A SECoast Q&A with Brian and Diane Lepkowski ======
In early June, a young couple, Diane and Brian Lepkowski, living in a nearly-completed 1970s-era subdivision on Four Mile River in East Lyme, came to us with a problem. It seems that a few years ago a local developer Bob Fusari, Jr. had decided to take a purchase option on the unbuilt 97.3-acre parcel, on Spring Rock Road and Green Valley Lakes Road, and to revive the previously discarded four-decade-old project with plans for 25 houses on roughly 30 percent of the unbuilt land directly adjacent to Four Mile River.
Aside from our reluctant recent foray into zoning and affordable housing in Old Lyme, it’s not the sort of project that SECoast usually takes on. And in any case, is there anything even wrong with restarting a stalled development? The Lepkowskis after all live in the built part of it.
On the other hand, a quick review of the plans suggested a fairly alarming density of building and septic, vernal pools, and river. These concerns were supported by a soil and wetland scientist Steven Danzer, Ph.D., and engineer Steven Trinkaus, both hired by the Lepkowskis. And the 25-house subdivision was unanimously denied in 2017, by the East Lyme Inland Wetland Commission, only to be revived this year with two fewer houses. Notably, there were few other substantive changes, excepting four new members (out of six) and a new chairman on the East Lyme Inland Wetland Commission.
Of interest to many SECoast followers is a now-familiar cast of characters shared with Hope Partnership and its development team – including Joe Wren, heading the engineering team. The developer, Bob Fusari, Jr., is the son Hope Partnership board member Bob Fusari, Sr. And Steven Danzer similarly has been retained by opponents of the Hope Partnership plan in Old Lyme.
Below is a Q&A with Brian and Diane Lepkowski, edited for clarity.
Q: First off, is there anything you’d like to add?
A: I’d just like to add, that this final 97+ acre parcel and phase of development have been revisited and quickly abandoned by developers several times over the last 40 years due to the difficulty of building around the wetlands on the property, and that occurred under the far less stringent wetlands regulations of decades past. That fact alone raises many questions as to the viability of these current applications we are opposing.
We can also see how it would be very easy for someone not directly involved to write off our concerns as NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] like so many other similar opposition cases. But once you begin asking the real questions, peeling back the layers and gathering data, it becomes far more difficult to argue against facts.
We have never maintained that nothing could ever be built on the parcel. Our concerns are instead centered around the intensity of development on this incredibly fragile parcel of land which abuts a very large and pristine wetland corridor along the Four Mile River.
Q: Obviously, a lot has changed since the 1970s. Do you believe that the existing development would have been approved by the Town of East Lyme, if had been proposed today?
A: I don’t believe the existing development, as it is designed today, would be allowed in its entirety. Mostly because there are no storm water controls, and the runoff enters directly into Four Mile River, untreated.
What I do appreciate about the current development is that the majority of it is built away from the Four Mile River. With the exception of some houses abutting the lakes, the river enters and exits the neighborhood with a largely untouched buffer. Very few houses in the current neighborhood are built adjacent to wetlands, and rightly so. The existing development, right up to and including our home, was built on the most desirable upland areas with the least amount of impact.
Even way back in the 1970s, when automobile seat belts were optional, and smoking was still allowed on commercial airliners, they still managed to recognize that building on dry land and mostly away from the watercourse and wetland areas was important to the environment and the safety of its inhabitants.
Q: Which is why I was shocked to learn that the lead engineer on the project Joe Wren has proposed, as an alternative, 100 units of affordable 8-30g housing on the same parcel. How is it possible for a Wetlands Commission to unanimously deny an application for 25 units, and for a developer to come back and propose 100 units?
I bring it up because at a recent public hearing Old Lyme, Tony Lyons, the board president of Hope Partnership, a nonprofit, warned Old Lyme residents of something remarkably similar – 137 units if the 37-unit proposal was denied—though to be fair, in the case of Old Lyme at least, neither Lyons nor Wren proposed to build it themselves.
A: That’s a great question. The Wetlands Commission denied the first application in part because of the scale of the proposal and the lack of buildable land. There was an obvious reaction amongst the public when 100 units of affordable housing was brought up for the first time, which we believe was the intent of Wren. We feel, as do a lot of neighbors, that this was stated as a threat.
We are standing against the 23-lot proposal because of its scale and its impact on the environment and will not stop opposing the current design under the threats of a much larger, more impactful design. The current 23-lot proposal is not the alternative, environmentally-friendly plan they are touting, and should not be accepted. There are other, smaller, less-impactful alternatives, and definitely not 100 units.
Q: So where are we now in the process? Is there anything the public can do to help?
A: Currently, we are more than halfway through the meeting process on the current 23-lot application. Inland Wetlands closed the public hearing last week after three public hearings which included our expert’s testimony along with that of concerned residents, who stayed late into the night in order to be heard. The commission will now begin deliberation and is expected to reach a decision within the next month or so. So far, we have had one public hearing before the planning commission, with another scheduled for July 31st.
There is a neighborhood run Facebook Page “Protect Green Valley Lakes” which the public can contact us directly through messaging if they would like to help. Letters of concern can be sent to the East Lyme Town Hall Planning office. Attendance at the Wetlands deliberation meetings and planning commission hearings would be extremely helpful. We encourage everyone with concerns to attend these meetings and speak out for what they believe is right. They can certainly help to make a difference. Our success thus far is proof of that!