STONINGTON — With little debate and after hearing one dissenting voice from the public, the Economic Development Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday night to draft a letter of support for a zoning amendment for Smiler’s Wharf that would allow for the development of a boutique hotel, a second restaurant and additional structures, and bring in yearly tax revenues of roughly $125,000.
The owners of Seaport Marine are asking for a zoning change, from a marine commercial district to mixed-use waterfront development, which would allow for additional construction at Smiler’s Wharf. The proposed amendment will be considered by the Planning and Zoning Commission on May 28.
The 11.5-acre site that the marina sits on featured the opening of the restaurant Red more than five years ago, which Seaport Marine general manager Harry Boardsen called their “toe in the water” for the larger project.
“After five years, we felt comfortable planning this second phase of development,” he said. “Red was built to anchor the site, and now, we want to build out the rest of it.”
Plans for the site include a second restaurant, a 50-room boutique hotel, 47 residential units, a building for open-air functions like farmers markets, and the addition of about 800 feet of boardwalk. Boardsen said no retail shops would be on the site.
“We have zero retail on the site,” he said. “We want to play the role of bringing people in town, giving them a place to stay and a place to eat, but once they’re here they can pan out into town, and go to the stores on Main Street.”
Don Poland, a geographer, planner and community strategist from East Hartford’s Goman + York hired by Seaport Marine, spoke to the commission about the projected economic benefits of the development. He projected a “very conservative” yearly tax impact of about $125,000, along with $600,000 in one-time permitting fees.
“This is a huge investment into the borough, and especially Mystic,” he said. “I think this will be a positive shot in the arm to this area.”
Poland also projected that the development would provide the equivalent of 155 jobs long-term for the region, and about $2.5 million in yearly sales tax revenue. Poland noted that the $125,000 was a conservative projection because the standard formula for residential units in developments like Smiler’s Wharf overestimates how many schoolchildren will be there.
“Everyone truly believes that every housing unit generates two school-aged children,” he said. “Your existing housing stock is generating about 0.4 students.”
Poland said he conservatively estimated about 14 children in the 47 residential units, but said four to six might be a more realistic figure. He noted that his two most recent projects, after completion, had had zero schoolchildren, despite estimates of 15 to 20. The estimated student cost for the project with 14 students is $210,000, meaning the net tax revenue to the town could be as much as $335,000.
Boardsen said that in presenting the project to people, the most questions had been raised about whether the existing events like beer tents and public access to the waterfront would be maintained.
He said they planned to expand the public usage, with a larger plaza area and a boardwalk along the waterfront.
“We still have these public components that are part of the fabric that we’re going to carry over and modernize,” he said.
Commission members asked if parking in the area was sufficient for the proposed expansion. Attorney William Sweeney, speaking on behalf of Seaport Marine, said they would present a commissioned traffic study at the Planning and Zoning meeting.
“We have a mix of 300 parking spaces proposed for the project,” he said. “If we’re wrong, that hurts us. We want to have a successful project. If you’re going to be a successful business owner, you need to have places for people to park. We have to be operationally sufficient as well as meeting zoning.”
Boardsen was asked if they had a timetable for the project. He noted that because of the municipal and state approvals needed, it was likely a “five-year” plan to completion. Sweeney said that like most major developments, they would first get master plan approval, and then get specific approval for each stage of development.
“We have a lot of pretty pictures and renderings, but the finer details will come through in the stages,” he said.
While the development plan was received positively by the commission, the same optimism wasn’t shared by a nearby property owner. Joan Durant, of 22 Jackson Ave., said she and several other people living in the neighborhood saw the project as not being appropriate for Mystic.
“A proposed hotel of 63 feet, and an apartment building of 74 feet, is not within the scale and character of Mystic,” she said. “We believe it will be a total disruption and spoil the charm of our neighborhood.”
Meg Lyons, an architect for the project, confirmed that the heights would be about 15 to 25 feet higher than the other buildings in the area because of flood plain regulations.
“We decided to add more height instead of adding more buildings,” she said of the building height.
After hearing Durant’s objection, the commission voted unanimously to write a letter of support for the project.
“It looks like a fantastic project, and they have EDC support for that based on the economic points put forward by Harry [Boardsen] and Don [Poland],” chairman Dave Hammond said.