Save Our Shelton preparing for March 15 hearing

With just one week until the city’s Inland Wetlands Commission holds its first public hearing to discuss the Towne Center at Shelter Ridge development, Save Our Shelton is preparing its talking points to make to the commissioners.

The community group’s Monday night meeting in the Huntington Branch Library was attended by two people looking to learn how it has managed to put up such a fight against the Shelter Ridge developers.

A group of innovators and artists referred to as “Today’s Industrial Living Landscape,” or TILL, was represented by Olivia Greenspan and Jane Philbrick at SOS’s Monday night, March 5, meeting, where they explained their experience going against developers pushing big projects that would have an impact on the community.

Philbrick said her work began when she received a state grant back in 2013 to develop a plan for a wire mill property in Redding, whose owners owed $3 million worth of taxes to the town and another $19 million to a taxing district. The town foreclosed on the brownfield site in 2015.

Philbrick explained that she and her group created a model of remediating brownfield sites that consists of using state and federal money to decontaminate the property with a method called “phytoremediation,” where plants are used to remove the lead, zinc and other chemicals that have drained into the soil. Philbrick said their model also requires private developers to build commercial space and intergenerational housing in order to attract a younger demographic that would start families in the area.

Philbrick said both groups are “cut from the same cloth” and are on the outside when it comes to the world of developers, but that doesn’t stop them from being able to have an impact.

“If you’re not in, you’re out,” said Philbrick.

SOS member Greg Tetro said the relationship between his group and TILL originated from their shared desire to have an impact on their respective towns.

“We discussed needing passionate people who would work hard to get the word out,” said Tetro. “It is about creating a group that can grow and stay the course.”

Greenspan said their presentation at SOS’s recent meeting is just the beginning of a relationship between the two community groups.

“TILL + SOS plan to sustain our cross-community coalition by (1) demonstrating our support at community meetings and presentations, and (2) continuing to strategize on how best to protect our communities against extractive real estate development,” said Greenspan.

Tetro said he believes SOS’s persistence and willingness to learn about the development process has helped and will continue to help maintain good communication with the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. He added that the P&Z’s plan to develop on Shelton’s former UI site is evidence of this belief.

“We always have a member at meetings to hear discussion and determinations by the board. We try to have as many as we can at the public portions. We believe we helped shape the UI property with our comments,” said Tetro. “We were very happy how respectful Mr. Scinto was to our comments on his Bridgeport site. SOS is very happy with the new makeup and dynamic of P&Z. It is less confrontational and there is much more careful discussion with the public’s feelings in mind.”

Greenspan agreed and said an informed community, is a powerful one.

“An informed, engaged community yields the best development outcome,” said Greenspan. “Real estate development is a complex process and community members have many competing demands on their time. This puts a tremendous amount of responsibility for communication and decision-making on local government officials, who themselves are not development experts and are dependent on the advice of municipal council. Savvy developers, who are actually financial entities, can exploit the naiveté and distracted attention of local people as well as the gaps in this complex process of permitting, approvals, and capital-sourcing.  What is promised is too often not what developers deliver. Risk is offloaded onto communities; in other words, risk is socialized, while reward is privatized. To protect themselves, communities need to have a clear account of the risk proposed developments pose -- and that requires properly informed and engaged citizens. The beauty of Connecticut's Home Rule governance is that the power is with the people. But as the old adage goes, ‘Use it or lose it.’ When we lose it, communities pay and developers profit. Building our knowledge together creates value and opportunity that stays and grows in the community. It also makes new friends.”

Public comments on Shelter Ridge will be heard at the March 15 meeting, and representatives from SOS and the developer will be back on March 22.

SOS member Caitlin Augusta said SOS is still looking for new members and are focused on all Shelton developments, not just Shelter Ridge.

Also on March 15, the developer is expected to respond to City Engineer Robert Kulacz’s concerns about the Shelter Ridge plan, including runoff possibly flooding Mill Street properties and if the state will approve a retaining wall to widen Bridgeport Avenue.