Last week an application to redevelop several lots at the corner of Hillside Rd and East Putnam Avenue was denied in a unanimous 5-0 vote of the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency, which had held meetings with public hearings on four occasions.
The proposal was to preserve a row of historic homes and develop them into 16 dwelling units with driveways, utilities, drainage, and landscaping in and adjacent to wetlands and a watercourse.
The applicant Chris Franco of Milbrook Crossing LLC noted during an interview with GFP in 2018 that while most of the grand homes on the Post Road have given way to commercial development, these historic houses, set back from the street, represented the last remaining unaltered streetscape.
Mr. Franco has a rack record of saving many endangered historic buildings in Town including Ole’s Boatyard and Harbor House Inn. Under Franco’s leadership the Greenwich Point Conservancy has restored Innis Arden Cottage and the old barn, known as the Susie Baker Pavilion. Mr. Franco was also a key figure in sparing the Feake-Ferris House from the wrecking ball in 2016.
At POCD workshops in 2019, residents shared their concern that historic homes were vanishing in Greenwich.
In December 2018 the Historic District Commission unanimously endorsed the project, approving a certificate of appropriateness. The vote was 8-0. The applicants planned to submit the application to P&Z under Historic Overlay which grants incentives in exchange for preservation.
But first they had to get the blessing of the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency.
In August, Agency director Pat Sesto shared some of her concerns. “It’s in a floodway and 100-year flood plane,” she said. “I have significant concern – it’s not clear how the site would be protected in small events, let alone significant ones.”
In September, both Green & Clean’s Mary Hull, and Conservation Commission’s Susie Baker spoke in favor of the development, noting that under the HO incentives, the applicant could have asked for much more FAR.
Hull said the property might otherwise be developed with a nursing home or a development with moderate income dwellings.
“…something far more disastrous could occur here in terms of number of residents and loss of open space,” Baker said.
Still, neighbors on Hillside Road testified what it was like to live in a floodplain.
“There were times I was literally in 8 feet of water in my own back yard in a rushing river and had to hold onto a tree when I fell off a raft during our raft races,” said Elizabeth Dempsey.
Fast forward to the Agency’s decision last week to deny the application last week.
Reached by phone on Friday, Pat Sesto, director of Environmental Affairs for Greenwich, said the Agency wanted more answers and more safeguards.
“Conceptually they liked the idea of saving the historic homes, but in the end that’s not their charge,” Sesto said of the Agency’s decision. “It’s not whether they like the concept of the project or not– it’s whether it will have negative consequences to the resource they’re protecting.”
In their resolution of denial, the Agency said the development was proposed in floodplain areas that have up to a 50% chance of flooding in any given year, and that flood waters flowing over exposed soil add turbidity to the water, causing sedimentation with longlasting impacts.
The denial document also said garages would flood, and if vehicles and other items typically stored in garages were inundated, the waters would be polluted.
Sesto said per statutory obligation, when the Agency denies an application they give constructive suggestions to the applicant, and that was included in the denial document.* (see end of story)
“It says the Agency is looking for ways for getting the hazards – vehicles and what’s stored – out of the higher probability flood ares,” she said. “These areas will flood in a 5 year storm. That’s a 20% chance in any given year. These areas have the probability of flooding, and in a 10 year you’ll have knee deep water, or greater, in the garages.”
Sesto acknowledged that in this case there was existing development in the flood plane.
“That makes it a little different than a fresh request,” she said.
But she said, “The storm frequencies are pretty high. It’s not a far off low risk endeavor. That’s what makes this different.”
In an email on Saturday, Mr. Franco said the garages hadn’t become a focus of the Agency until after several meetings, and that the reason the development had been designed with garages underground was in response to feedback from the Town.
“These were designed to address the preservation of the trees and streetscape. Both the town and the Historic District Commission had discouraged us from having surface parking lots in front of the historic buildings, and this was a way for us to accommodate that goal,” he said.
Mr. Franco said it seemed that the Agency was negative about the project from the beginning, and that in his team’s view kept ‘moving the goal posts.’
“Because the garages could possibly flood in a very bad storm, we developed an emergency plan for residents to move autos out to higher ground when a bad flood event was forecast (this is the same way garages are handled that are built under houses that are “raised” in coastal flood zones, like all over Old Greenwich),” he said.
The denial document said the proposal “relies on human behavior to remove cars and other pollutants from garages to safeguard the watercourse prior to flood events. The agency found it unlikely residents and property management companies would faithfully attend to this protection for the life of the development.”
The denial document also talked about proposed rain gardens that were part of the stormwater management plan, noting they would flood and be flushed clear of sediment and pollutants. It also said basins and porous pavement would be overwhelmed in a flood, and that flood water would impact aquatic environments of-site.
Mr. Franco said the denial was disappointing, especially after so much careful work, planning and expense had been incurred.
He said the Wetlands permit fee alone totaled $43,000.
The Agency is set up so that the fees cover the costs of running the department, and proposals can consume a great deal of staff hours.
“We have been very passionate about preserving these wonderful buildings and the streetscape, and worked very hard to balance the goals of preservation and protecting the brook and adjacent wetlands,” Franco said, adding that his team had made many changes to the application in response to the agency’s feedback.
“We believe that the project as conceived is an excellent one, and that it fully complied with all wetlands and environmental regulations.” – Chris Franco, Milbrook Crossing LLC
“Also the Agency retained an outside consultant to review our work, and the consultant also concluded that our plan complied with applicable regulations,” Franco continued. “Also, contrary to what the Agency said in their final decision, at the request of the Agency we provided possible alternatives to our project, showing how they would have worse impacts and were less favorable than our proposed project.”
As for relying on human behavior in the event of a flood, Mr. Franco said they’d offered to hire a full time property manager on-site that could step in to assist residents.
“As I said we were very disappointed, and in fact do not believe our project was fairly or properly reviewed.” – Chris Franco, Milbrook Crossing LLC
“It will be a real loss to the community if these fantastic and historic buildings and streetscape cannot be preserved,” Mr. Franco lamented.
“Our project is perfectly aligned with the new 2019 POCD, which was pointed out in detail to the Agency. They said however that their concern was only the waterway, and that they were not concerned with other land use priorities of the town. Frankly that seems very strange and not appropriate to us.”
*The denial document said the applicant could consider alternatives that would:
- locate the stormwater management features in an area not subject to frequent flooding;
- provide a development proposal that does not require rain gardens and porous pavement in areas prone to flooding;
- provide mechanisms to substantially reduce or eliminate probable generators of pollution from flood-prone areas;
- provide a development proposal that sets the garages and associated storage of vehicles and pollutants above the elevation of more frequent storms or eliminate the garages;
- eliminate excavation of the higher portions of the site;
- reduce the number of units and/or the size of the buildings to free up land to park vehicles above the elevation of the more frequent storm events; and/or
- provide options with more stringent pollution control in flood-prone areas.