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One Wetlands Application for Former UConn West Hartford Campus Withdrawn, TPZ Hearing Continued Again

TPZ hearing on 1700 and 1800 Asylum Avenue development proposed by West Hartford 1 LLC. Dec. 11, 2023. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford’s Town Plan & Zoning Commission, in its capacity as the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency, met for more than five hours on Monday in Part 2 of the hearing that began last week, but will continue the process of considering the wetlands application for proposed development of 1700 Asylum Avenue, the eastern portion of the site of the former UConn campus, on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023, beginning at 6 p.m.

By Ronni Newton

The process of considering the wetlands applications submitted by the development group West Hartford 1 LLC, through the entities WEHA Development Group LLC and WEHA Development Group East LLC, resumed Monday night at West Hartford Town Hall with extensive public comment, cross examination by the intervenor, and additional presentations, but although the hearing lasted close to six hours, the Town Plan & Zoning Commission (TPZ), in its capacity as the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency (IWWA), is not yet ready to vote on either of the two applications.

The application for the western portion of the property, 1800 Asylum Avenue, was withdrawn from consideration on Tuesday and will be resubmitted.

Nearly two dozen members of the community participated in the public comment session at the beginning of the Dec. 11 hearing, many sharing concerns but others voicing support for the developer’s application to conduct activities on the wetlands or regulated upland review areas which at 1700 Asylum Avenue – the eastern portion of the former UConn campus which is currently a 1,000-plus space parking lot, ballfields, and a playground – and where there is a proposal to construct four buildings of four or five stories with a total of 322 residential units. Some also spoke about 1800 Asylum.

There were actually two separate wetlands applications initially submitted to TPZ on July 10, 2023 – both of which now involve more than 1,000 pages of reports and supporting documents along with myriad staff questions and responses some of which have not yet been resolved – and on Nov. 29 the development team only had the opportunity to present their plans for 1700 Asylum to TPZ , and when the hearing was suspended around 11 p.m. had only had the chance to hear from a handful of members of the public.

The presentation for 1800 Asylum by the development team, along with cross-examination by West Hartford residents who had submitted a verified intervener petition that was accepted last week, the intervenor’s presentation, questioning by commissioners, and public comment on 1800 Asylum, were initially indicated as among the remaining steps in the process to be completed before TPZ can vote.

TPZ must close the ongoing hearing by Dec. 15 due to Connecticut statutory requirements, Town Planner Todd Dumais previously confirmed to We-Ha.com, or the entire process will need to start over again, and that’s what is happening with the application for 1800 Asylum.

The commission took a lengthy break Monday night to seek legal advice regarding procedural issues, and when the hearing resumed TPZ Chair Kevin Ahern announced that while the hearing would continue for a few more hours that night, there would be plans for another continuation, to Wednesday, Dec. 13.

Aerial rendering of Oakwood Park. Courtesy of West Hartford 1 LLC

Ahern announced Monday that it was anticipated that the developer would withdraw and resubmit the application for 1800 Asylum, the larger portion of the property on the west side of Trout Brook Drive where multiple buildings that were part of the former UConn campus remain in various states of decay, and where significant remediation of environmental hazards, including PCBs, will need to be conducted.

“The important thing that does is allow us to have adequate time to consider that fully,” Ahern said of 1800 Asylum which will likely be resubmitted in early January and become the subject of a new hearing process beginning the last week of January. “That would then re-set all the clocks,” Ahern said. In addition, he said, “we are far from getting everything we need on 1800 to make a decision.”

The developer would ultimately like to construct 14 buildings at 1800 Asylum, including a 117-assisted living facility, 24 townhomes, and 106 apartments in two mixed-use buildings above retail or restaurants. The plans also include a premier restaurant, a destination spa, and an organic grocery store.

Dumais said while it is likely that the TPZ hearing on 1700 Asylum will be closed on Wednesday night, he does not anticipate that they will vote on the wetlands application for 1700 Asylum.

“The commission has 65 days from the close of the hearing to render a decision,” Ahern told We-Ha.com via email on Tuesday, and he noted that there are still additional materials to review.

Dumais confirmed to We-Ha.com late Tuesday afternoon that as anticipated the developer had submitted a request to withdraw the application for 1800 Asylum.

Members of the public who commented Monday included Pilgrim Road resident Sandra Rampertab, who said it is “imperative to protect the environment and ecology” and is the commission’s “moral responsibility as the stewards of this land to do so.”

