Shelton P&Z: Fight to develop Gaida land heats up

The effort to develop a Long Hill Avenue property into housing continues to face obstacles due to questions about fill used at the 3.96-acre site in the past.

The developer recently dug four test pits at the site that found no contamination, and has now reluctantly agreed to test one more location closer to the road, where a neighbor claims many tires were buried. It’s also where a shared driveway to the four-home development would be built.

Long Hill Avenue resident Joseph Bienkowski, speaking at the March 27 meeting, gave the P&Z a piece of rubber he said came up from the ground near the Gaida property. — Brad Durrell/For Hearst Connecticut Media

“All they want to do to is keep my client testing so they can’t build,” developer attorney Dominick Thomas said of project opponents at the March 27 Planning & Zoning Commission meeting. “What they want us to do is dig up the whole site.”

“There will always be an excuse,” Thomas said. “I think it’s B.S.”

But several P&Z members said the commission needs to be sure the site is structurally and environmentally safe to build housing.

“I don’t want the see the project turn into another Independence Drive,” said member Mark Widomski, referring to two lots of undeveloped residential land filled with industrial rubber in Shelton.

Alternate Nancy Dickal said the P&Z needs “to do our due diligence to make sure there’s nothing cancerous there.”

Thomas’ frustration with critics and skeptical P&Z members almost boiled over at the meeting, with Chairman Virginia Harger calling for an unexpected five-minute recess to keep emotions in check.

“Dominick, calm down,” Harger said just before the break and after Thomas complained his clients “have been put through hell doing testing.”

Owners Jack and Josephine Gaida have been trying for years to develop the lot at 405 Long Hill Ave., which is across from Sylvan Drive. They have proposed an industrial building, condominiums and more houses than the current four-home plan, all without success.

Most of the land is zoned for light industrial use except a thin section connecting to Long Hill Avenue that is one-acre residential. The land abuts Route 8 and a Sikorsky Aircraft facility and includes wetlands.

The newest Brookview Heights plan would set aside 2.1 acres as an undeveloped common area for the homeowners, with the houses clustered together off one driveway with a cul-de-sac. The land would be rezoned as a Planned Development District for the project.

Developer attorney Dominick Thomas, left, and engineer Fred D’Amico discuss the 405 Long Hill Ave. housing proposal with the P&Z at the March 27 meeting. — Brad Durrell/For Hearst Connecticut Media

Extensive fill has been placed on the lollipop-shaped lot during the past half-century and longer, although the specifics of who, what and when remain open to debate.

Neighbors question what kind of materials are buried on the site and insist filling continued until recently. They and some P&Z members worry about the structural soundness of putting foundations on the land.

Thomas said aerial photos and other information indicates the filling essentially ended by the mid-1980s, and foundation issues are a Building Department matter and not under the P&Z’s purview.

“A long, long time ago someone was dumping,” Thomas said.

The two sides argued about the depth of the test pits and what was found inside them.

Industrial use?

At one point, Thomas said the applicant might instead continue pursuing a court appeal to use the land for industrial purposes, a plan rejected by the Zoning Board of Appeals. “I don’t think anyone is going to want a 15,000-square-foot industrial building there,” he said.

Neighbor and opponent Joseph Bienkowski presented the P&Z with a piece of rubber he said came up from the ground on the neighboring property, potentially impacting the new driveway. “Rubber isn’t allowed on any road for filling material,” he said.

Bienkowski has lived almost his entire life next door and helped circulate a neighborhood petition against the project that got 164 signatures. “I’m the person who knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak,” he said.

Neighbor Steven Kampler, who observed the testing from a distance, said it appeared a 55-gallon drum was pulled up during the testing and then reburied. He wondered if it had been tested.

Thomas wasn’t pleased. “I’m not going to say they’re manufacturing stuff,” he said in a sarcastic tone.

He questioned why no one had brought the rubber to the many previous hearings held on developing the property. “Don’t you think they would have done that?” Thomas asked.

And pieces of metal were found, not a drum, he said. “There was a drum. It contained Jimmy Hoffa’s body,” an irritated Thomas joked.

Test pits were dug 17 to 30 feet deep, Thomas said, and natural ground was not reached because of the amount of fill. Found were bricks, metal, glass, trash, pipes, chain-link fence, garden hose and wood, he said.

Thomas pointed out a certified soil scientist was present for all testing, and city Inland Wetlands Coordinator John Cook — who has raised issues with the proposal — was there for three of the four pits. The owners previously tested other locations on the property.

Board of Aldermen President John Anglace, speaking as a neighborhood resident, said additional testing “is not unreasonable” considering the property’s history and that future homebuyers could blame the city if problems arise.

Attorney Alan Tyma, representing a neighbor, suggested the P&Z retain an outside expert because “I don’t know if this is constructable. Unless you have solid ground, you’re going to have a problem.”

Thomas responded that D’Amico is a structural engineer and understands such matters. “There is nothing my clients can do to please them,” he said.

Neighbors also are concerned about traffic and density. The project recently received wetlands approval. The zoning hearing was continued to get results from the new testing location.