STAMFORD – It’s unlikely Stamfordites would have much interest in a zoning fight that’s dogging the town of Easton, half an hour to the north. The communities have little in common, other than seats in Fairfield County.
Stamford, with 130,000 residents, is diverse, largely urban, a business center known for its traffic and proximity to Manhattan. Easton, with a homogeneous population of 7,500, is largely rural. It has one traffic light and not a single commercial zone. But they have a vital connection – most of Easton is on watershed land owned by Aquarion, and its reservoirs are a big source of Stamford’s water. Now Eastoners are in court battling a development of 66 houses and duplex units that has been approved for a tract of land between two significant reservoirs – Aspetuck and Easton Lake.
Aspetuck — along with the Saugatuck Reservoir, which runs along the Easton border into Weston and Redding; and Hemlocks Reservoir, which crosses into Fairfield – are part of a system that supplies 5 million of the 11 million gallons of water Stamford uses each day. The feed can go as high as 7 million gallons a day in normal times, said Bruce Silverstone, vice president of corporate communications for Aquarion, the area’s water utility.
But, because of a drought plaguing the region, Aquarion in November installed a temporary above-ground pipe and the Easton area began feeding Stamford all 11 million gallons. The water flows far beyond Stamford. The Easton-area system is a source for all of southern Fairfield County. “We are hoping that all towns in the county that get water from us would help us,” said Bill Kupinse, a former Easton first selectman and an attorney on the board of Citizens for Easton, a group he said has “been around for about 40 years trying to protect Easton from one developer or another.”
The Easton Planning and Zoning Commission approved the housing project in March, after months of debate, tacking on “a whole bunch of conditions,” Kupinse said. “But the citizens of Easton don’t think the conditions are sufficient to protect the watershed.”
It was the third attempt by Saddle Ridge Developers to win approval for the project, called Easton Crossing. The building sought to rezone the tract from 3-acre, single-family zoning to a new designation that would take advantage of a state law that allows for more density if a portion of the housing units are classified as affordable.
“There had been several prior applications,” Kupinse said. “Citizens intervened, it went to court, and a judge found that protection of the watershed outweighed any need for affordable housing in Easton.” Wooded and rocky, Easton has several farms, a couple of mom-and-pop stores and one publicly maintained street light, Kupinse said. “Every winter we put less salt on our roads to protect the reservoirs,” he said. “We are careful about the watershed but we also want to preserve the town. It’s a unique place.” Easton Crossing would be the town’s first affordable-housing development.
Kupinse said he thinks town zoning officials approved the latest proposal because they “feared that if they didn’t and the developer appealed, it would get to court and a judge would say they didn’t have the grounds to reject it,” Kupinse said. “Then maybe the judge would not allow any of the conditions the commission put on the project. They felt it was better not to take the chance.”
The state looks hard at municipalities that deny projects that include affordable housing, and opened the way for developers to appeal such decisions. Kupinse said Citizens for Easton will continue its challenge, which could be in court for a year or more.
“There are no sewers – it’s all septic systems,” Kupinse said of the proposal. “The developer’s experts say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll put in all kinds of drainage to protect the wetlands.’ I suppose if everything goes perfectly, there won’t be problems. But everything doesn’t go perfectly.”
Brian Roach, manager of environmental protection for Aquarion, wrote Easton’s zoning board in November, arguing that the project exceeds the standard of one dwelling for every two acres of buildable land, “the widely accepted maximum development density allowable that would still protect the integrity of the public drinking water supply.”
Roach noted that in a 2010 case in Ridgefield, a state Superior Court judge ruled against a project proposed for a tract of land near the Saugatuck Reservoir. The judge said allowing it would set a “disturbing precedent” for “further unsustainable development of watershed areas,” Roach wrote.
Peter Fazekas, director of public relations for Aquarion, said “higher-density development on watershed land can reduce the quality of water in reservoirs.”
Approval of the development comes when Aquarion is planning to permanently expand the water feed from the northern reservoirs to the Stamford area. This year the water company will begin a multi-year project to install a large underground pipe from Westport to Stamford, Fazekas said.
Besides, the drought is far from over, Silverstone said. Precipitation is 12 inches below where it should be, and in the last eight months, only March had normal rainfall.
Stamford’s reservoirs improved to 86 percent – still below the 96 percent normal for April — but that wasn’t so much from rainfall, he said. It was from reservoirs in the Easton area.
“Without the temporary water main we installed, Stamford would not be at the level it is now,” Silverstone said. “That main allowed us to shut down the Stamford plant for periods of time so we didn’t have to draw on the two reservoirs in Stamford.”
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