Choate plan elicits neighbor concerns during Inland Wetlands hearing

WALLINGFORD — Choate Rosemary Hall representatives appeared before the Inland Wetlands Commission this week, presenting plans for a new admissions building and underground parking garage which have prompted concerns from residents that runoff from the project could impact their quality of life.

The commission opened the public hearing on the application Wednesday. The school is proposing to build the 14,000-square-foot building and 70-space parking garage on 6.5 acres at the corner of North Elm and Christian streets, a portion of a 96-acre "odd shaped parcel," Choate attorney Dennis Ceneviva said. 

The plans call for the elimination of between 55 and 65 existing parking spaces near Gunpowder Creek, Ceneviva said.

"No work is proposed in the wetlands, the watercourse or within your upland review area," he told the commission. The closest activity to the creek is the removal of the parking spaces and replacing the area with grass. Those spaces are 186 feet away from the creek, and the building is 613 feet from the creek, he said. 

"In normal times, it would seem like a relatively normal application, but it's gotten a bit of its own life since then," he said, referring to the publicity it has received and the response from residents to the application.

Town Environmental Planner Erin O'Hare said the school's application has evolved over time. "They keep on tweaking it and making it a much better plan," she said. 

Town regulations require an application on projects with more than 10,000 square feet of surface area, she said, but that requirement is cumulative, meaning it is applied to all applications from one applicant as one. When Choate constructed a new auditorium several years ago, it met that threshold, O'Hare said.

"I told them, you're going to trip that threshold with whatever you do because it is a cumulative provision," she said. "From that moment forward, everything will trip this surface area requirement even if it was less than 10,000 square feet, but in this case it is over that." 

The commission must look for two things, O'Hare said — the replication of the natural hydrograph to show the project does not impact the watershed, and the infiltration of the roof water.

The plans do not call for direct infiltration of that water directly into the ground, she said. "The soils won't accommodate that because they don't have great infiltration rates," she said, so the school elected to take the roof water and bring it to a bioswale in the front of the building and discharge it into a drainage basin. 

But that didn't satisfy the concerns of Lois Shock of North Elm Street, who already has experienced the byproduct of other construction projects.

"I'm really very worried about anything that happens with our wetlands in the back of my property," she said. "I came to these meetings and listened to engineers talk about how there would be no problems with drainage from the homes that were built up in back of my property. Since they were built, and all the engineers guaranteed that there would be no water runoff anymore than normal, I now have a skating rink in my backyard."

She's not able to use her entire property since the houses went up, she said. 

"I pay taxes on a half an acre and can use one quarter of an acre because you would sink up to your thighs if you walked in my backyard," she said. "This is new this year so I'm very very concerned. I don't know about plans, I do know that I've been given a lot of information from our wetlands people saying you can't do this, you can't do that, you have to protect. Well I don't think these kinds of projects are protecting our environment." 

State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said she shares those concerns. Aside from her seat in Hartford, Mushinsky's other job is in watershed protection, she said. She questioned whether it is adequate for the plans to take into consideration the effects of only a 10-year storm — a storm of intensity that happens on the average of every 10 years.

"I want to ask if 10-year storm protection is enough," she said. "I have been by Choate School when we had an occasional heavy rain event that filled up the entire low point of Gunpowder Brook from the pond north of Christian Street south all the way to Choate rink, and during a major storm event like that, the bottom of the road is not passable and police cars are there and they direct you to not try to cross it."

And trends show that storm precipitation is increasing, she said, which amplifies the problem.

"We are experiencing heavier precipitation events, and planning for a 10-year storm is probably not going to be protective," she said. "Those events where the roadway goes underwater are probably 100-year events but a 10-year event is probably not enough."

And while the project is designed for a no-net increase to Wharton Brook, into which Gunpowder Creek drains, she fears it could affect residents living near there, she said.

"I have had constituent complaints of flooding of apartments where Wharton Brook flows under Center Street," she said. "My concern is if the project will hold on to water during heavy rain events or infiltration. If it does send it downstream, I anticipate that the apartments that have been hit twice already might be hit a third time, so hopefully the infiltration is sufficient so that those apartments will not get hit again." 

The commission continued the application's public hearing to its March 1 meeting in order to get answers to questions raised during the hearing. That meeting takes place at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall Council Chambers.


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