Residents of the lower part of Five Mile River Road are concerned about a project that would raze a small 200-year old home and replace it with two large homes and two pools while blasting and excavating 5,000 cubic yards of ledge rock near a river that is home to numerous birds and marine wildlife.
Marian Castell, Darien’s town historian, said the home and the property in general are historical treasures that warrant further examination before the project moves forward.
“Because there are existing 18th and 19th Century structures, and its location on an important river, certainly shows that this site has remained undisturbed,” Castell told the Environmental Protection Commission at its Wednesday, Sept. 5 meeting, adding that American Indian or colonial artifacts could be present at the property. “It’s so rare to have a location — probably the only one in Darien — [that is so] close to its original 200-year-old condition, directly on a busy harbor with a history of shell-fishing and shipping.”
Twelve area families formed the Five Mile River Road Preservation Group, and hired an attorney, an engineer and other experts to testify to what they consider to be an affront to reasonable coastline development. Attorney Wilder Gleason spoke on behalf of the group at the commission’s meeting, and said the application — previously filed by developer Kaali-Nagy but now filed under Beatrice Richards, et. al., the owners — is “woefully inadequate.”
“It may have significant impact on the wetlands,” Gleason said. “The architectural plans are bare bones. There are no foundation details, we don’t know how they’re going to blast this. You don’t see any of that in the plans. That should be before you.”
Rob Frangione, the engineer for the Richards’ application at 123 Five Mile River Road, said the project will not harm the wetlands or the river, and it would also not increase flooding.
But some neighbors of the property disagreed. Shawn Burke told the commission that ever since two large homes were built adjacent to the property under consideration, his lawn has been subjected to standing water for days after rains.
“It’s something I’ve experienced since these two other homes blasted the ledge,” Burke said. “Now I’m immediately affected as a result of this.”
Burke added that flood management commitments made by the earlier developer were never kept and there has been no enforcement to hold them accountable. Gleason said the commission could impose bonding requirements on the owners for maintenance and also suggested a trial period of two years be set to document any flooding occurrences.
“The experience of the neighbors is so adverse because of prior developments,” Gleason said. “Those sorts of measures are entirely appropriate in this proceeding.”
Speaking on behalf of the neighbors, engineer Barry Hammond provided the commission with a litany of concerns ranging from the total impervious surface to be created, to the number of trucks needed to haul away the blasted rock.
Hammond argued that the increase in impervious surface would be larger than suggested by Frangione, and the sand filter proposed in the plans would not successfully cleanse the total water runoff.
“This doesn’t work,” Hammond said of the filter, which, in his opinion, was not deep enough to do the job and water would merely overflow and run into the road or river.
Frangione said the current property, which is serviced by a septic system, might already be allowing pollutants into the watercourses, and his plan would help mitigate that problem. Hammond contented the opposite.
“What I really am speaking to… is that this lot can really only support one house,” Hammond said. “It cannot support two houses and meet the storm water regulations and meet the water quality regulations.”
Hammond advised reducing the footprint and eliminating the basements as alternatives that might alleviate some neighbor concerns.
“There are many alternatives that could be expressed that would reduce the impact and would be feasible and prudent,” he said.
Commission member Pete Kenyon asked Frangione why couldn’t they build to the topography of the land to avoid excavating such a large portion of rock. Frangione said the blasting was vital to keep the homes’ profiles from interfering with the surrounding vista.
“If we didn’t [blast the rock] the houses would be much, much taller,” Frangione said. “We wanted to lower the profile of houses so they’re not sitting up like big wedding cakes.”
Kenyon responded: “Or build a smaller house.”
Frangione said the footprint wasn’t in question but it was the elevation. Hammond estimated the blasted rock would require 1,000 truck trips to haul away, which was a conservative estimate, he said. When asked if this would damage the roads, Hammond said, “Of course it would happen.”
“The extent I can’t know,” he said. Frangione said traffic is a constant occurrence on Five Mile River Road and the additional truck traffic should not be a problem once construction starts.
Commission Chairman Michael Tone asked Frangione what kind of potential after-effects could happen to the rock once a large portion of it was removed. Frangione said he would have to get back to Tone with an answer. Hammond, however, provided the commission with his thoughts on potential ramifications.
“It creates a fissure and water percolates in there and freezes,” Hammond said, admitting it’s difficult to gauge what could happen. “Water slowly but surely will break up the rock. You’d have problems, ultimately with the foundations of the houses. I don’t know.”
A pool on the property is also proposed to be built in a FEMA flood zone categorized as an area with an annual probability of flooding of greater than 1%, which is also subject to additional hazards such as crashing waves and the 100-year flood.
“I wouldn’t even think of applying to FEMA, they’d laugh at you,” Hammond said of the pool. “You cannot occupy that space with solid material, FEMA will not allow it.”
Neighbor Callie Sullivan, a former selectman, also spoke out against the proposed development.
“My request is that you reject the proposed development on the grounds it will negatively affect the wetlands and does not meet Darien’s requirements,” Sullivan said. “We implore you to stop this development in its tracks and send the applicant back to the drawing boards…”
Sullivan said the previous development that also required blasting rock took six months before the blasting was finished, when it was only supposed to take six to eight weeks. She feared a similar situation would happen at the proposed site.
Wim Jessup, a neighbor and also a member of the Five Mile River Commission, spoke to the potential impact on wildlife that the development could incur.
“A complete inventory should be taken before we destroy and blow up this property,” Jessup said. “This is the last wonderful little piece of property that someone has moved to. I don’t understand how all of this is going to survive the blasting, months of dust and runoff. It’s beyond me.”
Castell, the town historian, echoed Jessup’s sentiment from an historical perspective. She said the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and an independent preservation consultant indicated that the length of Five Mile River Road was eligible for registration under the National Register of Historic Places.
“This is one of Darien’s most important shorelines,” Castell said. “Protecting this vista is a public benefit for two towns… and the existing 200 year site has significant importance and it should be treated respectfully, with expert water management, and as gently as possible.
“The decision on land should reflect the sense of town stewardship and not just individual ownership so that future generations can enjoy the benefits,” Castell said.
Gleason added that the neighbors “fell asleep” on the previous two homes that were built next door, and that experience inspired them to act on this new application.
“They feel passionately that they fell asleep a little bit and they’re not going to let that happen this time,” Gleason said.
Tone, commission chairman, also said the application was incomplete and urged Frangione to come back later with more information on how the ledge rock would be affected by the blasting. The public hearing on the matter was continued to Wednesday, Oct. 3.