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A complicated proposal to build a marina and associated buildings and infrastructure on the East River on the west side of town—including a restaurant, boardwalk, a two-bedroom residential area, retail and office space, and parking lots—is receiving pushback due to environmental concerns, with the Madison Land Conservation Trust (MLCT) filing a legal petition against the project during a recent Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) public hearing on the project.
The property, 3.35 acres of land south of Boston Post Road abutting the river, once housed a similar development, according to representatives of the developer, Yarde Realty Company, but has sat vacant for several decades.
The PZC public hearing took place on Jan. 16 as a continuation of a December hearing. Property owner Michael Barnes, project engineer Joe Wren, and project designer John Cunningham answered questions and presented details of what the proposed development would look like, including steps they were taking to ensure wildlife and natural resources were protected.
Due to the number of concerned citizens wishing to speak, the PZC did not vote on whether to approve the project on Jan. 16, extending the public hearing period until at least next month, which will allow the developer to address concerns raised by commission members, residents, and state agencies.
Disputes over the project, which mostly center around its environmental impact, are complex and stretch back at least six years, according to public documents and town officials.
Barnes was issued a cease and desist by Madison’s zoning enforcement officer in 2013 for illegally dumping fill material on the site, according to public documents. That decision was upheld on appeal.
Since then, Barnes has received approval from the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the Army Corps of Engineers for the marina portion of the project, which includes 45 floating slips. The land-based portion of the project was granted four variances—exceptions to zoning regulations—by the Zoning Board of Appeals earlier this month.
According to the legal filing by MLCT, the project “has, or...is likely to have, the effect of unreasonably polluting, impairing, or destroying the public trust in the air, water, and other natural resources of the state.”
The document goes on to name specific issues with the project, including “threat of increased erosion and sedimentation of wetlands,” impairing the migration of salt marshes in the area, and harm to endangered species.
Connecticut state law allows any person, partnership, corporation, association, organization, or other legal entity to file such a petition when there is a potential threat to natural resources.
On Jan. 16, a handful of residents, some who identified themselves as nearby property owners, spoke in favor of the proposed development, citing the positive effects of recreational opportunity and boating traditions.
Several others, including members of the MLCT who were in attendance, spoke in opposition of the project, focusing on the potential or likely detriment to natural resources.
Disputes over the possible impact of the development include everything from disruption of animal habitats to destruction of marshland to pollution of the river from boat owners cleaning or waxing their crafts.
At the Jan. 16 meeting, Wren walked through the project step-by-step, showing ways the development planned to address concerns raised by DEEP as well as Madison officials.
Further Review Required
The project is subject to Coastal Area Management (CAM) Act provisions and special review due to its proximity to the river, Town Planner Dave Anderson told The Source. DEEP is still in the process of reviewing the land-based portions of the project, according to Anderson.
Many concerns raised by DEEP have been addressed in the plan, according to Wren, including multi-layered buffers between the development and protected wetlands, buildings set back from the water, and permeable crushed stone surfaces to prevent stormwater runoff.
DEEP raised concerns about endangered species, including the least shrew and several bird species that likely live on this property. Wren said that Yarde Realty was in the process of hiring the services of a wildlife biologist or other expert to examine the effects on local wildlife and file a report.
The project still requires a significant amount of fill to elevate it above federal FEMA flood resistance requirements, according to Wren. One of the reasons for the extensive review for these types of projects is due to the environmental damage caused by these types of fill being carried away by rain or flood water, Anderson told The Source.
“The fill that is brought in would be sandy fill—it cannot be junk fill,” Wren said at the meeting. “It has to be sandy fill. So we’ll have that sandy fill and then we’ll have stone on top of that. Now if any runoff did occur, and I don’t envision any...we go back to...where we have a five-foot vegetative buffer off of the crushed stone parking lot.”
Wren said the design was meant to be “thoughtful” and “on purpose” in respect to environmental concerns.
PZC member Seoniad Hay pressed Wren on the possibility of fill being moved by stormwater, as that had been a concern of several letters the PZC had received. Wren said it was unlikely that the property would be regularly inundated, as a storm surge even the size of Superstorm Sandy would not reach the highest elevation of the development. Barnes called concerns about the fill “an unrealistic argument.”
Another concern of the PZC related to boat-owners, who might pollute the marsh or river with oil or other hazardous materials as they cleaned their boats. Barnes emphasized that the rules of the marina would disallow boat cleaning or any such practices. He said the marina would expel those who did not follow the rules.
“I know enough about marinas,” PZC Chair Ron Clark said at the meeting. “[T]o tell the owners they can’t wax their hull, they can’t wash it down or scrub their bottom, I think is naive on your end.”
Barnes promised to file a detailed operation plan to address these issues, along with others related to boat storage.
When the PZC opened up the floor to public comments, several people spoke in favor of the project. Terry Duffy lauded Barnes for continuing a long boating tradition in Madison. Bruce Beebe, who operates Beebe Dock & Mooring Systems just north of the proposed marina, was adamant that the project posed no danger to the community or natural resources and had been vetted thoroughly.
“I think it’s a good project, and if anything is going to affect me 500 feet away from where I live and work...if there was something really wrong, my hand would be up, and I would be on the other side of the fence,” Beebe said.
Ainsworth, after delivering the documentation of MLCT’s legal intervention, laid out the group’s concerns, disputing much of what Wren and Barnes had asserted throughout the evening. He also disputed the legal basis for the project’s CAM status, which encourages “water-dependent use” of properties such as this one.
The state defines water-dependent use as “recreational, commercial, and industrial uses and facilities which require direct access to, or location in, marine or tidal waters.” Though the marina and other aspects of the project clearly fill this description, others, such as the restaurant or residential housing, do not.
“They talk about…hav[ing] to fill this area in order to fill the water-dependent use,” Ainsworth said, “as if the water-dependent use overcomes the coastal area resources...I think the primary reason, the primary motivation of CAM was [to put] the coastal area resources first...that it was supposed to be a balancing act, not that we must fill and destroy coastal area resources in order to preserve water-dependent uses.”
Ainsworth also said that the PZC would be trusting Barnes to both come up with and enforce an operational plan to protect sensitive areas of marshland when he had been cited for violations of regulations not long ago.
Ainsworth further questioned the effectiveness of the vegetative barrier and permeable gravel surfaces in preventing contamination, as well as the ability of the developers to run a restaurant or housing unit in a responsible way at the location.
“I think the project is far more intense than it needs to be...It certainly could be scaled down in terms of the number of uses,” he said.
Kealoha Freidenburg, another member of the MLCT and lecturer at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, also spoke against the project. She specifically cited dangers to coastal birds, and said that storms and sea level rise almost guaranteed that water would inundate the site in the foreseeable future.
“Water is very dynamic, and a lot of what we’ve heard tonight is speaking of this as a static site. This is not—the marsh is active; water is a powerful source. The amount of fill that is being proposed...is problematic. It is going to come off, and it is going to get into the marsh,” Freidenburg said.
Barnes and the other representatives of the project declined to respond to these concerns, saying they would do so at the next public hearing in February.
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