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Legal challenges to the approved Saddle Ridge housing development are slowly working their way through the courts, with no clear indication when written briefs might be filed or oral arguments will take place.
The Planning and Zoning Commission’s unanimous vote in March is being appealed by entities that both favor and oppose the controversial plan, which would have 20 affordable housing units out of 66 total units.
The developer, consisting of Saddle Ridge Developers LLC and Silver Sport Associates LP, is upset with some of the many conditions — or restrictions — put on the project’s approval by the P&Z. The Coalition to Save Easton, a group affiliated with the Citizens For Easton organization that has long focused on retaining the town’s rural character, wants the P&Z decision overturned.
The two lawsuits have been consolidated by the court and transferred to the state’s Superior Court land-use docket, and will be heard by Judge Marshall Berger. In a previous lawsuit involving a different development proposal by the Saddle Ridge developer at the same site, Berger denied the developer’s appeal and ruled in favor of the P&Z’s rejection of that project.
A conference call on the pending case for representatives of the participating parties has been scheduled for Oct. 3. A previous conference call took place Aug. 22.
The P&Z is being represented by attorney Ira Bloom of the Berchem Moses firm, who handles many matters for the town; the developer’s attorney is Matthew Ranelli of Shipman & Goodwin; and the coalition’s legal representative is attorney Janet P. Brooks, an environmental specialist.
Bloom said the judge has asked lawyers involved in the case to report in about once a month on their status in the litigation.
In the future, the attorneys will be given a date to submit written briefs by the judge and then a date set to hear oral arguments. “But that’s a ways down the road,” Bloom said.
Ranelli, the developer’s attorney, said he could offer no comment at this time. Ranelli also represented the developer in front of the P&Z during the application process.
Brooks, the Coalition to Save Easton’s lawyer, could not be reached for comment.
William J. Kupinse Jr., one of three interveners in the case on behalf of the coalition, said the case remains in “its preliminary stages. Like most litigation, it will drag along for awhile and eventually be heard by the court.”
Kupinse, a former Easton first selectman, is a practicing attorney but is not involved in this case as a legal representative, but as a town resident on behalf of the coalition. The two other coalition members listed in court papers are Leslie Minasi and Verne Gay.
The P&Z has met to discuss the legal case in executive session — which are closed to the public and media — several times before regular meetings in recent months.
P&Z Chairman Robert Maquat said he doesn’t believe any formal legal documents other than the original lawsuit papers — called “complaints” in legal jargon — have been filed with the court. “We’re kind of in a holding pattern,” Maquat said.
The project, the appeals
As approved, Saddle Ridge would have 30 single-family homes as well as 18 duplex structures with an additional 36 living units. All structures would be on lots of at least one acre, with about one-third of the overall site kept as homeowners’ association-owned open space. Each of the 48 lots would be served by individual septic systems and wells.
The development, known as Easton Crossing, would be built on a 110-acre site that had been zoned for three-acre, single-family houses.
The application was filed under the state’s affordable housing law, known as statute 8-30g, which puts an extra burden on local land-use boards when rejecting an application.
In its appeal, the developer claims the P&Z’s numerous conditions of approval “essentially denies Saddle Ridge’s application because it will have a substantial adverse impact on the viability and degree of affordability of Saddle Ridge’s development.”
The appeal states the P&Z’s 77 conditions “do not clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing in Easton” and “could have been addressed by reasonable changes to the application plans.”
The Coalition to Save Easton, in its lawsuit, questions having have one septic system for each two-unit duplex structure based on a town ordinance, the P&Z concluding a new inland wetlands application wasn’t needed, and if the project’s regional environmental impact was fully vetted.
In addition to the above article published in the Easton Courier, the project is reasonably likely to have the effect of unreasonable polluting the waters of the State as concluded by our experts,. And, as partially stated in the last paragraph in the Courier article, the project contains community septic, which is contrary to Town Ordinance. Also, among our other concerns, the application bypassed the Conservation Commission usurping their role in determining the licensing of regulated activities .
By Susan Hunter on July 3, 2017 in the Easton Courier
President Donald Trump’s June 1 announcement that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord has spawned reactions from environmental activists on local, state and national levels. The resounding message locally is that work to combat climate change and threats to the environment is stronger than ever in Easton and other communities.
Verne Gay, president of Citizens for Easton (CFE), terms Trump’s decision “a spectacular disappointment. It’s frustrating for people like me, people who are community activists interested in environmental issues,” he said,
CFE’s goal is to preserve the town’s rural and natural character.
The federal government is “ceding moral leadership,” Gay said, and local communities “have to be the one to take the lead. It means everyone has to double down and be more dedicated. If the country is going to cede that position, it’s more incumbent on communities and individuals to step into the breach. You lead from the bottom up.” Gay referred to the familiar phrase, “Think globally, act locally” to sum up his feelings.
Please join us at 7:30, Thursday, August 18, 2016 at the Library Community Room where CFE will present to the BOS a proposal to retain the 29.6 acres of property located at 22 South Park Avenue as open space in perpetuity.
