners will propose flood and erosion control,” he wrote. “We strongly advise against building townhouses in a flood zone in close proximity to the wetlands.”
The project, he noted, also does not comply with the local Plan of Conservation and Development, which designates the parcel as “marine commercial.” A section in that plan states the town is required to promote water-dependent uses in coastal areas, he wrote.
“This zoning map amendment severely diminishes a water-dependent use on a waterfront site,” he said.
The project also has apparently given no forethought into projected sea-level rise, Thomson wrote: “Placing new residential uses in flood prone areas is not adapting to sea level rise.”
“The Connecticut Coastal Management Act recognizes waterfront sites as the only sites which can accommodate water-dependent uses in a community,” he wrote. “”By replacing a boatyard with residential uses, future water-dependent uses will most likely not occur at this site in the future.”
“Should the Commission decide that rezoning is appropriate … it should ensure that adequate water-dependent uses are included and adverse impacts to the existing water-dependent uses are adequately mitigated,” Thomson wrote.
Manager Harry Boardsen and his wife, Abbey Holstein, whose family owns Seaport Marine and Noank Shipyard, at the mouth of the Mystic River, began Phase 1 of the project four years ago with the construction of Red 36, a waterfront restaurant. The proposed commercial-residential project on Washington Street would be phased in over the next five years.
The proposal has generated opposition from neighbors concerned about its impact on traffic and parking, and from officials in Groton who have expressed concern about the height of the buildings.
A special meeting of the PZC that was supposed to be held on Tuesday was postponed because the crowd exceeded the 300-person capacity of the meeting site, the cafeteria of Mystic Middle School. The next meeting will at 7 p.m. June 17 at the Stonington High School auditorium.