The Shelton Inland Wetlands Commission will hold one final public hearing on the controversial Towne Center at Shelter Ridge project on Jan. 9.

The plan, which would occupy a parcel at the end of Mill Road where it meets Bridgeport Avenue, has been a source of intense opposition since it was first proposed three years ago.

It calls for a multi-story structure with apartments, retailers and restaurants. There is an option for a medical facility and an assisted-living center as well.

Project stakeholders must now submit comments to a project study done by Westport-based LandTech, an engineering firm that specializes in environmental consulting. LandTech was hired by Inland Wetlands Commission to study the impact the proposed Shelter Ridge project will have on adjacent wetlands and wildlife.

Study contributors include the attorney for the project’s developer, the city’s own attorney, members of the commission and the engineer who represents Save Our Shelton, an organization initially formed to fight the Shelter Ridge proposal. The study was also posted to the city website on Nov. 22.

Commission Chairman Gary Zahornasky pointed out that he and his fellow commissions had not yet had the opportunity to review the LandTech report. He invited Shelton residents to submit their concerns to the commission during the review process, which the commission will complete by its Dec. 12 meeting.

Earlier zone change

In March, 2017, the Shelton Planning and Zoning Commission approved a zoning change for the Shelter Ridge property, establishing it as a planned development district (PDD). Many Shelter Ridge opponents said they saw the zoning change as setting the stage for the property to ultimately be developed for commercial purposes.

In the words of Sorghum Road resident Mary Kay Novak, “The horse is out of the barn.”

Zahornasky and other wetlands commissioners reassured residents at last week’s meeting that the earlier zone change had nothing to do with the commission’s own review.

“We are going to review this proposal just from a wetlands point of view,” Zahornasky said. “We are going to look at everything involved (in the proposed development) and we are going to make our determination based on if it impacts wetlands or storm water. We’re not bound by anything the P&Z or the applicant has proposed.”

“We are operating independent of any zone change,” added Commissioner Kenneth Nappi. “We’re looking at it as, ‘does it protect inland wetlands?’ If we don’t like certain things, (the developer) will need to make certain changes. And if they don’t, we won’t approve it.”

There was no formal public comments section at last week’s meeting — that will take place at the Jan. 9 hearing. Despite that, attendees had plenty of comments and questions.

A valid zoning approval?

Novak questioned why the 2017 zoning change had not been reviewed first by Inland Wetlands prior to the favorable vote by P&Z.

“How can that be a valid vote?” she asked.

“That’s because the vote by P&Z was for the zoning change only,” said Nappi. At the time there was no formal project proposal and thus no impacts for Inland Wetlands to review.

Buddington Road resident Mark Widomski, a Planning and Zoning commissioner, said that the Connecticut statute governing these kinds of matters requires an Inland Wetlands report prior to the approval of a zoning change.

“How are we at this point, when it should have been done (reviewed by Inland Wetlands) in the first place?” he said. Widomski was not a member of P&Z when the zoning change was approved.

Nappi said that a more recent Connecticut court case substantiated a municipality’s ability to make a zoning change without prior review by Inland Wetlands, absent any project plans.

Striking a fair balance

Save Our Shelton member Greg Tetro questioned why the LandTech report is not being treated as the final decision against or in favor of the project.

“I don’t know why it wouldn’t stop right there,” Tetro said.

Zahornasky said that the report had yet to be reviewed by anyone on the commission or any of the other project stakeholders, and because of its volume would take some weeks to complete.

“Any application process has to be fair,” said city attorney Francis Teodosio. “The applicant has the right to respond to the LandTec report.”

Teodosio said that at the public hearing, all sides will be permitted to present their arguments. That includes Steve Trinkaus, a civil engineer based in Southbury who specializes in storm water and wetlands issues for municipal projects.

Zahornasky said that the multi-side nature of the proposal and its size work to make the Inland Wetlands Commission’s review process both exhaustive and time consuming.

“Our commission has never before been presented with a project plan as voluminous as Shelter Ridge,” Zahornasky said. “At the end of the day, we’re confident we’re going to do our due diligence and make the right decision.”