By Phil Youker
Choate’s positive contributions to the Wallingford community were recently espoused by Mr. Stephen Knight in these pages. However, he did so as a counter argument to some neighbors opposing the school’s recent application to build a new admissions building and underground parking garage in a residential neighborhood. He claimed to be mystified as to why anyone would oppose the application.
I am one of the neighbors opposing the placement of this building at the corner of Christian and North Elm Streets. I am against the construction of a new 33,000 sq. ft. facility in such proximity to an already busy, somewhat-dangerous and often-contentious intersection. I do not feel this would be a safe or reasonable development or use of the land. I am opposed to this application because I recognize that this location is not the only option available to the school. While they have the right to build where they wish, they also have the obligation to hear from the community. Choate’s neighbors are not attempting to micro-manage campus development and it is insulting to insinuate so. More appropriately, neighbors are voicing legitimate concerns about the project… and yet some, like Mr. Knight, look to make us seem inappropriately nosy and misguided.
In his opinion piece, Mr. Knight uses CRH’s many community contributions as deterrent to any voiced opposition to campus developments. Truthfully, the school’s positive contributions are not at issue. They are not in dispute. They are not (and should not) be part of any zoning argument… for or against. While there are community opinions about CRH’s tax-exempt status and contributions to Wallingford, these come to light tangentially as concerns about physical development on campus are raised.
I and other neighbors have only brought valid concerns before Wallingford’s various commissions and boards. For example, the recent burst in development (8 large projects in 15 years) raises legitimate concerns about adverse impacts on Gunpowder Creek and Wharton Brook. Likewise, the proposal’s location raises legitimate concerns about pedestrian and vehicular safety at this intersection. There should be nothing mystifying about concerned residents of town standing up for the quality of their neighborhood. Unfortunately, I have heard far too many times the sentiment expressed by Mr. Knight, Why would anyone oppose this?! I have heard this from CRH representatives and town officials. That is mystifying. Conversely, I have heard from employees of the school and alumni alike that they too feel the location chosen is a poor one.
Mr. Knight points out that Choate does move their campus development projects through Wallingford’s various commissions and boards. However, it has been my experience that equal involvement by residents in this process is vital. Residents should be encouraged to participate rather than discouraged and shamed systematically by Choate and Wallingford’s town hall. This current application began with a bold request for a variance to situate the building 3 ft. from the street line. This was opposed and denied. Along the way multiple errors in required “notifications” were brought to light. Choate does not navigate through the regulations flawlessly. But it is my opinion they do try to navigate through the process surreptitiously. Public input at the wetlands meeting would not have occurred if not for a resident’s petition to be able to address the inland wetlands commission. They voted last week and it passed… although not unanimously.
Mr. Knight wonders ‘why some feel the school should be denied the opportunity to improve their campus even if they comply with the regulations.’ There are many cut-and-dry regulations (such as yard sizes and building heights), but there are also in place regulations to preserve the character of neighborhoods. For every application, the town’s commissions are required to consider the appropriateness of location and use, the size and intensity of use and the effect of the project on the immediate neighborhood. By speaking up, those most directly connected with the neighborhood are able to lend a valuable perspective. Why would Mr. Knight deny taxpayers their civil rights?
I am a 30 year resident of Wallingford. I began my teaching career at CRH and look back on my work there positively. I own a home downtown because I appreciate the beauty of the neighborhood, including the positive impacts the Choate campus has on it. Neither Choate’s community contributions nor lack of equitable contributions should influence the Planning and Zoning Commission regarding this development. The regulations are straightforward. Choate is here to stay and so much more must be done to include all stakeholders in development that will impact on the community at large.
Phil Youker is a Wallingford resident.