Shelter Ridge decision to be made by end of February

Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Ruth Parkins said the members of the commission will make a “favorable solution” for the Towne Center at Shelter Ridge application and proposed zone change by Feb. 28.

The commission’s discussion of Shelter Ridge application will continue at its Feb. 14 meeting in the city hall auditorium.

Mayor Mark Lauretti said this most recent extension granted by developers is to assure that whatever plan is approved for the 121-acre piece of land is the best option for the city.

“What’s the hurry? This is a big project,” said Lauretti.

Conservation Commission Chairman Tom Harbinson didn't speak at the meeting but said the extension could have both positive and negative effects after the Shelter Ridge portion was completed.

“Time is good for contemplation, but time is also the enemy of economic development. Because time is money. That’s the balance we’re trying to achieve here. We want to be responsive to a developer that wants to invest in our community but you also want to be thoughtful to the people who live here.”

Residents in attendance groaned and some left when Parkins announced there wouldn’t be a vote made at the meeting.

The opposition

Prior to the Thursday night special meeting, a dozen or so protesters gathered outside of city hall with picket signs in hand to try to persuade the commission to deny the project.

One of the leaders to the opposition known as Save Our Shelton (S.O.S.), Gregory Tetro said he was disgusted to learn that there are already several other residential developments being proposed within the city.

“This is a tipping point for the community... There's already other 'Shelter Ridges’ being proposed,” said Tetro. “Applicants propose one set of residential units and before we can even see them built, there are already several others appearing before the P&Z. It’s all happening too fast. Shelton is for sale.”

Tetro said he still believes that there are still “efficient alternatives” that the city could use the land for, rather than build the mixed-use development.

“I expect for this space to be developed,” said Tetro. “The city could buy a portion of the land. There’s a strong chance that if they bought the whole thing they could put city hall there, they could put the new Echo Hose fire department there, they can move stuff in there to be useful, dignified, while also protecting the Paugussett Trail.”

The disruption of the Paugussett Trail was one of the most common issues expressed by the opposition, as it represents 25 years of work towards making it connect to Stratford’s town line.  

Peter Squitieri of Shelton also spoke at the protest and said the 300,000 square feet of high end retail, which would be included in the Shelter Ridge plan if it were to be approved as presented, is not a good fit for the city, nor practical for 2017.

“Ecommerce is taking over,” said Squitieri. “We don’t need high end retail. Everyone is shopping online. Amazon has surpassed Wal-Mart as the number one retailer. Macy’s stores are closing across the country.”

Another commonly expressed issue that was also a big reason the commission asked for an extension, is traffic.

Both, Commissioners Jimmy Tickey and Virginia Harger said they would like to see the width of Bridgeport Avenue widened to adjust to any increase in traffic.

Residents could be heard whispering, “It’s a simple thumbs down or thumbs up,” while the commission listened to Planning and Zoning Consultant Anthony Panico review a condensed version of the information on the development. Panico expressed that he also has concerns of the effects the development would have on traffic because he’s already seen an increase with the construction of Big Y.

Although there was no vote casted by the commission, Commissioner Tickey and Anthony Pagoda were the only two that voiced issue with the proposed zone change to a PDD.

The commission did agree that they would like to see the scale of residential units decreased to around 375 units from the previously adjusted 411.  

Meeting dynamics

Panico was not physically present for the meeting, but participated in the discussion about the application for the 121-acre development via telephone from Florida.

Multiple residents said they were displeased that Panico wasn’t present for the meeting, but Chairman Parkins said the means of communication is accepted for P&Z meetings.

Parkins added that the policy which enables members of the board or the consultant to participate in a discussion via telephone is a policy that the commission doesn’t plan to change. The chairman defended the policy despite having to ask Panico multiple times during the commission’s discussion to speak up because it was difficult to hear him over the phone

“We’ve had him call into meetings for many many years now,” said Parkins. “...As a taxpayer you’re certainly welcome to come to city hall and get a copy of the tapes because it is all tape recorded.Telephonic participation is allowed by state statute.”

Chairman addresses opposition

Parkins said despite the opposition's surprisingly large turnout throughout the duration of the hearings, the “silent masses that won’t speak” are a larger support in favor of the development.

“There’s 36,000 people that live in this city. So I think there’s a silent majority out there that’s been just a little too silent on their preference,” Parkins said. “So if they don’t really care one way or the other, they don’t mind seeing it once it happens, they just have not come and been outspoken. I can certainly appreciate why.”

Tetro disagreed.

“I’ve been to every diner that’s in this town, I’ve been to bars, I’ve been to pizzerias and I still haven’t found those people,” said Tetro. “If there out there, they’re huddled in a cave some where because they’re not out there. Everyone I’ve spoken to has said they don’t like it, they don’t want it, but they fear retribution from the mayor because they are business owners.”

Growth v.s. swelling

Commissioner Tickey said the proposed site plan and information presented portrayed a very “rosy” picture for the commission.

“There’s growth and then there’s swelling. I think something like this is so enormous it takes our eyes off the ball and potential development that we could have elsewhere in the city, such as downtown. I think this wildly goes beyond what I would consider appropriate for commercial development on Bridgeport Ave… I do agree with economic development and I have a record of supporting that here, but this goes so beyond balanced development.

In the city’s charter it reads that P&Z commissioners are responsible for making sure all developments are in the best interest of residents.

“For me, this doesn’t meet the standard that’s put on us,” said Tickey.