P&Z Watch: Victory for Old Greenwich Scenic Loop Despite Holdout

Wednesday night’s P&Z meeting had another lengthy agenda, and the Old Greenwich scenic loop applicants again waited hours to testify.

The application had generated extreme interest, and 400 signatures had been collected on a petition, that included the backing of the First Church on Sound Beach Ave and Perrot Library.

The proposal was ultimately approved in a 4-1 decision with P&Z commissioner Nick Macri voting no.

Voting in favor were chair Margarita Alban, Dennis Yeskey, Davd Hardman and Peter Lowe, but only after the applicants presented new information.

Some time between 1992 and 2000 a previous P&Z commission approved a scenic road designation for long Selden Lane in back country, which is just 2/10 mile long.

The commission had to determine whether the application complied with the town charter, which contains specific language about scenic roads. Specifically that they be longer than half a mile, and free of intensive commercial development and intensive traffic.

The problem is intensive is not defined.

Ms Alban said she believed the application met the “spirit and intent” of the town charter for scenic roads.

Everyone agreed the stretch – a combined .6 miles around the pond in the northern portion of Binney Park, comprised portions of three contiguous roads: Wesskum Wood, Arch and Sound Beach Ave – was beautiful and scenic, and that it was not commercially developed.

Mr. Macri had raised a question about whether Wesskum Rd was a “road” or a cut-through the park. DPW had confirmed that it is indeed a road.

He also said he doubted whether the proposed scenic road was indeed .6 miles since it had three parts. He said he also believed the traffic on Sound Beach Ave was “intensive.”

Lost and Found: Selden Lane is a Scenic Road in Greenwich

In the 11th hour, the applicants, residents Rita Baker, joined by Candace Garthwaite, said that after exhaustively researching scenic roads far and wide, they recently learned that about 20 years ago the Town had designated Selden Lane as a scenic road in back country despite it being just 2/10 of a mile long.

“This was conformed to me in an email from DPW,” Baker said. “How much time and hours have we wasted discussing the length of our proposed loop segments only now to realize you have your own precedent right here in Greenwich for approving scenic roads or portions of, that are specified in the town code?”

She also noted Greenwich’s 2009 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) listed roads that should be considered for designation as scenic.

“In terms of traffic level, for example, North Street was one of them,” Baker said, refuting Mr. Macri’s point that Sound Beach Ave had intensive traffic.

Local attorney Renee Seblatnigg sent a letter for the record saying that after reading through the 2009 POCD she learned that it included not only North Street, but several other roads.

Ms DeLuca said she had looked it up after receiving Ms Seblatnigg’s letter and that some of the roads suggested in the 2009 POCD included Riversville Rd, Stanwich Rd, Round Hill Rd, Lake Ave and even the Post Road as recommended for evaluation for scenic road designation.

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

The P&Z commissioners said they were not aware of this sentence in the 2009 POCD, which was approved under the previous Town Planner, Diane Fox. P&Z chair Alban apologized for not having been aware of the sentence.

Baker and Garthwaite said if the scenic road designation had already been granted, residents would have been included in discussions of a proposed culvert and rotary upgrade by the Perrot Library.

The applicants said the goal of designating the scenic road was to have “a seat at the table” for decisions.

As concerns of the commission were addressed and their comments grew increasingly favorable, with the exception of Nick Macri.

Macri argued there was “constant traffic, day and night,” even given the alternate, more recent DOT traffic count the applicants cited, vs numbers DPW and the town’s traffic consultant had cited.

He said both the DPW and the town’s traffic consultants, BETA Group, cited traffic counts they said supported the argument the traffic was intensive.

Traffic Counts

Ms Baker said she had tried to hire a local traffic engineer in Greenwich.

“We were turned down by every single one, not on the merits of the case, but because they all already consulted for the town or its contractors or hope to do so,” she said, adding that ultimately they hired an expert out of Wallingford, Jim Bubaris, who said he found BETA’s data to be outdated and not representative since it represented 6 year old DOT counts, even though 2017 data is available on the DOT website. The consultant’s data was also lower than DPW traffic counts.

Mr. Bubaris said BETA’s data was not likely representative given that traffic volumes in Connecticut as a whole had dropped in recent years. Also, on Sound Beach Ave traffic drops off south of Forest Ave, but BETA used traffic data from north of Forest.

Mr. Macri said the “mistrust” of the DPW and the town’s traffic consultant was out of line. Despite the applicant’s consultant lower traffic count of 9300 and their own count as volunteers was 6500 cars a day, that it was not a street where a driver could slow down and enjoy a view.

“We’re way beyond that, and that resolves, for me, the issue of intensive traffic,” he said. “We’ve had testimony saying our traffic consultant, BETA, doesn’t really know what they’re talking about…I really think throwing them under the bus is an issue for me.”

“What it comes down to is that the DPW should not be trusted,” Macri said. “These are the same folks plow the snow, take away the leaves, keep the sewers flowing, make sure we live in safe buildings and keep our streets safe. This mistrust is entirely misguided.”

“They want to have a seat at the table. If they want a seat at the table, the applicant should stop worrying about the centerpiece and worry about the chair.”

P&Z commissioner Nick Macri

Commissioner Peter Lowe said he didn’t see how a favorable decision would reflect a distrust of DPW. “I personally don’t get that sense,” he said.

Commissioner Dave Hardman said he agreed with the applicant that the process for the bridge/culvert upgrades had not been good.

“I do think there is value in designating this a scenic road, if for no other reason than to make sure we have a better process, a deliberate process, not just one citizen to the DPW,” he said.

Katie DeLuca said designating the scenic loop would force a public forum for discussion of DPW projects, because DPW is not always required to come to P&Z.

“If this was designated a scenic road that would become a requirement,” she said. “That was the applicant’s rationale – to have the ability to discuss what is proposed in a public meeting.”

“I like the historical protections,” said commissioner Dennis Yeskey, adding that he did not consider the traffic intensive.

Ms Alban said she spent a lot of time thinking about the application and believed the site to be part of Greenwich’s heritage that should be protected.

“The real intent of the state statute is to protect scenic resources and communities,” she said. “We have to look at the intent of a statue or town charter.”

After the vote to approve the scenic road, Ms Alban said, “I think our DPW is tremendous. I do not see this as being any kind of negative on them. Having worked with (DPW commissioner) Amy Siebert, (deputy commissioner) Jim Michel and others in the department, I admire them so much – their intelligence, their depth, and their commitment.”

As a result of the approval, the application for the Sound Beach Avenue bridge/culvert project at the northern end of Binney Park, which is expected to be put forth in the next month or two, will now be required to come before the P&Z commission, rather than rest entirely with DPW.

In her morning after de-brief in WGCH radio, Town Planner Katie DeLuca said DPW does an exceptional job for the town.

“This is in no way to be seen as a reaction to something they did or did not do, but rather whether or not this complies with the town charter,” DeLuca said.

See also:

P&Z Watch: Residents Continue to Push for Scenic Road around Binney Park

Aug 7, 2020

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

July 1, 2020

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

Dec 12, 2019

DPW rendering presented in 2018.

P&Z Pushes Back on DPW Bridge/Rotary Project on Sound Beach Ave

April 4, 2018

Residents on Bridge Fix and Raised Rotary in Old Greenwich: “Fix the Railroad Culvert, Not the Rotary!”

March 8, 2018