Hiawatha Lane Affordable housing plan passes environmental test
WESTPORT — The Representative Town Meeting upheld the Conservation Commission’s decision to approve a 187-unit affordable housing development on Hiawatha Lane, moving the structure further along in the permit process.
But not all residents and members were happy about the decision.
“Hiawatha Lane, if this continues, will experience the equivalent of a real estate rape, pillage and plunder, with the wholesale destruction and disappearance of the homes and lives that have been an integral part to the character and quality of life in this community,” Carolanne Curry, a resident of Hiawatha Lane Extension and leader of the group Save Old Saugatuck, told the RTM at its Feb. 4 meeting.
The development application, brought by Summit Saugatuck LLC, passed the Flood and Erosion Control Board over the summer and received Conservation Commission approval in the fall.
The RTM took up the case because town ordinance states if 20 electors disagree with a decision by either the flood board or conservation commission, they can appeal the decision to the RTM.
Save Old Saugatuck asked the RTM to reverse the Conservation Commission’s decision, but their plea failed, and the RTM upheld the commission’s decision by a 25-3-3 vote.
“Based on the evidence of record and the expert testimony, we granted a permit with conditions,” Conservation Commission Chair Anna Rycenga said of the Oct. 26 decision to approve Summit Saugatucks’ application.
The commission has a narrow purview upon which to make decisions, Rycenga said, noting it could only legally consider the application in light of the “Regulations for the Protection and Preservation of Wetlands and Watercourses of Westport” and the “Waterway Protection Line Ordinance.”
Curry said the Hiawatha Lane neighborhood experiences severe flooding from the Saugatuck River, which has become increasingly worse with climate change. However, Rycenga said the commission was not allowed to consider flooding concerns in making its decision.
Rycenga said the commission asked the flood board to reconsider, but at a meeting on Feb. 6, the flood board reaffirmed its approval.
Curry further argued the commission’s decision was premature because the outcome of litigation regarding Summit Saugatuck’s rejected application for a 1,600-foot-long sewer from Davenport Avenue to the proposed development has not yet been decided.
Curry spoke of Save Old Saugatuck’s 15-year fight to fend of Summit Development President Felix Charney’s efforts to develop the neighborhood. Hiawatha Lane was swampland until the 1920s, when the area was filled to make way for family homes displaced from the construction of the highway through Saugatuck, Curry said.
In the early 2000s, Charney began buying homes in the neighborhood at well-above their market rate, Curry said. The proposed development would demolish 10 single-family homes on Hiawatha Lane and build five separate buildings with a total of 187 units in their place.
“It is not lost on the vulnerable of the Save Old Saugatuck community that they face the powerful in money and experts,” Curry said.
RTM members who spoke at the meeting largely expressed frustration with the development, but said they did not have the power to overturn the commission’s decision given their narrow scope.
“As much as I don’t like this project, as much as I don’t like this procedure and how this has gone forward, the rule of law says that we don’t have the jurisdiction or purview to overturn it,” Matthew Mandell said.
He suggested the town should fight the development when it appears before the Planning and Zoning Commission on Feb. 28 because he claims the developers are seeking to exploit the Hiawatha community in the name of profitability.
RTM member Kristin Schneeman also said she would speak out against the development.
“Large, dense projects like this in environmentally sensitive coastal areas just seem like exactly the wrong way that we should be going as a town.”
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