Your presence at the presentation will send a strong message to the selectmen that the majority of the townspeople feel very strongly about preserving this unique piece of Easton’s character and heritage for current and future generations.
Please pass this email to anyone you know who is interested in preserving Easton’s future and character.
Also, sign up to receive important information as we post it to our website. Simply, mouse over the bottom right corner, click the “follow” tab and enter your email address.
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Citizens for Easton
EASTON — The legal battle over the proposed Saddle Ridge development on 124.7 acres of watershed land along Sport Hill Road has officially ended.
For more than five years, town residents, officials and others argued a housing development was too intense a proposal for the privately owned parcel bordered by Sport Hill, Westport, Silver Hill and Cedar Hill roads.
Developers Huntley “Bucky” Stone and Robert Carlson, on the other hand, contended that their plans, which would include affordable housing within the development, would not have a substantially different impact on the land than a plan approved in 2009 for 21 mansions. They appealed the commissions’ decisions in Superior Court.
Earlier this year, Hartford Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger ruled that the plans were not appropriate for the area. And recently, ending the debate once and for all, the Appellate Court decided not to take up the case, as requested by the developers.
Verne Gay, president of Citizens for Easton, a community group formed in the 1970s to help protect the town’s open space, said he’s not sure whether Stone, the face of the development, will now give up plans to develop the site or submit a new proposal.
“The courts rejected the appeal,” Gay said. “Does he have another move? I don’t know.”
For town residents, the legal battle was a long one that required constant attention and funds to pay a lawyer of their own. Citizens for Easton created the Coalition to Save Easton for this reason, which attained intervenor status in the case, meaning it was always aware of the latest actions in the case.
“It has been very hard,” Gay said. “We all have our own jobs and lives. Over the years, Bucky was well funded and he had a very good legal team. At any point through this process he could have prevailed. Our difficulty was to just keep fighting.”
“We’re very simply a local tree-hugger group here,” Gay added. “It has no other motivation. It’s just protecting the town.”
Stone and Carlson did not return calls for comment.
The town’s regulations limit development in the property’s zone to one dwelling unit per 2 acres of buildable area, excluding the wetlands. The developers sought a more dense housing complex of 99 units in 31 buildings, with 30 percent of the townhouses set aside as affordable.
Under state statute, if a town with less than 10 percent affordable housing rejects a developer’s application to build affordable housing, the burden of proof is on the town to show the plan would harm public health, safety or other matters.
Ira Bloom, of the law firm Berchem, Moses and Devlin P.C., served as legal counsel for the town commissions. “For Easton it was extremely important to protect the town’s resources and, in particular, the public water supply area,” he said
The complex would have sat within two watersheds: the Easton Lake Reservoir and the Aspetuck Reservoir. Both serve as the Aquarion Water Co.’s public drinking water supply reservoirs that serve more than 400,000 Fairfield County residents.
First Selectman Adam Dunsby said protecting the watershed land merits appropriate restrictions on developments.
Brian Roach, program manager of environmental protection for Aquarion, said the 99-unit complex proposed housing densities that were more than two times the maximum density shown to be appropriate to protect water quality within watersheds.
“While Aquarion acknowledges the need for affordable housing in Connecticut, it strongly believes that high-density residential developments should only be considered for locations that are not within public drinking water supply watersheds,” Roach said.
In his 56-page decision, Judge Berger noted that the state statute that addresses affordable housing, section 8-30g, was not meant to tie the hands of communities like Easton, who have a low percentage of affordable housing.
“Saddle Ridge’s application highlights Easton’s need for affordable housing,” the decision states. “The Legislature’s enactment of (Section) 8-30g to accomplish that goal was not intended to allow every development at the cost of damaging natural resources such as our wetlands and watercourses. Sometimes, a different type or less intensive use of the land is demanded.”
The appellate court has denied both petitions for certification in the case of Saddle Ridge v. Easton Planning and Zoning Commission and Saddle Ridge v. Conservation Commission.
This means the years-long battle against the proposal to build Saddle Ridge Village, a nearly 100-unit development with affordable housing units on a 124.7-acre site on watershed land, apparently is now over.
Huntley “Bucky” Stone, who owns Saddle Ridge Development LLC and Silver Sports LP along with partner Robert Carlson, proposed the project on a parcel bordering Cedar Hill, Silver Hill, Sport Hill, and Westport roads.
The case involved multiple court decisions and appeals following the P&Z and Conservations Commission’s rejection of several proposals and an alternative proposal by the developers.
A major point of contention was that the density of the Saddle Ridge proposals exceeded what was recommended by the state for development in a watershed.
“It’s been a very long process,” said Attorney Ira Bloom of Berchem, Moses & Devlin of Westport, who represented the P&Z and Conservation Commissions. “The hard work of the two commissions has been confirmed.”
“I’m glad this matter is settled,” First Selectman Adam Dunsby said.
