P&Z Watch: Scenic Loop Designation around Northern Binney Park Scrutinized

Tuesday’s P&Z commission marathon meeting was unique in that it started early, ended late and was held virtually on Zoom due to the Covid-19 pandemic that keeps people from Town Hall.

Over 100 people tuned into for another look at a proposal for a scenic loop around the northern portion of Binney Park.

The applicant is Rita Baker, joined by Candace Garthwaite.

Baker noted that Greenwich residents are passionate about preserving the scenic and historic gateway to Old Greenwich for future generations, as evidenced in consistently high turnout to public meetings concerning the area.

When there was a proposed culvert upgrade and rotary upgrade by the Perrot Library, hundreds of residents turned out for public hearings.

The proposed scenic loop has three segments including a portion of Sound Beach Ave, Arch Street and Wesskum Wood.

The loop features the Perrot Library, First Congregational Church and its cemetery, as well as Binney Park and its Pond.

Historic post card of Binney Park.

More than once during their presentation, the applicants said the goal of designating the scenic road was to have “a seat at the table” for decisions.

They said a new pedestrian bridge in Bruce Park as an example of what can happen when normal processes are bypassed.

The green pedestrian bridge in Bruce Park didn’t go before before P&Z or its advisory Architectural Review Committee. Nor was there a public hearing. The substation project went to court and the CT Siting Council had the ultimate authority to approve the project. Eversource worked with Greenwich’s Dept of Public Works exclusively on the bridge.

New pedestrian bridge in Bruce Park. Photo: Leslie Yager

Baker said there have been times when residents had learned of municipal projects by chance.

She said neighbors knew the bridge project was going forth, but with no idea when or what it would look like. The only alert was from a tree removal sign posted way up high on the back of the tree, only visible to a neighbor from her upstairs window.

“We deserve to see plans and discuss alternatives. The scenic road representation will make sure that will happen,” she said. “We’re not asking for something new or anything that incurs cost. We’re asking for preservation of what we already have and cherish.”

The applicants noted they had approval from all abutting property owners, as well as First Church and Perrot.

They circulated a petition signed by hundreds of residents. They also received the blessing from the Wetlands Agency, the Board of Selectmen and the RTM.

“Getting here to the P&Z commission not been a task for the faint of heart,” Baker said. “We needed approval from the Wetlands agency, official maps, numerous filings with the town clerk and a check for $1,390.”

First Congregational Church in Old Greenwich viewed across Sound Beach Ave from Binney Park.

The applicants said they did not want to tie the hands of the town for future upgrades to the roadway, traffic circle, or other improvements, but rather have a seat at the table.

“Just look what happened at Bruce Park when the public was denied input. We want a chance to review proposals that affect our scenic loop before they become a fait accompli, thus avoiding fiascos such as the new bridge in Bruce Park, an eyesore in an otherwise idyllic landscape.”

Rita Baker, applicant

There was was some pushback, particularly from Commissioner Nick Macri, who noted the statute required the road be at least .5 miles long.

The proposed loop is comprised of three different roads that total .6 miles.

“The three segments may have different names but they are continuous pavement which we believe meets the intent of the statute,” Baker said.

Another potential stumbling block was that in order to be designated a scenic road, it has to be free of “intensive traffic,” but no one could find a relevant definition of intensive.

The Sound Beach Ave portion of the proposed loop has more traffic than existing scenic roads at Sawmill, Burying Hill and Cliffdale, which are considered rural roads, while Sound Beach Ave is considered an urban collector.

Ms. Garthwaite said defining “intensive” was a conundrum. She said guidance from the State emphasizes that it is the P&Z commission who is the final arbiter of what qualifies as a scenic road.

Mr. Macri said he wanted the town’s traffic engineer, Beta, to be consulted on whether there is an existing Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) definition of “intensive.”

Northern Binney Park in Old Greenwich would be encircled by the scenic loop if approved.

Mr. Yeskey applauded the applicants for their persistence.

“I thought they’d go away,” he said. “You have to give them some points.”

“I remind the commission that when we wrote (POCE), we thought some of the historical protections needed expansion and reinforcement,” Yeskey continued. “I don’t think anyone is disputing that this is a historic area. The POCD definitely supports this.”

“You have to rely on the commission to exercise some judgement,” Yeskey added.

Mr. Fox asked, “Where is there precedent to combine different roads into a loop?”

P&Z chair Margarita Alban said, “It’s our decision. It’s subject to interpretation. We have to make sure the interpretation meets the intent (of the statute.)”

Commissioner Victoria Goss agreed. “Look at the intent of the statute,” she said. “The intent is that (the road) be big enough to make an impact.”

Several residents spoke in favor of the scenic road designation including Leslie Asch, Horst Tebbe, Lucy Krasnor, Paul Pugliese and Allen Lovejoy.

During public comment there were 152 people on Zoom.

“The support speaks for itself,” Mr. Lovejoy said. “We’re acting on behalf of our heirs…The concern is that Bruce Park (pedestrian bridge) will happen over again.”

View from Binney Park across Sound Beach Ave to First Congregational Church cemetery.

Commissioner Andy Fox questioned whether the scenic road designation was even necessary.

“It’s not protecting the park, Perrot or the church. It’s (only) protecting the roadway. The trees are already protected by the tree warden because they’re on town property,” Fox said.

Some were concerned about Sound Beach Ave being a scenic road because it is a designated emergency roadway.

Craig Amundson said by having to involve P&Z for changes to the roadway, it could cause delays in upgrades to the road.

“Fire equipment could be delayed by minutes and could change the situation on a fire emergency and result in loss of life and property,” he said.

Longtime RTM member Arlene Lomazzo said she opposed the scenic road designation.

“The traffic is more than enough to deny this application,” she said, adding, “The traffic is horrendous. Stand in front of the library at 5pm and watch the cars fly by.”

Philip Dodson also opposed the proposal, citing the issue of “intensive traffic” and the fact that the loop includes three separate roads, none of which are .5+ mile on their own.

“People tell me how discouraged they get before the P&Z commission because their applications are turned down for the slightest deviance from standard procedure,” Dodson said. “You’re setting a bad precedent if you ignore these standards.”

In closing remarks Ms Baker said those in favor are not opposing changes for safety reasons or improvements to the road. A road widening or change of grade in the road would come before P&Z, and be part of a public process.

“The only time emergency vehicles couldn’t get down there was not because of flooding, it was because a tree was down,” she recalled. “They went down Arch Street the wrong way.”

“All we’re asking is to see the plans beforehand,” she said. “We are not the bad guys here. We want to preserve the sense of place and community.”

The item was left open so that the town’s traffic consultant could opine, as well as DPW and the tree warden. Mr. Macri said leaving it open would also give a chance to confirm traffic counts for Sound Beach Ave.

Cars drive past The First Congregational Church on Sound Beach Ave in Old Greenwich. Dec 11, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager
Cars drive past The First Congregational Church on Sound Beach Ave in Old Greenwich. Dec 11, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager

The applicants said they got the idea for the proposed scenic loop from Greenwich Municipal code itself.

“Scenic roads are irreplaceable resources, the destruction of which has had and will have an adverse impact on the town’s historic and scenic heritage. The purpose of this Article is to establish standards and procedures for designating town highways [1] or portions thereof as scenic roads and for regulating and preserving the town’s scenic roads for the benefit of present and future generations.

Greenwich’s Municipal code Chapter 11, article 3 preamble talks about the value of Scenic Roads

See also:

P&Z Watch: Scenic Road Designation for .6 Mile Loop around Binney Pond Discussed