Shelter Ridge officially approved by P&Z majority

The Planning and Zoning Commission's approval of the massive Towne Center at Shelter Ridge proposal was met with boos by opponents in the audience on Tuesday night.

"This is outrageous," one audience member shouted.

About 60 residents opposed to the application filled the City Hall council chambers for the vote, many of them carrying handmade signs denouncing the project. "Vote for Shelton, not for developers," declared one sign. "Stop corporate greed," read another.

The P&Z approved the application to create a Planned Development District (PDD) in a 4-2 vote. Shelter Ridge will include retail, medical, commercial, professional and restaurant space as well as a 375-unit apartment building. Some have called it the largest development project ever in Fairfield County.

The 121-acre site is now owned by the Wells family and located mostly in a Light Industrial Park (LIP) zone, with a small rear portion zoned for residential use. The property borders Bridgeport Avenue, Mill Street and Buddington Road, and is near Old Kings Highway.

"It's private land. It's for sale. It's going to be developed," P&Z member Elaine Matto said when explaining her vote for the project.

"This concept is an appropriate use for the site, not an LIP kind of designation," member Virginia Harger said of the PDD application.

"I've never seen a project more scrutinized than this one," said alternate Ned Miller, another project supporter, adding he remembers "the hysteria" when a developer named Robert Scinto first began pursuing development in Shelton.

Commissioner Jimmy Tickey voted no because he said Shelter Ridge would destroy open land enjoyed by generations of people, negatively impact a hiking trail and Mill Street's scenic road designation, increase traffic, and take years to develop with blasting. "I do not consider this to be smart development," Tickey said.

Chairman Ruth Parkins voted yes and member Anthony Pogoda, who participated via telephone, opposed the project.

Parkins thanked the public for its involvement, saying the P&Z had listened and many "valid concerns" were addressed as the application evolved. For instance, a proposed nine-story apartment tower was lowered to what is expected to be four or five stories.

While many opponents might hope nothing is built on the property, Parkins said, the reality is that Shelton's Route 8 corridor was carved out for economic development many decades ago.

The P&Z's approval resolution stated light industrial use was unlikely for the property, partly due to its challenging topography. It estimated the development would generate $1.5 million to $2.3 million annually in local tax revenue and lead to as few as 25 new students in the Shelton public schools.

Public reaction

Greg Tetro, who lives near the site and helped lead the opposition, said those who are against the project will next try to prevent it from getting Inland Wetlands Commission approval. He said a legal challenge to the P&Z decision is possible, but money will have to be raised to pay attorney's fees.

"We won the hearts and minds of the people of Shelton, but we lost the mayor's cronies," he said.

Tetro said he understands why the Wells family and the developer want to pursue the project, but doesn't think it will benefit the city.

"We want to keep it like it is -- LIP," he said.

He said the land perhaps could be used to construct a needed new City Hall and Echo Hose Firehouse, and another portion might be ideal for something like an Amazon fulfillment center due to its good highway access.

"A business like that could flourish," Tetro said.

Nearby resident Jim Jansson said he was "very disappointed" in the outcome.

"The commission is obviously not listening to the majority of the public," said Jansson, worrying the development will worsen an already "horrible traffic situation" and could eventually lead to higher taxes in the city.

Peter Squitieri, who also lives near the site, said he's concerned about all the planned blasting. "I want to know who's going to pay for my foundation if it cracks," he said.

Squitieri questioned if the millennials targeted for the apartments could afford the projected $2,000 to $2,500 monthly rents, and if the project will make sense once completed in a decade. "Who knows in 10 years what the demand will be?" he asked.

At one point during the meeting, Parkins asked Squitieri to step farther back when he was holding up a protest sign near the podium for audience speakers. Parkins said while Squitieri had the right to display a sign, he shouldn't try "to bully us."

"We all know you're going to vote yes," Squitieri responded, "because you don't care about Shelton."

Some of the opponent's' signs made references to voting against P&Z members in the next election, such as one that said "Last term."

Resident Ron Pavluvcik was pleased with the approval, saying many people were too intimidated to publicly show their support.

"No one else will build there," he said of the site. "It's zoned for small manufacturing but there's no demand for that."

Pavluvcik said Shelter Ridge would have "minimal impact on surrounding neighborhoods" and create up to 500 jobs, including retail positions for teenagers and seniors like himself.

"I might be working there," he said.

Project specifics

The project will be split into five development parcels. Access will be from a four-lane road with a median divider off Bridgeport Avenue, and an internal road system will connect the different parcels. There will be a gated, emergency-only entry on Buddington Road.

The developer will have to make many improvements to Bridgeport Avenue, from Route 8's Exit 12 (Old Stratford Road) to Exit 13 (Constitution Boulevard), including at the Long Hill Cross Hill intersection. The site has about a half mile of frontage on Bridgeport Avenue, a state road, so the project also will require state approval.

Shelter Ridge is expected to attract "high-quality, upscale" retailers, and less desirable uses such as pawn shops and tattoo parlors may be prohibited. The combined non-residential space should be about 564,000 square feet.

The commission concluded a strong market exists for multi-family residential development in the city. The 375 apartments will be a maximum two-bedroom in size and have 1.8 parking spaces per unit in a 650-vehicle parking structure.

The property includes steep topography, ranging in elevation from 410 feet 133 feet. Site preparation will require "significant blasting and rock excavation," according to the P&Z approval resolution.

The land has one sizable wetlands and a vernal pool, which will be protected with buffers. Additional buffers will be created in the rear, near existing residential homes, and along Mill Street. An extensive stormwater management system will be built to handle drainage.

About 25 acres will be set aside as dedicated open space. The developer has shown a willingness to accommodate the Blue Dot hiking trail on this open space. No construction access will be allowed from Mill Street.

A final detailed site plan must be submitted within one year and before any construction work can begin. The developer will have to hire an outside engineer to monitor the project's planning details and construction on behalf of the city.

Long process

Six public hearing sessions were held on the application from April through September 2016.

Concerned citizens formed the Save Our Shelton organization to oppose the project. Among their worries were the project's overall size, increased traffic, retail sustainability, visual and ridgeline impact, effect on waterways and the environment, nearby property values and wells, the potential to hurt downtown development, and having too many apartments in the area.

"Residential in Shelton is growing too fast and changing the residential character of Shelton. Residents don't want it," resident Regis J. Dognin wrote the P&Z in a letter.

Mill Street residents John and Louise Simonetti wrote that the project "will produce extreme traffic congestion and gridlock on Bridgeport Avenue."

The Conservation Commission raised issues with the project, urging development activity be kept close to Bridgeport Avenue to protect the ridge line.

The developer, Shelter Ridge Developers LLC, conducted traffic, environmental, fiscal and retail demand studies.

The proposal evolved during the zoning process. An assisted living facility was replaced by medical and professional offices, the number of apartments was reduced from 450, all three-bedroom units were eliminated, the apartment building's height was reduced, and a Buddington Road driveway was made for emergency-access only.