The Coalition to Save Easton is a subgroup of Citizens for Easton. Verne Gay, president of Citizens for Easton, welcomed the news.
He said, “The long and difficult struggle by CFE against this application began years ago, and began with one simple goal — to protect the health and safety of the public water supply and aquifer, by upholding our current zoning regulations. Any diminution of those, or eradication of those — as this application threatened to have done — would have posed an immediate and long term threat to public health by opening up the watershed to intensive development.
“This wouldn’t have been simply ‘one’ application for intensive development had it prevailed, but the first of many because it would have set a precedent for those many to come. Judge Berger obviously came to this conclusion in his original measured decision against the application, and the Appellate Court upheld that decision by denying two petitions for certification by the developer to appeal the decision in Appellate Court.
“We are deeply gratified by the courts’ actions. We are also gratified by the longstanding support of our town’s planning and zoning board, which also denied this application, but also hope this victory offers a measure of guidance to its members as they revise our town’s plan of conservation.”
He said that Easton has a special role, as steward to the public water supply, and also has a unique heritage — as a town that has long embraced its natural and agricultural legacy. Any commercial interests that seek to undermine that unique role and heritage shouldn’t be part of the plan, or part of the future.
“The struggle over Saddle Ridge was in fact a struggle over the future of our town as well as the integrity of the watershed, and thanks to Judge Berger, the Appellate Court, the future has been well-served in this instance. But now isn’t the time to let our guard down. Easton has a special role, and it’s our privilege — and duty —- to continue our steadfast support of it.”
Stone could not be immediately reached for comment.
Protection of the watershed paramount
A Sept. 8 court hearing followed fruitless settlement talks and rejection by the P&Z Commission in January 2015 of Easton Crossing, the developers’ alternative proposal.
Hartford Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger’s on Jan. 25 dismissed the appeals of Saddle Ridge Development LLC and Silver Sports LP against the P&Z and the Conservation Commission.
Watershed issues were paramount in reaching the decision to dismiss the appeals, according to Berger’s memorandum of decision.
“The preservation and protection of the wetlands and watercourses from random, unnecessary, undesirable and unregulated uses, disturbance or destruction is in the public interest and is essential to the health, welfare and safety of the citizens of the state,” the document reads.
In accordance with the state legislature’s directions to protect the town’s watersheds, the town’s land use commissions “properly reviewed the impact of Saddle Ridge’s proposal and denied the applications,” the memorandum reads.
Town and Coalition to Save Easton officials knew the Jan. 25 court decision might not mark the end of the proceedings. Indeed, their positive reaction to the decision was short-lived.
On Feb. 22, the final day of a 20-day deadline to request that the appellate court hear the case on appeal, Saddle Ridge filed two Petitions for Certification — one each for the P&Z case and wetlands case.
A Petition for Certification is a request for the Appellate Court to hear the case on appeal.
Appeals in land use cases are not automatic.
The two town commissions and the Coalition to Save Easton filed memos opposing the two Petitions for Certification to the appellate court by Saddle Ridge Development LLC, et al, to hear their case on appeal.
Bloom sent the memos in opposition to the appellate court hearing the case on March 2. Attorney Jan Brooks, representing the Coalition to Save Easton, intervenor in the case, also sent an opposing memo to Saddle Ridge’s petitions the same day.
On January 25, 2016, Hartford Superior Court Judge Marshall Berger dismissed the affordable housing and inland wetlands appeals by Saddle Ridge Developers, LLC, et al, following a multi-year dispute. The developers had sued to overturn the town of Easton’s land use commissions denials of a proposed 99-unit townhouse development, which was to be located in watershed land that drains into the Aspetuck and Easton Reservoirs and provides drinking water to over 400,000 Fairfield County residents.
Watershed issues were paramount in reaching the decision to dismiss the appeals, according to Judge Berger’s memorandum of decision. “The preservation and protection of the wetlands and watercourses from random, unnecessary, undesirable and unregulated uses, disturbance or destruction is in the public interest and is essential to the health, welfare and safety of the citizens of the state,” the document reads.
Critics of the development project were elated at the court’s decision. “The Saddle Ridge proposal would set a terrible precedent for building on watershed land,” said Verne Gay, President of Citizens for Easton (CFE) and a member of the Coalition to Save Easton, (CSE) a sub-group of CFE that was the environmental intervener in the case.” Gay added, “I’m so grateful to Judge Berger for being so thorough and fair.”
In accordance with the Connecticut State Legislature’s directions to protect the town’s watersheds, the town’s land use commissions “properly reviewed the impact of Saddle Ridge’s proposal and denied the applications,” the memorandum reads. “The commission has proven that it’s decision was necessary to protect the public’s interest in safe drinking water that the risk to the drinking water supply for 400,000 people clearly outweighed the need for affordable housing units as proposed by Saddle Ridge.” Saddle Ridge Developers, LLC had planned to build 30 units to meet the criteria of State Statute 8-30g. CFE/CSE also notes that the existing affordable units on record with the town of Easton have historically had a vacancy rate of approximately 50%.