Shelton planners Tuesday approved a zoning change that could pave the way for a sprawling “mixed use” development on Bridgeport Avenue near Mill Street.
But people opposed to the project said they’ll take their fight to the ballot box by throwing out the commissioners who voted “yes.”
Members of the Shelton Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-2 to change the zoning on the Bridgeport Avenue property from “light industrial” to a “planned development district.”
The zone change makes it easier for a developer to transform 120 acres of woods into 375 apartments and 300,000 square feet of retail space. It’s called the “Towne Center at Shelter Ridge.”
The approval process left a bad taste in Caitlin Augusta’s mouth. She lives near the land in question.
“It was just in your face, ‘This is how Shelton works, this is what we want,’ and no residents can stop the behemoth that is development in Shelton,” she said.
Bridgeport Avenue is heavily developed. The tax revenue from the businesses and offices propel Shelton’s economy and keep taxes stable.
The corridor is the envy of Derby, Ansonia and Seymour, Valley communities with higher taxes trying to attract Bridgeport Avenue-style development to bring down mill rates.
But “Shelter Ridge” is also one of the largest development proposals Shelton has seen in years.
People opposed to it said it destroys one of the last swath of undeveloped land along Bridgeport Avenue. They repeatedly pointed out the area behind the proposed development is anything but strip malls and corporate towers.
Instead, there is Mill Street, a rather quaint country road. There are walking trails through woods that are protected from development. And there are single-family houses. “Shelter Ridge” will eliminate a buffer between Shelton’s busy commercial sector and a quieter residential area, they’ve said.
Despite the opposition — which included public protests outside Shelton City Hall — commissioners Ned Miller, Virginia Harger, Elaine Matto, and Ruth Parkins voted yes on the zoning change.
They said development of the property was inevitable because the city isn’t interested in buying the land to preserve as open space.
It’s better to approve a planned development district the commission can manage through the review process. The commission has less control over the property under its old “light industrial” zoning designation, they said.
Commissioners Jimmy Tickey and Anthony Pogoda voted no.
Tickey and Pogoda said Bridgeport Avenue is developed already without adding 375 more apartments. They questioned whether tenants would be willing to pay upwards of $2,000 a month to live there.
And they said the development would increase traffic while decreasing local property values.
Tuesday’s meeting was tumultuous at times, with residents opposed to the project occasionally shouting out criticisms of the proposal, or heckling commission members and a lawyer representing the developer.
Click play to listen to listen to audio recorded on an iPhone of the commission’s members discussing the proposal and voting Tuesday.
A grassroots group “SOS/Save Our Shelton,” began on Facebook last year has more than 1,600 likes. Members even hired their own lawyer and engineer to raise concerns over the plans.
They said the fight will go on.
Greg Tetro, one of the group’s leaders, noted that the project still needs to be reviewed by the Shelton Inland Wetlands Commission, and eventually state traffic officials.
The nitty-gritty site plan details of the specific proposal will be have to be reviewed by the Shelton planning commissioners, too.
He said SOS will also get neighboring businesses unhappy at the potential for more traffic connected to the massive development to make their opposition public.
Augusta, another leader of SOS, said the group will touch base with their lawyer to determine the best way to oppose the project going forward.
A Mill Street resident, Augusta said she doesn’t think residents of the area are all dead set against any development whatsoever.
But she said neighbors were turned off by the “disrespectful” attitude of the developer and his advisers.
She called the concessions the commission’s review did result in — like a reduction in the number of apartments from more than 400 as initially proposed to 375 — “pathetic.”
See You In November?
Members of the Shelton Planning and Zoning Commission are elected, a fact not at all lost on people unhappy with Tuesday’s decision.
Augusta showed up with a handmade sign: “Vote yes today . . . and we’ll vote NO on Election Day.”
Great Oak Road resident Adrienne Couture held one up with the words “LAST TERM” as zoners discussed the proposal.
The SOS Facebook group echoed those sentiments. Links to the group are below.
Augusta said after the vote that the group isn’t just throwing around idle threats.
“We’re discussing slates of candidates,” she said.
One possible candidate is Peter Squiteri, another SOS/Save Our Shelton member, who has held up signs urging commissioners to reject the project at several of the P&Z’s meetings.
At one point during Tuesday’s meeting, Parkins, the P&Z chair, accused Squiteri of “bullying” commissioners by standing toward the front of the auditorium with a sign, and asked him to move backward.
Squiteri retreated to the rear of the room, but not before shouting “We all know you’re going to vote yes because you don’t care about Shelton.”
He said after the P&Z’s vote that that the interaction only made him more likely to run for a slot on the commission in November.
A five-year resident of Shelton, Squiteri grew up in Westchester County, New York, and works as a teacher in Mount Vernon. He said officials there are in the midst of several school building projects because of residential development.
“They have to build more schools, more buildings, because there’s so many (residential) buildings going up everywhere,” he said, worrying that the same thing will happen in Shelton. “Once you start one, it’s a domino effect.”
If a political movement is birthed from the SOS group, they’re going to need the public to have a long memory.
That’s because the commission’s terms are staggered, so only three of its six regular members are elected at every two years.
Three members will be up for re-election in November: Tickey and Pogoda, who voted no, and Parkins, who voted yes.
Before the vote, Parkins said she did not make planning decisions based on political whims. She encouraged participation at the polls come November.
“That’s where people have the right to voice their opinion even louder than you’re voicing it here,” she said. “I will tell you I have never, sitting on this commission, have never made a decision based on whether I would be voted in again.”
“Clearly,” a man in the audience interjected.
“No kidding,” a woman added.
“You may say that and that’s fine, but you sit there and you have no idea, no idea, the time and the commitment that these people on this board put in,” Parkins replied.
Parkins said that while she understood the concerns voiced by neighbors, they were missing the big picture.
Asked after the meeting if she was concerned about re-election in light of her yes vote Tuesday, Parkins said voters shouldn’t want someone who would be.
“It’s not what I make my decisions (on),” she said. “I base it on what’s best for everyone, for all.”
Developer, Lawyer React
The “Towne Center at Shelter Ridge” property fronts Bridgeport Avenue opposite Long Hill Cross Road. It is bisected diagonally by power wires and a natural gas line.
The property also borders Buddington Road, Mill Street, two city-owned open space properties, and several private properties.
The development is planned in stages, on five different plots of land within the 120-acre property. The two plots closest to Bridgeport Avenue would be developed first.
The resolution approved Tuesday changed the zoning on the property from light industrial to a “planned development district.”
The fine details of the project will be ironed out as the property is developed, with the developer required to come before the commission within a year for specific site plans to be OK’d.
The developer is Sirjohn Papageorge of Trumbull. The Wells family, who have extensive holdings in Shelton, have owned the land since the 1700s.
Papageorge said after Tuesday’s vote that the commission made the right decision.
“We’re very pleased that they recognized the need for retail and it’ll be a quality project,” he said, referring questions to his lawyer, Dominick Thomas.
Thomas said he could have the rest of the required approvals for construction in place by 2018 at the latest.
“I think that very possibly all of the permits can be achieved within a year,” he said. “Possibly shorter.”