NEWINGTON - An endangered species of trees has been discovered in the wetlands of the Cedar Mountain site targeted for a Toll Brothers housing development project proposal.
The swamp cottonwood inhabits the wetlands that have been the center of a four-year preservation struggle waged by Newington residents against the proposed development. A team of environmental experts brought in by the town reported the presence of the species at the last Conservation Commission meeting.
The latest discovery has intensified public condemnation of Toll Brothers, which has already faced opposition from Newington and Wethersfield residents in regards to blasting--the controversial rock removal technique that involves, as the name implies, the use of explosives--and potential wetland and wildlife damage.
Toll Brothers has hired Drew and Associates, its own team of environmental experts, to plead the project’s case, but Drew’s failure to detect the swamp cottonwood has left opponents of the project with even less faith that the wetlands and surrounding wildlife will be in good hands.
“They didn’t even notice that there was this tree in the wetlands,” said Newington resident Gayle Raducha. “How can they be taking the word of a company that can’t even identify an endangered tree?”
Toll Brothers has been in the midst of a Conservation Commission public hearing to decide the fate of the third of three development attempts. The first two proposals, for 71 lots, and then 62, failed to pass, but the company is knocking at the door again, and members of the Newington and Wethersfield communities have shown up en mass to the hearings in an effort to ensure that the commission continues to shut them out.
“Are we willing to sacrifice the quality of these wetlands, for the sake of a housing development that we don’t need?” Newington resident Gail Redrako asked the commission during the hearing. “I urge you to err on the side of conservation, and not construction.”
Wethersfield’s stake in this is to the northwest of Cedar Mountain at its own Russell Road, which residents fear will have to bear the burden of storm water runoff from detention basins Toll Brothers wants to set up throughout the site, blasting induced infrastructure damage, and increased traffic to it and nearby roads.
Wethersfield Town Engineer Mike Turner attended the hearing, a continuation from Oct. 16, to draw out the potential spillover.
“Virtually all of the storm water that leaves the developed site ends up in Wethersfield,” Turner said, displaying a map showing four discharge points, from which flow will be routed into the town’s wetlands. “We want to know what the development will do to protect our wetlands.”
The latest proposal includes the installment of detention basins and the use of swales to intercept errant storm water, but the question of who will be responsible for maintenance of these features has been subject of another debate. Opponents of the project do not want the task to fall on the shoulders of the home owners’ associations.
“Any failure to maintain them is going to affect Wethersfield,” Turner said. “The home owners’ associations don’t have any vested interest in maintaining the basins. They’re uphill of the basins. We’re downhill of the basins.”
Residents have cited a new statute that would exempt home owners’ associations from being held responsible for detention basin maintenance. The change has prompted opponents to ask the Newington Planning and Zoning Commission to require Toll Brothers to reapply for its approval. The Planning and Zoning Commission was not aware of the fact that the new statute would place the burden of maintaining the wetland protection measures on the town when they gave Toll Brothers the green light, Raducha said.
But the statute does not apply to this situation because the decision was made before the law came into effect, Newington Town Planner Craig Minor said. Even if home owners’ associations were protected from basin maintenance responsibilities when the Planning and Zoning Commission approved the application, only towns are prohibited from imposing such a mandate, he said.
“There’s no law that says the developer cannot design the plan so that the home owners’ associations are responsible,” Minor said.
That’s the tricky thing--the town planning board did actually order that homeowners’ associations be held responsible, indirectly through approval requirements, which include the relocation of the detention basins to land that is not deeded by the town, therefore handing the job to home owners’ associations, that are part of a final site plan that Toll Brothers will have to present Planning and Zoning.
“It’s still the applicants’ project, but if the applicant wanted to appeal that, they could’ve, but they didn’t,” Minor said.
Toll Brothers may still be facing additional obstacles. The vacancy of a hospital and state offices on Russell Road may prompt the state to abandon ownership rights to it. Since Russell Road is in Wethersfield, the developer would have to seek approval from another town in order to proceed with the project.
“I’m praying that that happens, because then they’ll have to jump through all kinds of hoops,” Raducha said. “They’ll have to do this again in Wethersfield.”