Rampertab added that “the developer has argued that since the wetlands have been developed in the past they have little value,” but she said they are actually home to a wide variety of wildlife. “We don’t believe that this developer has adequately ascertained that there are no rare species,” Rampertab said, adding that planned destruction of mature native trees is in defiance of all best practices and “planting new trees has zero equivalence.”

Resident Bob Cloonan, who lives on Cumberland Road, said when he moved to West Hartford 33 years ago he didn’t live in a wetland, but that has changed. “My contention is that over the years the wetlands have been disturbed or we wouldn’t have the problem that we have today,” he said, adding that the problem with this development is the “size of disruption that is going to take place.”

Walden Street resident Beth Ann Loveland Sennett said that “through clever word choices and phraseology” the developer has minimized the value of the property and the wildlife it supports, but “tell that to the bobcat.”

Loveland Sennett said the property is a fragile urban ecosystem situated in a floodplain, and while she is not opposed to construction, “wetlands serve key ecological functions that concrete and asphalt never will.”

Martha Parish, who lives on Fox Meadow, mentioned that after the significant rain event Sunday night Trout Brook is overflowing its banks. Her neighborhood is at the base of a hill, and a neighbor recently had an 8-foot sinkhole in their yard caused by high groundwater. “This is not just about being able to enjoy your yard,” she said.

Stating that portions of the property are not wetlands because they are paved “is a deliberative attempt to deceive this body,” Parish said. “Your streams and waterways are going to be affected and it’s going to be damaging.”

Other residents voiced support for the project in part because it would provide a very much needed clean-up of the wetlands and add a system to clean the currently untreated stormwater before it reaches the watercourses.

Trout Brook Drive resident Sheila Flanagan said the development would help the wetlands, there would be a 10-year plan for continued monitoring, and it would continue the Trout Brook Trail which “has a great social benefit.”

Flanagan added that there is “no question that this property needs a full clean up, and ignoring that pushes it further and risks further contamination. … No project is perfect but I believe in the balance this project has.”

Will Cromwell, who lives in the West End of Hartford, commented “if this development is not built, where will these people live?” Less than one tree per unit will be destroyed, he said, asking how many trees were destroyed to build the single family homes people live in. He also addressed a previous commenter’s statement that renters pollute and add trash as “ridiculous and offensive.”

Cromwell said the density of this project is positive for sustainability, and will keep people from having to move further into the suburbs and drive further to work, increasing emissions. “Opposition to this project is about destroying the environment to keep the status quo –which is destroying the planet,” he said. “This project is about the environment.”

Longtime Auburn Road resident John Clapp is a housing economist, and he said the proposed development is needed because the younger generation can’t afford to live in West Hartford and we need more density. “I have perfect confidence in the [TPZ] to take care of any strain on the wetlands,” he added.

Several who commented mentioned updates to the state’s Stormwater Quality Manual, stating that updated regulations that incorporate climate change go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024, and several people expressed concern that the developer is trying to push this application through prior to those new regulations taking effect.

The new manual actually replaces the current document as of March 30, 2024, and while it incorporates “climate change and resilience considerations for stormwater management design and implementation,” it is not regulatory but rather, according to the manual, “provides guidance on the measures necessary to protect the waters of Connecticut from the adverse impacts of stormwater runoff.”

Rendering of Oakwood Park. Courtesy of West Hartford 1 LLC

Because it had not yet been withdrawn, however, the developer did have the opportunity to present their application for 1800 Asylum on Monday night, and Gary Schulman and Jessica Rubin, who along with Christine Feely are the intervening parties, also had the chance to conduct their cross-examination, commissioners asked some questions, and there were several members of the public who offered comment on 1800 Asylum before the hearing was suspended around 11:45 p.m.

TPZ will resume discussion of the wetlands application for 1700 Asylum Avenue on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023, beginning at 6 p.m. in Town Council chambers.

Ahern said he anticipates the hearing will start with the intervener presentation. The applicant will be given the opportunity to cross-examine the intervenor, and then commissioners will have the chance to ask questions of the applicant, intervenor, and staff. There will also be an opportunity for public comment, and the opportunity for the applicant and intervenor to respond to that comment, he said.

Links to previous reporting by We-Ha.com on the former UConn campus property and its history can be found here.

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